One hundred years on, modern Russian women banned from serving in 456 professions

(Photo credit: Shima Vezvaei)

At present, the Russian labour market holds the world record for the most job-related barriers for women, barring them from 456 professions ‘to protect their reproductive health’

One hundred years ago today, on 8 March 1917, women textile workers in St Petersburg gathered in the streets of the city to protest against food shortages. This was the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and women were its initiators. Decades later, 8 March would be marked as a national holiday commemorating the outstanding merits and courage of Soviet women in defending their Motherland and in building communism.

Today, Russia continues to celebrate women with flowers and gifts, as well as a set of laws intended to protect them and their reproductive functions.

456 barred professions

Russia has one of the most caring systems for women in the world, as well as one of the most limiting. According to a 2015 report from the World Bank, Russia is the country with the most job-related barriers for women in the world. The basis behind the restrictions is Government Order #162, which lists 456 ‘dangerous’ professions in 38 industries that are barred for women.

The law dates back to Soviet times when sparing women from hazardous jobs was seen as a progressive move. The law barred them from performing heavy jobs and was meant to keep women in their “traditional role” as mothers, there to raise children for the good of society. The list of banned professions in the law included carpenter, train driver, driver of buses carrying more than 14 passengers, sailor, lumberjack, and butcher, with precise limitations on the maximum weight that a woman could carry, so as to safeguard her reproductive health.

In March 2016, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) condemned the legislation for discriminating against women. The case brought to court was that of Svetlana Medvedeva, who filed a complaint to the United Nations in 2012.

After successfully completing her studies to become a technician-navigator, Svetlana found herself cut off from pursuing the career for which she had completed her education because of the ban.

Another famous case in 2009 was that of Anna Klevets, whose request to work as a metro train driver was rejected because of her gender. Rima Sharifullina, then head of the Egida NGO for the defence of women’s rights in St Petersburg, was her lawyer and the person who brought the case to court.

“She wanted to work as a metro driver because metro drivers have a high salary, good conditions, and a stable contract, but the employer rejected her because of the ban,” says Sharifullina.

Although they lost the court case, it received enough visibility for coverage in the national press. Shortly afterwards, Sharifullina was approached a second time with a similar case.

The woman who approached her at the time was working in spite of the law, or rather, because she was unaware of it. As many other people, she—along with her employer—had discovered about the existence of the law only when Klevets’ case was shown on TV. Although her job was on the list of banned professions, she had already been working as an excavator driver for years, becoming one of the best employees in her company.

Unlike the previous case, this one resulted in a partial victory. The woman was guaranteed the right to keep working in the company after it was proven that her job was safe and would not compromise her reproductive functions. According to the law, an employer has the right to hire women for the banned professions if they can prove that safe conditions for labour are ensured.

In the case of Klevets, on the other hand, hiring a woman as a metro driver would have necessitated the improvement of the conditions of the whole metro system, an expense that was otherwise avoided by only hiring men.

Protection or discrimination

“If you look at this list, it is not keeping women from pursuing work that they would like to do,” says Elena Gerasimova, department head of the Faculty of Law at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The professions on the list—mostly connected with transportation, mining, and construction—are not exactly dream jobs, but rather occupations that need to be done by someone that involve a high level of risk, both for reproductive functions and for general well-being and safety.

According to Gerasimova, the negative consequences of the law are not limited to the restriction of job access for women but also include an implicit discrimination against men and the failure to implement certain safety measures for dangerous jobs.

“I think that more should be done to develop safer technologies at work because otherwise, we are just prohibiting women from certain positions, but we are not pushing employers to change their technologies. If the risk is too high, employers just don’t hire women, but keep using dangerous technologies because the state allows them to do so as long as they are not hiring women,” says Gerasimova.

Although almost one year has passed since the law has been condemned as discriminatory, nothing seems to have changed. An online petition launched in 2015 has collected only 691 signatures in two years and closed before reaching its target of 1,000 signatures.

The lack of any initiatives from Russian civil society to repeal or change the law can only be explained by history, says Sharifullina. After decades of life under the Soviet Union, juggling between having to fulfill the role of full-time workers and full-time mothers, women grew tired of heavy professions. Only women in the younger generations—who have long forgotten those times—might be willing to carry out such strenuous work again.

“I think that we should have the right to a choice but it is only a very small group of women who holds this opinion,” concludes Sharifullina.

For the time being, many women continue to work in hazardous workplaces without a contract, social benefits, or the legal right to carry out their profession. The ban—which was originally designed to protect women’s health—now reduces their worth to that of a reproductive machine, without posing the question: is being a mother really the dream of every woman, or should women have the freedom to choose their career?

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