Where STEM girls at: Russian women in STEM

By Kasey Stricklin

Women in Russia are entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields at a higher rate than many of their Western counterparts, but there are still far less Russian women that men in the majority of these fields.

Last year, the BBC and the Washington Post published articles discussing the role of women in STEM in Russia, asserting that Russia outpaces the West in encouraging women into STEM fields.  To back up this claim, the articles showed that, according to UNESCO, “29% of people in scientific research worldwide are women, compared with 41% in Russia.” They also said that 15 percent of inventors in Russia are women, compared to just four percent in the UK.

The reasons given for the higher number of women entering these fields in Russia were many. While interest in STEM drops precipitously at an early age in most other countries, often due to gender stereotypes, Russian girls view the field more positively and sustain their interest throughout their teenage years. They focus on the field as a potential employment opportunity, often based on the encouragement of parents, female role models in the field, and their teachers, who tend to be female as well.  The articles both claimed that STEM is viewed as general neutral with no stigma attached, whereas, in the West, the field is viewed as more masculine with a lack of encouragement for young women to enter the field.

However, Russian language sources did not quite echo the same positive sentiments as these Western publications.

The View From Russia

It is true that the Soviet Union prioritized scientific advancement as a national priority, and the USSR had a better record of training women in STEM than the US does even today.  Technological and vocational education was made available to all Soviet citizens, and, from 1962 to 1964, forty percent of Soviet PhDs in chemistry went to women, while that number was just four percent in the US. Even as recently as 2012, women still only received 37 percent of US chemistry PhDs. However, according to Olga Uskova, the founder of Cognitive Technologies, the Soviet model endured for a few years after the end of the Soviet Union before the country switched to a pan-European model.

While Russia may be doing better than the worldwide average encouraging women into STEM fields, there is still a wide gap between the number of Russian women and men in most of these careers. Women currently make up only about 14 percent of those in mathematics, computer science, and technology fields. In a poll conducted last year by My Circle, a Russian site for finding IT jobs, women made up only seven percent of those who claimed they were developers (for software, mobile, etc).

This is true for universities as well. While the number of women enrolled in universities is around 57 percent, a smaller 46 percent of those who study science are women, and that number drops to only about 25 percent of those who study math. Young women are also less likely than men to reach their thesis defense, since they are more likely to leave and raise a family.

In some areas, the number of women is growing, though men and women are still not represented equally. The number of women in programming has increased, and Cognitive Technologies noted that 35 percent of women in their company are now involved in complex projects involving programming and complicated math problems. Women in IT management at Alfa Bank have also increased by 20 percent in the last few years.

Often, though, women in STEM fields occupy lower rungs in the career ladder than their male colleagues. In universities, around 70 percent of women are teachers or assistants, rather than deans or heads of departments. Similarly, in research institutes, women tend to be laboratory technicians or engineers instead of directors.

Because of this, the gender pay gap in Russia also can be found in STEM fields, where women typically make 28 percent less than men. In IT fields, that number is even higher, with women making 33 percent less. This is actually a greater disparity than the current average 22-27 percent gap found generally in Russia. Women also note a lack of career growth, which keeps women from moving into those higher posts.

Not So Neutral

Though the Western sources noted that STEM in Russia is gender neutral, most Russian sources did not agree. The idea of “feminine” and “masculine” industries has proven enduring with lower wages in the social sector, which is considered more feminine, versus engineering and other STEM disciplines, which are considered more masculine.  Since Russian women are typically employed in the humanities (about 70-80 percent of all women) and men in more technical fields, this divide contributes to both the pay gap issue and the continuing idea of gender-specific career pursuits. The image of STEM as unfeminine causes some young Russian girls who would otherwise have the skills and interest to enter the field to instead pursue a different path, similar to young girls in Western countries.

Some Russian women said they experienced no specific difficulties in their STEM careers. However, a number of other women noted hardships and stereotypes endured, including isolation from loved ones, condescension from colleagues, and derision from higher ups. Women stated that their scientific research was often not as appreciated as that of their male colleagues, and teachers tended to more often support the scientific work of male students. The complaints aren’t unique to women in STEM in Russia; rather, they go to show that the culture in STEM fields is roughly the same in Russia as it is in other countries.

Unlike many large Western firms, it’s rare for Russian companies to have special initiatives for attracting women into their ranks, at least among IT companies polled. However, Russian businesses are beginning to look for ways to approach the gender issue and some companies are now aiming to equalize the number of men and women working on teams. With Russia already leading other parts of the world in attracting women to some STEM fields, such changes could help Russia maintain a lead in encouraging young women to become future engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and astronauts.

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