Market Freer, but Not Fairer

Lyudmila Solovyova, a highly trained aerospace engineer, has spent the last three months sitting at home sewing. Geofizika, the state enterprise where she worked, has no money to pay most of its 15,000 employees, and so has sent them on "forced leave."

Solovyova, 56, is one of a disproportionate number of Russian women who have either lost their jobs or otherwise suffered a significant drop in income from the industrial slump.

Traditionally employed in lower-paying jobs in state enterprises, particularly in such fields as education, health care and light industry, women have seen their salaries dwindle as state enterprises run out of money to pay them.

Many have had their hours reduced or have been sent on forced leave, deprived both of their full salaries and the unemployment benefits they would have received had they been fired. And with the collapse of the state system, other benefits, such as child support and day care, have vanished as well.

According to the Federal Employment Service, women constitute 47.1 percent of the work force in Russia, but make up 70-75 percent of the registered unemployed.

"In Russia," says Marina Pavlova, director of the Center for Business Assistance for Women, "unemployment has a female face."

Among the women of the heavily industrialized Saratov region, according to Anastasia Posadskaya, director of the Center for Gender Studies in Moscow, female unemployment is so commonplace that the phrase "Kak dela?" or "How are things?" has come to mean "Do you have a job?"

Solovyova is one of the hidden unemployed. Although she is supposed to receive a portion of her salary while on forced leave, the state enterprise where she worked has not had money to pay her for the last three months.

She would be no different from millions of men in the same predicament, except that Solovyova is a single mother with a 15-year-old daughter to support. With a combined monthly stipend of 67,000-rubles ($39) from her monthly pension and child support, she manages to survive by doing odd dressmaking jobs for friends and acquaintances. She also gets help hand-me down clothes and occasional financial assistance from a local network of single mothers.

"Before, we ate normally and bought what we needed," she said. "Now I can't even imagine saving money to buy anything. Everything I earn I have to spend right away."The reasons for the imbalance between men and women are complex, and rooted as much in Russia's past as in the rapid changes of recent history.

The emancipation of women was one of the slogans of the Bolshevik Revolution, and gave women the opportunity to follow careers that had been closed to them. Soviet women built roads and worked heavy machinery on the factory floor; they became doctors and, like Solovyova, engineers.

Men, however, retained the most powerful positions in society from factory director to Politburo member to the top posts in the military. The equality turned out to be more myth than reality. The jobs women held, even in such highly regarded professions as medicine, were the lowest paying.

That did not matter so much during the Soviet era, when pay was less important than benefits, but it laid the groundwork for the present economic hardships that developed when the Communist system collapsed.

According to the Center for Gender Studies, women compose 48 percent of the workforce in state enterprises, but only 25 percent of workers in the more competitive and better-paying private sector. The state enterprises' lack of money has meant that women have seen their salaries lag even further behind those of their male counterparts.

In Soviet times, the average woman made 70 percent of the average man's salary, according to the Center for Gender Studies. Now, as men stream into the private sector or are chosen for the few lucrative jobs in state enterprises, that figure has plummeted to 40 percent.

Women have also suffered from other consequences of the breakup of the Soviet system. The government has no system to enforce child support payments by divorced fathers, who under the Soviet system had the money automatically deducted from their wages.

And state subsidies for single mothers, 55 percent of whom are living on the poverty level, are only for mothers who were never married.

"Divorced mothers have the hardest time," said Marina Kiyenya, president of Only Mothers, a support group for single mothers. "The state tells them, 'you have your ex-husband, let him take care of you.'"

According to accepted economic theory, Russia needs a surge in unemployment to strip workers away from unproductive industries and propel them into the more efficient private sector.

But in the case of Russia's women, there are many obstacles on the way to private industry. They form the backbone of cheap labor in the state sector -- and they have stayed there because of crucial family benefits.

The jobs, although low-paying, provide crucial child care, maternity leave, and leave to look after sick relatives that are more important for many women than a well-paid job without benefits.

"When a man gets fired from a job where he gets paid 14,620 (the minimum wage), that's just a couple of bottles of vodka to him," said Zinaida Ryzhkova of the State Statistics Committee's Labor Department. "But when a woman loses that job, there goes the child care, the kindergarten, the cheap food."

"When there's a question of who's going to be dismissed," said Alevtina Fedulova, the head of the Women's Party, "women with children are the first to go. And when it's a question of who to hire, they are the last."

Many women work for such low wages that they hardly make a dent in their family budget, let alone the consumer economy.

At the weekly Moscow job fair on Thursday, Tanya and Natasha, both engineers at a design institute, were searching for more lucrative jobs.

"We make 25,000 rubles," said Natasha, who refused to give her last name. "What's that? It's nothing."

Tanya and Natasha, who make just over half the official Russian subsistence level of 44, 352, cannot possibly survive on their salaries. They stay because they like their jobs.

"We live off our husbands," said Tanya. "We had good jobs, have a good education. But now it means nothing."