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Barred From Hundreds Of Occupations In Russia, A Few Women Fight Back

  • Tom Balmforth

Would-be steamboat captain Svetlana Medvedeva of Samara sees no groundswell of support for a change.

Would-be steamboat captain Svetlana Medvedeva of Samara sees no groundswell of support for a change.

MOSCOW -- Svetlana Medvedeva cannot rise to the top of her chosen profession for a very simple reason -- she is a woman.

The ambition of the 30-year-old mother of two is to earn a much better wage as the captain of a boat on the Volga River, which runs through her hometown of Samara. And with the degree she earned in 2005 from Samara River College, she should be well on her way -- or already there.

But with the system in place on the Volga, the occupation of captain requires her to have prior experience as a ship mechanic. And that job is one of hundreds that are open to men only in Russia, according to the law.

A Russian government resolution passed in 2000 prohibits women from 38 industries and over 450 jobs it deems to be "dangerous" or "arduous." Adopted during President Vladimir Putin's first year in office, it was the latest incarnation of Soviet-era regulations that sought to keep women in what the Communist Party once called their "traditional" role of bearing children for the greater good of society.

To this day, the ban covers a swathe of occupations including miner, carpenter, firefighter, train driver, blacksmith, diver, and driver of buses with more than 14 seats.

That makes Russia "the country with the most job-related barriers," according to a September 2015 World Bank report on gender equality.

On March 15, the United Nations called on Russia to amend its legislation and shorten the list of banned occupations. It also formally labeled Medvedeva a victim of "gender-based discrimination" -- a hard-won triumph in a legal battle she began in 2012, seeking to bypass the ban.

That year, Medvedeva was actually hired for a mechanic's job, with some responsibilities at the boat's helm, by a private company in Samara. But when her work was due to start, she was turned away because of the legislation.

"Everything was signed, and I was meant to start work on Monday," she says. "I came, had a look at the engine and how it works. I was meant to start in two days -- and then there was this resolution banning me from work."

Medvedeva began campaigning for dispensation to bypass the ban, firing off letters to the Kremlin, Labor Ministry, and Health Ministry. They all referred her back to the Labor Code, which in turn cites jobs listed as dangerous in the government resolution.

She went to court to seek an order to force the company to ensure safe working conditions in the job, but her appeal was rejected. She says the job is considered dangerous because of the loud noise of the engine, which can be canceled out by wearing earplugs.

"I don't think there should be professions that are banned for women," Medvedeva says. "In any case, women aren't going en masse to go to take up heavy work, and in those professions where it really is heavy, the jobs should simply be improved. They should be improved, not banned."

Medvedeva says she had practically given up when she came across the Russian human rights organization Memorial, which offered to help press her case internationally. She went to the United Nations, whose Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women pronounced her a victim of discrimination and called on Russia to amend its Labor Code and reduce the number of jobs that are closed to women under the government resolution.

"No evidence has been provided to the committee that the inclusion of the position of helmperson-motorist in the list of prohibited jobs is based on any scientific evidence that it may be harmful to women's reproductive health," the UN committee's experts said in the March 15 statement.

Soviet Law

The legislation harks back to the communist era, and has been modified slightly with the passage of time. Its latest incarnation was passed as a government resolution in 2000 that lists the banned professions. The Labor Code additionally says that women are prohibited from working underground except if they are doing nonphysical tasks such as cleaning. They are also not allowed to do jobs involving lifting or moving heavy items.

"This system is very old and goes back to Soviet times," says Yelena Gerasimova, director of the Moscow-based Center for Social and Labor Rights. "The restrictions have changed over the years -- some occupations have been removed, others included. It hasn't always been in this form. At various times it was added to, but the general approach was always the same."

On the one hand, Soviet ideology explicitly espoused equality between men and women -- and on the face of it did so demonstratively. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman to make the trip.

On the ground, it was a different story. During the Soviet Union's breakneck industrialization and the reconstruction after the devastation of World War II, which left the country with a deficit of men, women were actively pushed into the labor force -- but were largely kept out of high-skilled jobs.

The Soviet Labor Code of 1922 explicitly banned women from "dangerous" jobs. In 1981, the year the ruling Communist Party called for the "reinforcement of the traditional maternal role," the number of jobs shut to women hit 460.

'Lady Metro'

Perhaps the most well-known ban was the prohibition introduced in the 1980s on women driving trains, including in the metro, or subway. Until then, female drivers had been commonplace – a legacy of the dearth of men following World War II. Women were also prevented from working as train assistants in the front car.

Women were gradually phased out of the job -- with one exception. Until her reported retirement, Natalya Korniyenko was known as the only female metro driver in Moscow, and the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets dubbed her "Lady Metro" in 2007.

The Moscow Metro press service said in 2009 that Korniyenko was able to continue working because the ban on hiring women as metro drivers did not say what to do with those already working, and she predated the ban.

Others have since tried to gain employment in the driver's booth of subway trains -- but to no avail. In 2009, Anna Klevets, then a 22-year-old law student, pressed a discrimination suit after being turned down for a job as an assistant metro operator in St. Petersburg on the grounds of her gender. She argued that it was a violation of Russia's constitutional guarantee of equal rights for men and women. The Supreme Court rejected her appeal in May 2009.

Last year, an online petition was aired by a resident of the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk calling for the repeal of the blanket ban, saying it was outdated primarily for economic reasons.

The author of the petition argued that the restrictions were tolerable in the Soviet Union because women were able to find other decent work in a system in which every citizen was virtually guaranteed a job, but that with unemployment on the rise and real incomes falling, it is unfair in today's Russia.

"Now the situation has changed," says the petition, which has garnered just 650 signatures. "The jobs that women are barred from could be the best or only way for them to earn money to live."

Gerasimova says that Russia has six months to respond to the UN's call to change the legislation. She said that "several years ago" there had been signs that the Labor Ministry was making moves to repeal the legislation, but that there has been no overt indication of that recently.

The restrictions seem to fit in with the pushes by Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church to tout what they call traditional Russian values.

For her part, Medvedeva sees no groundswell of support for a change.

The legislation "is a problem in my case," she says. "If this was a particularly big problem, someone would have raised it before me as the resolution has been in force for 16 years since 2000. I'm the one with a concrete problem; others apparently don't have it."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at