Breaking through the glass ceiling

While the typically Russian strong and all-powerful “macho” man may seem to be destined for extinction, a new strong type is taking over the Russian entrepreneurship scene – the Russian businesswoman.

Although they are going from strength to strength in today’s changing business landscape, many preconceptions about successful businesswomen persist. For example, most people still seem to think that a woman should either adopt purely masculine qualities to get ahead, or curry favour with prominent men in their industry to rise up the career ladder.

Nevertheless, Elvira Maymina, the CEO of “Gasinvest Bank”, is of the opinion that women bring new governing strategies to major Russian corporations.

“A woman, by her nature, is a caretaker, a defender, which predefines her creative approach to everything, including business,” Maymina says, when describing the difference between a purely male and purely female approach.

Indeed, with the world financial crisis taking hold of all corners of the international economy, new versatile and innovative approaches to old governing strategies are required.

Thorny road to success

During a meeting with Françoise Foning, Valentina Matvienko – the governor of Russia’s second biggest city, St. Petersburg – noted that there was still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to bringing more women into business.

“In Russia as a whole, the number of women owning small and medium businesses is much lower than that in the West. However, in St. Petersburg women are increasingly eager to be more actively involved in making a career in business,” she said.

Nevertheless, eagerness is not the only thing required. According to Elvira Maymina, it is being able to demonstrate leadership qualities that remains most difficult for a woman in modern Russian entrepreneurship:

“One thing that I understood very early on in my career is that whatever job you do you have to learn, you have to ”soak up“ professionalism and always be a head taller than everyone following you, otherwise you stop being a leader. That is why I have three degrees and am currently completing my doctoral thesis.”

Power in the regions

Surprisingly, it is women outside Russia’s two major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, who appear to be the most successful when it comes to taking over leading positions in enterprises. It is Belgorod, a city in western Russia that is currently in the lead when it comes to the number of women in top management position. The number in the region stands at an impressive 65%, widely surpassing the national average of 42%.

According to Tatiana Sharova, the leader of the local fund for small and medium business, this successful position of women in management is due to the fact that they take their responsibilities with more scrupulously then men.

“They don’t expect immediate success, and carefully analyse their activities,” Sharova explained. “They always have a clear development strategy, even when it is subconscious. Women always see the top of the mountain they want to reach, and they see a clear path for reaching it.”

However, this goal-oriented nature that women’s entrepreneurship is often associated with is not enough, according to many Russian businesswomen, to surpass the traditional preconceptions which are still firmly rooted within the country’s society.

Patriarchy lies beneath

In the same region of Belgorod, female-led businesses are often limited to small and medium-sized corporations. For large businesses the number of men in leading positions shoots up to 70%. Tatiana Sharova believes that this is most probably not related to the fact that women cannot handle bigger projects.

Elena Derevtsova, the owner of a chain of shops in the region, echoed this sentiment, pointing out:

“Women tend to see each of their business projects as a child. She feeds it, takes care of it and watches it grow. But the principle driving force is quality, not quantity – each woman in entrepreneurship strives towards perfection”.

However, Olga Odinkova, the head of a business association of Ufa, a city in central Russia, is of a different opinion. She thinks that there is still no firm definition between female and male leadership. However, women cannot release their full potential when it comes to business projects: women are traditionally seen as mothers and housekeepers.

In order to own a successful enterprise, they often need to juggle these responsibilities or give up their traditional social role, which can create a hostile public response – not exactly the best publicity relations.

The most “successful” Russian women, according to a list recently published by RIA Novosti, combine qualities of family life, social status, successful leadership and business acumen. In a controversial incident, it was Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of the incumbent Russian president, who fitted all the categories and came first.

The judges of the competition explain their decision:

“Much like Michelle Obama, she used her character and intellect to become an influential political figure who influences some of the most important decisions in the world.”

Local businesswomen in Ufa, as well as those of the Russian Association for Businesswomen responded negatively to the news. According to the association’s deputy president, Elena Mahmutova, gender politics in Russia still does not allow women to express their full potential when it comes to either business or politics.

“We should base ourselves on international experience and take up the policy of positive discrimination on a national legislative level,” Mahmutova said at a meeting with businesswomen from Ufa.

Her audience agreed, while also pointing out that Svetlana Medvedeva being named the most successful woman in Russia discredited the new image of an independent flourishing woman that they were striving to express.

According to many of them, businesswomen in times of crisis should focus on what they always have done: adaptability and being success-oriented. Nevertheless, governmental support to crush age-old stereotypes is still much anticipated.

Anna Bogdanova, RT