Fighting to be seen: how Ukrainian and Russian professional women are securing their place in public

In Ukraine and Russia, civil society and professional associations are helping women experts to raise their profile in the public arena.

Olena Strelnyk
13 May 2019, 12.01am
Launch of "She is an Expert" project, Moscow, 2019
Image: Anna Todich. Published with permission

“A 32-year-old blonde woman is now acting head of Kharkiv regional administration.”

“Two hundred police officers are now under the command of a slim beauty.”

In Ukrainian media, professional women are always presented in terms of their age and looks — specialists in information security are transformed into “pretty strangers” and “beautiful blondes”, and women serving in the military are inevitably described as “slim and pretty”.

Russia’s media have similar priorities when describing women with public-facing careers: “The best looking (sexiest) Duma members”; “a 28-year-old housewife has become mayor of a Russian city”, not to mention “Unexpected snaps of women politicians in their swimsuits”.

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These examples show how even on the rare occasions when Ukrainian and Russian media write about women in public professions, they often devalue and cast doubt on their professional achievements by highlighting their private lives, age and/or looks.

Structural conditions

Since 2013, Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information has regularly monitored gender balance in the country’s media. Its most recent study, carried out in February this year, showed that women figure in online news programmes over three times less often than men (appearing, on average, in 28% of content). In terms of expert comments appearing in news articles, female experts only appear as professional commentators for one in four articles. The study also revealed a lack of positive change in gender balance in the Ukrainian media over recent years.

According to a study by another Ukrainian NGO, the Volyn Press Club, women experts usually comment on education, health, culture and volunteering, as well as being presented as “leading characters” in articles on these topics.

This reduced representation of women in the media, especially as professionals and experts, is a result of complex public processes regulating gender relations.

“Choice” is always determined by structural conditions, including vertical and horizontal professional segregation

Women in Ukraine and Russia face no formal restrictions when it comes to a career in politics, business or research, although in Russia there is a ban on over 450 jobs deemed to be too dangerous or arduous (Ukraine lifted a similar ban in 2017) and restrictions on women in specific positions in its professional military. In both Ukraine and Russia, however, there is still a glass ceiling. Despite a lack of formal limits to career progression, in practice professional women face difficulties with promotion past a certain point.

In this context, the widespread neoliberal idea that women have a “free choice” to sacrifice their professional careers in favour of family looks superficial. This idea ignores the social conditions that affect women’s opportunities for self-fulfilment. In other words, this “choice” is always determined by structural conditions, including vertical and horizontal professional segregation. On the one hand, women are concentrated in low-paid areas of employment, and on the other, they are less likely to be in senior positions. This is the framework that defines the gender pay gap in both pay and professional progression: in Ukraine, the gap is 22%; in Russia - 27%.

A 2017 gender analysis of who holds management positions in Ukraine showed that women make up a third of all employers. The main areas of employment where organisations are mainly led by women are accountancy and auditing, tourism, beauty salons and institutions providing social welfare.

The division of work according to gender, however unfair, has become so common that we often don’t notice the lack of female experts in certain professions and the media as a whole

The division of work according to gender, however unfair, has become so common that we often don’t notice the lack of female experts in certain professions and the media as a whole. But organisations and programmes designed to increase the visibility and motivation of women in various fields have started appearing in both Ukraine and Russia.

One example of this is a Ukrainian project called “STEM Girls”, which is designed to overcome gender stereotypes when choosing an occupation, as well as raising girls’ confidence in their own abilities and the possibility of making a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) career in Ukraine. The project offers girls mentor support, runs competitions for creative work and organises meetings with successful women. Oleksandra Blazhevych, a project participant, says she has broadened her horizons, made professional contacts and learned how to put scientific projects together - all thanks to being mentored by a successful research biologist.

“For me, the project became a starting point to create Inventa - a Facebook page that aims to explain how the human body works in a simple and accessible way, conducting interviews with Ukrainian scientists, medics and psychologists,” Blazhevych tells me.

she is an expert symbols.jpg
"Your imposter" badge at launch of "She is an Expert" project, Moscow
Image: Anna Todich. Used with permission of author

Yurfem, the Association of Women Lawyers of Ukraine, is a platform for sharing knowledge, experience, development and support for women working in the legal profession.

“We also create opportunities for our seminar members to run their own events, inviting them as speakers and recommending them as experts,” Khrystyna Kit, the association’s director, says. “It’s important for us to be seen as lawyers practising their profession, and we believe that Yurfem will become a platform for their professional growth.”

Olena Zaitseva, a member of the association, says the project helped her realise that many women have been struggling with similar professional issues, such as stereotypes about how the legal world is not for women and that men are more decisive, articulate and generally more career-oriented.

In Russia, women are also discovering professional support systems for themselves, such as the Women in Business Association, whose aim is to promote the development of professional links, including those with the media, as well as resource support for women business owners.

Raising the profile of women experts

Women’s professional associations generally rely on support from women in specific fields. But today, online platforms that bring together experts in various areas, from philosophy to architecture and banking, are becoming more important. These platforms create databases where anyone can find a specialist in any field to share their experience, invite her to a public performance or interview her.

For instance, the female expert database “Ask a Woman” was started in Ukraine in 2015 via the Povaha (Respect) platform, which campaigns against sexism in the media and politics. In part, its creators took inspiration from the US projects EMILY’s List and Shesource. This database, which is updated and verified frequently, contains details of over 300 women experts (March 2019) - and another 160 application forms are undergoing verification. Most of the listed experts are specialists in the humanities: culture, women’s rights and gender issues, as well as psychology, government and media.

Launch of "She is an expert" project, Moscow, 2019
Image: Anna Todich. Used with author's permission

A similar Russian database project, Sh.E (She is an expert), was recently launched. Nuria Fatykhova, coordinator and project founder, says that the impulse behind “She is an expert” was the lack of women in public life at all levels in Russia. A number of similar projects, such as the German Speakerinnen project, Sourcelist and and the BBC’s Expert Women 2017 database inspired her to create a Russian platform.

The aim of these databases is to raise women’s profile in the media, strengthen women’s solidarity and increase their self-confidence. “‘She is an expert’ is all about the fact that there are more women experts than you realise,” Nuria Fatykhova tells me. “It’s about believing in yourself, supporting one another and knowing how to speak about the world from different angles. It’s about diversity, breaking down stereotypes and stigmas – and then everything will work out.”

One way of making professional women more visible is to help them overcome their “imposter syndrome”. Women’s lack of belief in themselves as professionals has a perceptible effect on their professional lives. According to an analytical survey of female participation in the labour market in Ukraine in 2012, for example, 19% of employers and 27.5% of women agreed that men were more valuable workers.

“An expert is not just a person with the right documents,” says Fatykhova. “We are aiming to promote anti-discipline, to overcome the imposter syndrome. We have even produced badges reading ‘Your Imposter’ - giving yourself a name, speaking out, making yourself visible and not being afraid to do so is one of the solutions to the problem.”

Although many have supported “She is an expert”, the project has also met with a mixed reaction. Before starting work on the platform, Fatykhova tried to gauge women’s responses to the initiative on social media. In reply, she received many negative public commentaries and personal letters – all from men. The respondents’ main criticism was that projects like this, based on principles of segregation or quotas, insult women and are unnecessary and even anti-feminist.

"I was amazed that these amazingly clever women - real experts in various fields – had this lack of confidence in themselves"

The principle that women should be allowed to add themselves on the database is fundamental for “She is an expert”. “When I posted my announcement about the creation of a database,” Fatykhova says, “I started to receive letters from women, and half of them asked how their expertise could be assessed and whether they were expert enough. I was amazed that these amazingly clever women - real experts in various fields – had this lack of confidence in themselves and the idea that there was a virtual committee that would decide whether they were experts or not.”

For the “Ask a woman” project in Ukraine, registration on the database is more time-consuming. “The principle for selection has now changed somewhat,” says Veronika Novikova, one of the platform’s coordinators. “Initially it was completely open: women would just add their own names to the database. Later the team appointed a manager who didn’t just look after the database but approached individual experts from professions that weren’t typical for women because they were little represented in the media.”

These non-typical professions could include pilots, police officers, professional athletes or scuba divers - until 2017, the latter was on a list of jobs barred to women, and there is only one professional female scuba diver woman in Ukraine today. Not all of them are happy to be on the database.

“If someone isn’t used to working with the media, she may not completely understand the need for the database,” Kateryna Matsyupa, a database coordinator. “She may not support the idea of positive discrimination and asks why she has to be added to the base, instead of men who have done a lot more – these women are usually pilots and athletes. Some women I’ve spoken to are also sceptical about public exposure and media contact.”

she is an expert launch.jpg
Запуск проекта Sh.E - She is an Expert, Moсква, март 2019.
Фото: Анна Тодич. Публикуется с разрешения автора.

Equality without “gender”

Moral panics about demographic crises, the collapse of the family as an institution and “gender threats” are widespread in both Ukraine and Russia. But geopolitical factors and civil society are crucial to promoting gender equality.

In Ukraine, European integration and the active involvement of women’s organisations are promising elements. As early as 2006, Ukraine passed a law “on the provision of equal rights and choices for men and women”. In 2015, a gender quota norm for candidates in political parties’ lists was introduced into Ukraine’s local election law. In 2016, the list of military occupations that women could pursue was extended considerably and the list of jobs barred to women was revoked in 2017.

But despite these positive changes, resistance to the politics of gender equality and anti-gender rhetoric is still widespread where decision-taking is concerned. In Ukraine, for example, the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence was rejected by parliament mainly because its text included the term “gender”.

Meanwhile, Russia’s neo-traditional political climate is a considerable obstacle to promoting gender equality. Russia’s recent law on decriminalising domestic violence, anti-abortion initiatives, a lack of equal rights legislation and opportunities for men and women as well as the conservative and anti-gender statements made by politicians – these kind of legislative initiatives and political rhetoric set a cautious and often negative tone when it comes to Russian society’s attitudes towards gender equality.

Against this conflicting background of equal rights and opportunities for men and women in Ukraine and Russia, the work of women’s organisations and projects is an important factor in stimulating social change. Women’s professional organisations and expert platforms create a safe and comfortable space where women can discuss their issues, sustain their professional growth and self-image - as well as raising their social and professional profile in societies where women’s professional merits are regarded as secondary and insignificant.

This article was produced in partnership with Heinrich Böll Foundation Russia.

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