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18 Dec, 2020 13:46

In spite of attitudes in a new poll belittling the role of women in the workplace, is Russia’s tech future female?

In spite of attitudes in a new poll belittling the role of women in the workplace, is Russia’s tech future female?

Some of Russia’s most talented tech entrepreneurs are female. For a country that’s rarely in sync with the ‘women’s issues’ of the West, it has an unexpectedly high number of women pursuing successful careers in technology.

According to an article in Kommersant, based on the findings of an international survey completed in December by research companies Romir and GlobalNR, 71 percent of Russians believe that traditional gender roles for boys and girls are the best way forward for society. Furthermore, only 33 percent of respondents agreed that women should occupy the positions of directors of companies and organizations. These figures are unsurprising: for the last 15 years conservative values have been actively promoted by Moscow.

But when comparing countries via the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, it was found that women make up 40 percent of researchers in Russia, which is higher than in the UK, which comes in at 39 percent, France at 27 percent and the Netherlands, where just 26 percent of researchers are women. On top of these global statistics, local technology companies such as Yandex (which is widely considered to be the “Russian Google”) say that women make up about a third of their employees.

How can both conclusions coexist? As Kommersant opined upon the release of the latest survey on gender equality, “Russians are not ready to forget gender roles,” so when it comes to the technological sphere is Russia simply a statistical anomaly? The epicenter of Russia’s tech industry is Moscow, and we can get a better idea of the role women play in tech by talking with those who have built up their careers and companies here.

Ksenia Busheva had an unorthodox beginning to her career in tech, as she’d originally studied for a degree in the Humanities, specialising in Journalism. However, after trying out a few different internships and finding that the work didn’t excite her, she began to think of alternative ways to utilize her skills set.

In this way, she made her first foray into the tech world, co-founding and becoming CMO of ‘icanchoose’ which is a Moscow-based recruitment agency and career resources platform. This idea then mushroomed into an international recruitment agency called ‘6nomads’ which she founded in 2019. “6nomads is a remote-work-focused job platform which searches for tech talent and places them in up-and-coming tech companies and start-ups that are based all over the world” Busheva explains. She has long had aspirations about beginning something on an international scale and with 6nomads she has travelled all over the world. Busheva recently spent time in San Francisco, near Silicon Valley, where she experienced a great deal of support and enthusiasm from both investors and other entrepreneurs. She explains that being a female entrepreneur in San Fran gives you “a competitive advantage.” This does not mean that talent matters any less to investors, it just makes you more visible as an oddity in the hyper-competitive start-up environment of The Valley.

Busheva is now back in Moscow and she says that she misses the “cushion of support” that was a big element of working in the US. In Moscow, it is not something that is regularly discussed as it is generally understood that the merit of work is what is important. Against this background, Busheva mentioned that when her business partner (who is a man) and herself would attend potential business meetings in Moscow they had the mutual understanding that “it would just be easier if he was the one who did most of the talking.” Busheva goes on to clarify that although she has never felt handicapped by her gender, she would sometimes feel like she was being spoken to like a “small girl,” joking that “my baby cheeks and small height don’t help!”

When talking about Russia, Busheva says the typical stereotype of Russians who work in tech is that they are “hackers.” 6nomads aims to challenge the mindset that comes with employing locally rather than on the international market, by encouraging businesses to keep an open mind when working with people from different countries. She expands by saying that “there can be a certain hesitation from US clientele when it comes to working with Russian founders but it is something that is changing with time and experience… we are an international business but we don’t try to hide where we come from.”

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In terms of the culture of the tech world, Busheva describes it as one of the fastest-growing and most accepting spheres to work in. Borders don’t apply to the internet and especially with the current climate, more and more people are becoming open to ditching the commute in favor of work-from-home environments. One of 6nomads’ most notable success stories was Alexandr M from Moldova, who was hired by a San Francisco based startup, Y Combinator Alumni, within two months of joining the platform. This is the ideal version of what Busheva's business model is offering, the opportunity for talented people in tech to have their choice from an international labor market.

When asked about the number of women in their portfolio, Busheva explained that it was an area that they were working really hard on promoting, as many of their international clients ask specifically about hiring women. This is spurred on by the gender quota systems that are being implemented in The Valley. Busheva makes it clear that the ultimate goal is for gender not to play such a decisive part in the selection process and for decisions to be based purely on talent. However, until we have a society that encourages women to pursue STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers from their early years, the reality is that many women may need a boost. “I think it goes deeper than just encouraging women to get into tech in later life, it should be something that governments take initiative on in the early years in promoting certain subjects in school." But in the Russian context, Busheva said that she can't think of a single example of a stay-at-home mother or "housewife." Both her own mother and her grandmother had long careers. Her grandmother worked until retirement and her mother is still working to this day.

Perhaps it is this culture of women at work, an idea that was cultivated during the Soviet Union when it needed the workforce and also to keep people busy (without time to think), that is the main factor explaining the figures in Russia. Busheva concludes by noting that it is hard work that gets you everywhere, no matter where you come from or which gender you are, “it is never too late to find your passion and if you have an interest in a certain aspect of the tech world you should pursue it, regardless of your background.”

Elena Babchenkova works as the lead account manager in the Moscow-based company “Intelligent Social Systems” (ISS) who develop tailored IT systems for big business clients and the government. She was originally on track to become a lawyer but got involved in the start-up world when her friend suggested that she should start to work for an online problem-solving platform called ‘The Angry Citizen.’ From there she rose through the ranks and is now part of the top management at ISS, leading all new projects (alongside another woman). The CEO, CPO and CTO of the company are male but Babchenkova doesn’t feel like this has given them an advantage at work, “actually I think that being a woman makes things more simple, [in my experience] when you talk to clients who are men they are more loyal to women, they prefer to talk to women more than to men.” She thinks being a woman actually gives you an advantage when doing business in Moscow, “It is usual in my practice to deal with men but I have never felt that I am worse because I am a woman.”

Babchenkova thinks that “all the women who work at our company are there because they have skills which we need, they are good professionals and like to work with us.” She explains how she believes in employing women because (in her opinion) they usually have certain skills that men lack, for example they are more responsible and organized. Babchenkova agrees that there is a long tradition of women working in Russia and she adds that she personally excelled in maths at school. Despite the fact that she was the only girl out of the top five performers in her class, she never felt like she had to prove herself any more than the rest of her classmates and this is also true of her work life. When talking about ISS she explains, “it’s not ‘work’ as something you don’t like to do but you have to do, it’s work as something you like and want to do. It's someplace where you are glad to go.” There are so many different options for work now in so many different areas, Babchenkova thinks that women these days can find work anywhere.

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In terms of governmental engagement, Babchenkova notes: “I think that tech is our new future, with the [speed of the] internet and technology growth, I think that everyone will eventually have to deal with it in different areas. So why not women?” She believes that there doesn’t have to be any special emphasis on women in tech as it is already such an inclusive realm and it’s within everyone’s interest to become tech-savvy. “Maybe if the government will have some kind of special program [for just women], what it really says is women are worse than men because they need to get extra help!” She suggests that they may begin to feel inferior as it implies that men and women do not have equal capabilities to begin with. “So actually, I don’t think that we need some special program for women, as it could be discouraging.”

The problem of inequality between men and women is complicated, in spite of the fact that the December survey found that 18 percent of Russians think women should not work at all – it is third-ranked in terms of championing equal pay, with 82 percent of Russians believing that men and women should be paid equally. Modern Russia is still a relatively young state and it has a great capacity for change. This is clear when looking at the fastest-developing industry in the world (the tech business) and comparing the experience of the people driving it to the opinions of an older generation. Moscow is a microcosm of what is to come and with its most innovative industry being propelled by both men and women, perhaps it is simply a matter of time before the rest of the country catches up.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.