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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Getting Beyond the Glass Ceiling

Thirty-two women met for dinner last Friday in a private dining room at the stylish Pushkin Cafe to celebrate an organization that's like an old boys' club, only without the men.

These leading businesswomen, who have built sparkling careers in a male-dominated realm, were marking the first anniversary of the Committee of 20, formed last year on the basis of contacts with its American counterpart, the Committee of 200, a group of women at the helm of companies with more than $20 million in sales.

"We just wanted to get to know each other better," said Yelena Fedyashina, executive director of the Committee of 20, so-christened for the size of the core group.

Through sharing experiences, we can help each other be successful, said Tatyana Zrelova, who in 1987 helped to found Dialog, a holding company she now heads, which was the first U.S.-Russian information technologies joint venture. "We find each other interesting, and good company."

The group's members manage a diverse range of firms, from banks to health clubs to media holdings. The average age is around 30 to 40, Fedyashina said, though one, Marina Malykhina, founder of Magram, a market research agency, is only 24.

"You can't say that the number of women [in business] is great. No, it is not. When you're talking about well-known business leaders, there are very few," Fedyashina said. "But there are some and they are great. At least six of the women there Friday are mothers of three kids on top of everything else."

Why are there so few women at the decision-making level in powerful companies? By most estimates, women make up only 10 percent of corporate Russia's top management jobs.

Olga Dergunova is a poster-girl for those select few. Perhaps the country's most prominent businesswoman, she was recruited by Microsoft in 1994 and promoted to country manager the following year, when she was just 30. Twice, she has been ranked among Europe's most successful women by The Wall Street Journal Europe. She, too, attended the Cafe Pushkin gathering.

But since she works for a Western multinational, her success cannot be taken as evidence of shifting attitudes toward professional women in Russian corporations.

It is rarer to find women who have advanced into the senior management of blue-chip industry firms.

"There does appear to be a glass ceiling for women in Russian companies unless they're one of the founding entrepreneurs," said Tremayne Elson, managing director for the Moscow office of Antal, a British-based executive search firm.

"Can anyone think of any top-level women working for Russian big industry firms?" Elson, reached by telephone, was heard shouting out to his staff of headhunters. A few moments later: "There are about 20 of us here, and we all seem to be drawing a blank."

They're there, though.

Poking through several companies' web sites turned up one woman on the board of Yukos and two on the board of Russian Aluminum. At Gazprom, two of the 18 managers listed are women: One is the head accountant and the other is head of property and corporate relations. Aeroflot does not list its top management, nor does juice and dairy giant Wimm-Bill-Dann, and neither have women on their boards. Norilsk Nickel names none. At cellular operator Vimpelcom, women head the personnel and marketing departments.

Skeptics argue that, rather than pioneers, these are token women in positions awarded based on whom you know, not who you are.

"It's changing. More women are coming to leading positions. Not very often, but still, it's happening," Fedyashina said.

Hiring Hurdles

Speaking from 10 years of experience filling jobs in Russia, Elson said the ratio of qualified candidates his firm can propose is about two men to one woman. From there, companies are more likely to interview the men on the list. Occasionally, though, the woman is the strongest candidate and firms can recognize that, Elson said, giving the recent example of a pharmaceutical firm looking to hire a deputy director. Of the six finalists, only one was a woman, but she got the job.

"It's true, we encounter a reasonable level of prejudice here. It's marginally better in Central and Eastern Europe, but I wouldn't say there's a marked increase once you cross Russia's border.

"Believe it or not, we see more sexism in Germany," he said, where medium-sized firms, privately controlled by old-school conservatives, characterize the economy.

Around 15 percent to 20 percent of Antal's clients say flat out they are not interested in any women, Elson said, and this is especially common among sales-focused companies dealing with heavy industry, alcohol and tobacco and the regions -- all of which are "pretty much the domain of the male."

Their reasoning is often shaky, he said. "Women also have engineering backgrounds and can be just as commercial." But it remains true that if you need to send someone out on a deal to the middle of Siberia, it could involve a vodka-centric weekend of male bonding. "It's just the way business is done," he said.

The playing field for women is much more level in marketing, one of the more forward-thinking fields because it did not exist here until about a decade ago, making it easier to stand on the merits of what you have done and what you can achieve rather than what gender you are.

In stark contrast to sales, women are often sought out for jobs in human resources, a discipline long seen as a feminine pursuit, not only in Russia but in the West as well, and on the labor supply side, it is a field men often choose to avoid.

Finance department jobs, like auditing and accounting, have traditionally been staffed by more women than men, though the bulk of these jobs are mid-level, not executive positions.

Paul Maguire, who worked at Alfa Bank and Fleming Family before joining newly launched oil firm TNK-BP as a finance director, stopped just short of saying he has a preference for women on his staff. But generally, he said, "when I've had trouble with individuals, it's been with men, and the stalwart people in the department have generally been women. Women tend to be better at multi-tasking and prioritizing. They're more reliable."

Anna Saulina at the Graduate School of International Business estimated that about 85 percent of students enrolled in its auditing and accounting seminars are women, while the number drops to only 40 percent for its full-scale MBA program.

Teri Lindeberg, the CEO of Staffwell, another recruitment firm, said that besides finance and marketing and HR, she sees women getting more and more offers to work in business development, banking, legal departments and computer systems.

Onward and Upward

You find more progressive, female-friendly attitudes in companies that were built from the ground up after the end of the Soviet Union, said Holly Nielsen, the co-head of law firm Debevoise & Plimpton's Moscow practice. "You're more likely to find professional women working at the telecoms than at privatized Soviet giants like Norilsk Nickel."

The glass ceiling is "is all about comfort, routine and history," Lindeberg said. In the big enterprises left over from the Soviet era, "it is very hard for capable women to rise up through the ranks," because the senior management is populated by men who have formed close relationships with each other and prefer to maintain the status quo of male-dominated teams.

"The trend seems to be for capable Russian women to start their own companies rather than coping with the hassle of the glass ceiling," said Jennifer Buttenheim, the head of external relations at United Financial Group who worked previously for Aeroflot. "If you look at UFG's list of the 50 key players in Russian business and politics, only one was a woman."

And that one woman, presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Valentina Matviyenko, is from the political -- not corporate -- realm.

But things are changing. Even the 2015 Club -- an elite circle that includes Degunova from Microsoft, Yelena Titova, the head of Goldman Sachs' Moscow office, and Irina Khakamada, co-head of the Union of Right Forces political party -- has added a few women to its once all-male ranks of about 50 industry executives who believe that 12 years from now, they will have created "a new Russia."

"I do not think it is a matter of getting fed up, but more a matter of strong women wanting to work on their own, building their own company and their own fate -- or at least giving it a go," said Lindeberg, herself an entrepreneur, adding that small business lending is increasingly helping to bring such goals within reach.

Western women are estimated to earn 80 cents for every dollar a man does. Russian women face even greater earning inequality, making 60 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.

So women everywhere, not only in Russia, bump their heads against a glass ceiling on salaries, but this is tied back to the relatively few women who make it to the level where corporate decisions are made and salaries are generous.

Unless of course, you are the head of the company, Fedyashina pointed out. "The glass ceiling is not such a problem for our members. When you're not only an executive but an owner, too, you earn what you think you deserve."

In the United States, the capitalist structure in its current incarnation has been around since 1890, but most women only entered the work force in the last 30 years, Heidi McCormack, the head of General Motors in Russia, noted in a recent interview. "The first ones who did were the absolute superstars, women who were stronger than strong, smarter than smart. It was unrealistic to assume that an ordinary person could accomplish what they did."

Russia's economy is going through a similar trajectory -- only compressed, in some ways evolving in a couple of years as much as the United States evolved in a couple decades. "I would expect the same quantum leaps in terms of women getting placed in Russian companies," McCormack said.

Nielsen said she does not face the challenge of proving herself to male clients encountered by many of her Russian friends, who struggle to be taken seriously. "I get a bit of a break because I'm a foreigner first and a woman second." People see her as a senior partner at a Western firm, which makes it "easier to command their attention and respect."

"In the business world, the culture is very male dominated and there aren't the same attempts at promotion and political correctness that some of us take for granted," Nielsen said. "The consciousness-raising that took place in the States in the 1960s and '70s never happened here."

The Railroad Pioneer

If anyone has built a thriving career by blazing territory on men's turf it has been Anna Belova. Educated as a system engineer in a top school, she went on to work for two military enterprises and two consulting firms, heading Booz Allen & Hamilton at a time when no other Western company here had a woman at the helm, and she started her own company, Sovremmeniye Business Tekhnologii, in 1999. She is one of the founding members of the Committee of 20.

Just over two years ago, when she was named deputy railways minister and charged with implementing sweeping reforms, no woman in the railways' 150-year history had held so high a post. At the level of deputy minister, department head or regional railways head, she had no women colleagues at all.

Since then, she said, a woman has been named head of the financial department, "so now there are two of us." For Belova, it is satisfying to think she had something to do with that. "As soon as the tradition was broken, it was maybe easier to find people based on practical qualifications and competitiveness."

With great honor comes great responsibility. Belova recalls having taken five days of vacation in two years, and on average she works more than 12 hours a day as she works to get Russian Railways Co., or RZD, up and running after the $50 billion enterprise was officially spun off from the ministry last week.

Belova asks for no sympathy, but Fedyashina said she knows it has not been easy for her friend. "I think it's been tough, but Anna says they listen to what she says and her opinion. She's smart, intellectual and charming, and of course that helps."

"It took a certain amount of time to prove I wasn't here accidentally and to become part of the team implementing one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the country," Belova said, referring to railways reform, a key plank in the government's drive to double GDP in 10 years.

Like many professional women, Belova said she feels pulled in many directions. "Normally I don't like to live to work, but work to live. I like to spend time with my family and travel and go to the theater and concert halls, but this is a really critical time and I can't lose control of the process.

"It's kind of like my child," the mother of two said. "I consider RZD my third son."

In all her years of working surrounded by men, Belova insisted she has never encountered any discrimination.

"Frankly, it's not a matter of gender but practical experience and the job requirements of the position. In consulting, for example, you have to travel a lot and that's often more acceptable to men than women."

Barriers or Perception?

Often the problem is not so much doors being closed to women, but women not knowing the doors are there in the first place. This in turn prevents them from getting the education and experience such positions require.

Maguire, for example, said a woman he works with at TNK-BP is a petroleum engineer who insists she has never encountered discrimination. She is simply one of the rare women who were encouraged at a young age to pursue an interest in the field.

Zrelova, the president of the Dialog holding company, has this advice for young women: "Go, study, and all doors will open. Refuse to see that someone has closed the doors to you."

Sexual harassment is something that has been much decried in the West, but which tends to fall under society's radar here.

"We've all seen ads that call for a secretary with a certain size or a certain color of hair," said Nielsen, adding that here, there are not any laws, social expectations or policies to place boundaries on that behavior. Though it probably goes on a lot where staff and administrative positions are concerned, it is far less of a problem for executive women.

From a legal perspective, the Labor Code is quite gender neutral, including liberal family and medical leave clauses. Fathers also have the right to paternity leave to care for their children when they are newborn or ill.

In practice, though, men often worry that sitting home with a sick child will lead their staff to joke of the boss having gone soft, and rarely take that time off, said Natalya Pushkaryova, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Ethnology and Anthropology Institute who researches the gender gap. "They'll say, 'We work for this guy?'"

The situation is certainly more supportive at multinationals, and may be better in among younger, more progressive firms, but child tending generally remains the mother's domain.

"Frankly, though, if you look at the States, it's not paradise there either," Nielsen said. "Men's attitudes are still quite conservative."

Speaking as an employer, McCormack, at GM, said, "You cannot fire a woman for three years after she has had a baby, you can't even make them redundant."

Maybe for that reason, Russian companies are more hesitant to put women into senior roles in the first place.

"There's always the question, is she going to leave after a year to have a child?" Antal's Elson said. "It's quite an antiquated concept, but it's one we hear on a fairly regular basis, about once every two weeks."

The committee women scoff at this; getting past these minor hurdles is simply a question of priorities and personal determination.

For now, they're looking ahead to the second U.S.-Russia Women Business Leaders' Summit to be held this coming May in Moscow, after the first in April 2002. This time, the event will be open to women from the regions as the committee seeks to expand its mentoring network.

Belova said the goals have more to do with economic empowerment than gender empowerment. "Women are economic agents and we're trying to help them grow," she said. "If they see a practical success story and can meet someone who has put together a business out of nothing, it's psychologically very important. We're building a strong base for economic growth."

Leading Ladies

1. Olga Dergunova, head of Microsoft in Russia
2. Tatyana Anodina, head of the Intragovernmental Aviation Committee
3. Elvira Nabiullina, first deputy economic development and trade minister
4. Lyubov Kudelina, deputy defense minister
5. Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Art Museum
6. Yelena Chepurnykh, deputy education minister
7. Yelena Baturina, president of Inteko
8. Yevgenia Kuznetsova, director of the Pikra food factory, Krasnoyarsk region
9. Olga Pleshakova, general director of Transaero
10. Tatyana Golikova, first deputy finance minister
11. Olga Sloutsker, head of the World Class fitness club chain
12. Tatyana Paramonova, first deputy chairwoman of the Central Bank
13. Anna Belova, deputy railways minister
14. Irena Lesnevskaya, president of RenTV
15. Bella Zlatkis, deputy finance minister
SOURCE: Moskovskiye Novosti, Top 50 Businesswomen, August 2003