Weary Days for Mother Russia

January 16, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

President Clinton's visit to Russia last week caused less stir than once greeted Western leaders. Many Russians were eager to meet the new president, but more memorable than the photo ops were the street scenes from Moscow depicting ordinary Russians preoccupied with the twin trials of winter and economic turmoil.

Many of the grim faces belonged to women, who in Russia (as in many societies) shoulder most of the day-to-day burdens of keeping a household running. Much of the talk about the Russian economy these days focuses on the ratio of shock to therapy in pushing along the economy. But behind the recipes for reform are the human factors that play a large role in their success.

A recent World Bank report highlights the importance of women in the Russian economy, a factor in reform that has gotten little public attention but one that is especially relevant for Russia, where women workers outnumber men.

As the country undergoes a painful transition, women are particularly vulnerable to drastic setbacks. Yet women represent important element of the work force, not just in numbers, but also in training and skills.

Unlike many other countries, the former Soviet Union expected full participation of women in the labor market, and 84 percent of Russian women work. The reasons were partly ideological, since communism preached the equality of men and women. More important, however, was the simple fact that the loss of so many men in World War II made women essential to rebuilding the country's economy.

The war's heavy toll was evident in the ratio of men to women in the Russian population. In 1939, there were 112 women for every 100 men; by 1950, there were 128 women for every 100 men.

It took more than 40 years for the ratio to reach its pre-war level. War losses were compounded by the fact that large numbers of Russian men die from accidents, trauma and the effects of their high consumption of alcohol and tobacco. As a result, women outnumber men by more than two-to-one in the country's over-60 population. That gap in longevity tends to obscure another fact of life for Russian women: Although they live longer, they suffer from more chronic diseases and cope with more psychological and nervous disorders than men.

Their relatively poor health may reflect their heavy burdens. They are expected to hold full-time jobs, run a household despite economic scarcity and take primary responsibility for caring for children, elderly parents or other dependent family members.

But in general Russian women live up to these expectations. As a group, they are more highly educated than men; 47 percent of women have completed higher and secondary specialized education, compared to only 34 percent of men.

Women tend to work in relatively few fields, but they dominate some important ones. In 1989, 71 percent of Russian physicians were female. A 1990 survey found that the fields of information and computing were 82 percent female, while banking and insurance were 90 percent female. Even some sectors of industry reported high concentrations of women, such as textiles (70 percent), sewing (89 percent) and shoe manufacturing (69 percent).

The World Bank report cites two main factors for the high level of training reported by many women workers, as well as the high proportion of women in many white-collar fields. First, despite talk of equality, women still have to work harder to reach better levels of pay. Moreover, working hours, location and other non-wage benefits offered by white-collar jobs make them more conducive to juggling responsibilities at home and work.

Russian women may not get much help at home. But at least the communist government constructed an elaborate system of protective legislation, leaves and dependent-care allowances to make their lives easier.

Now, however, as the country moves toward a mixed economy those same subsidies make women highly vulnerable. Their cost makes it more expensive to hire women and gives employers a good reason to lay off women before men.

So does the nationalist rhetoric of reactionary politicians. A rise in nationalistic fervor could rekindle patriarchal attitudes that will force women back into menial jobs, making life even more difficult.

As the world watches the drama of Russian reform, one way to judge its progress is to monitor the participation of women. In Russia, as in any other struggling economy, there is a direct link ++ between their condition and the health of the larger society. When the welfare of women declines, so does that of the children, elderly and infirm who depend on them.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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