Why Women Rarely Reach Top Positions in Government

Gender stereotypes are the main reason why women rarely take up senior positions in the civil service, according to researchers from the Higher School of Economics Olga Isupova and Valeriya Utkina. Many female civil servants are prepared to invest time and effort in their careers, but society expects them to work at least as hard at home, according to the paper ‘Young Women in Russian Public Administration: The factors determining career paths’ based on Isupova and Utkina’s study.

The ‘working mother’ gender contract remains fundamental to Russian society, and combining work and home responsibilities is something most Russian women take for granted as they struggle to find a balance between traditionally ‘female’ and ‘male’ roles: the latter contributing to their career status and advancement and the former making them ‘women’ in the conventional sense. One way or another, attitudes towards female employees in public administration in Russia border on gender discrimination, according to findings from interviews with 32 women aged between 25 and 35 who have held a range of positions in government.

‘Men do not throw tantrums, men do not cry … women are more likely to avoid work … Men are more inclined to abstract thinking, while women tend towards a narrow and mundane [thinking style],’ says a respondent currently employed as head of department with the Ministry of Justice. This statement illustrates a common stereotype concerning ‘male’ and ‘female’ management and leadership styles and reflects the collective belief that women make decisions based on emotion and are therefore ‘naturally’ inferior leaders compared to men. Such attitudes can be described as essentialist.

Essentialist philosophical and/or psychological theories seek to explain various phenomena through their fundamental and permanent essence. In gender essentialism, women and men are assumed to possess fundamentally different inherent characteristics, e.g. men being rational and women being emotional. Interestingly, the interviewed women often reproduced such attitudes in their responses.

There were more negative examples of ‘overly emotional’ and difficult female bosses than positive ones. Certain respondents stressed that they generally preferred to work for a ‘rational’ male boss.

While some respondents shared stories of successful career advancement under female supervision, they offered the same essentialism-driven explanations, describing a good female boss as having a ‘masculine character’, such as being prepared to stay at the office 24 hours a day, or ‘motherly attitudes’, such as being able to bring together and encourage her team like a caring mother.

Another typical description of a good female supervisor’s characteristics is a combination of ‘female’ flexibility and empathy along with ‘male’ leadership and determination. Like a mother, a good female boss should adapt to different roles, make prompt and flexible decisions and take into account the individual characteristics of her ‘children’, i.e. subordinates. In contrast, ambition, determination and authority are regarded as typical male qualities.

Ironically, these attitudes persist despite the obvious feminisation of the public administration in Russia in recent decades.

In 2016, according to Rosstat, 72% of the country’s civil servants were women, and just 28% — almost 2.6 times fewer — were men. Similar gender proportions have been observed since 1999. However, most women perform technical and analytical functions, while men often hold senior administrative positions.

Women’s essentialist ideas about their workplace roles and performance can perpetuate some of the discriminatory attitudes noted by respondents. For example, most employers assume that a female employee would want to take maternity leave at some point and would then require a temporarily replacement; therefore, other things being equal, the employer will opt in favour of a male job applicant.

Discriminatory attitudes can fade as women make progress professionally. Some respondents currently in senior positions, such as a deputy government minister, report having experienced discrimination at a certain stage of their careers. This pattern indicates that the bureaucratic hierarchy shares some of its norms with the broader patriarchal system.

In response to discrimination, women often resort to adaptive strategies for balancing their time between home and work. Rather than seek senior positions, a woman can choose to be the so-called éminence grise.

According to many respondents, the public administration system, by design, makes it virtually impossible for women to reach the very highest offices of state. Some female civil servants consciously refuse to seek promotion fearing that the associated responsibilities might interfere with their ‘personal lives’. Instead, they prefer to have real but informal power by being the éminence grise behind men in government offices.

Physical attractiveness can have both positive and negative effects. On one hand, it can raise doubts about a woman’s professional competence. ‘If you are good-looking, people don’t take you seriously at first and ask caustic questions, like “Why her? What helped her get this job?”‘, says a respondent employed with the State Duma. On the other hand, good looks can give one some sort of power, such as being able to speed up work processes using personal charm.

Whether or not a female civil servant seeks career advancement is associated with her educational level: those with academic degrees often refuse to ‘know their [secondary] place’. Yet many others accept the rules of the game such as lower salaries and vague prospects for promotion in exchange for a guaranteed maternity leave and protection from dismissal.

Some women’s career ambitions eventually fade away, as work becomes a secondary activity for them. This choice, however, depends on their perception of women’s and men’s roles and responsibilities in society.

Many women find it important that their working day ends by 6 pm, leaving them time for a personal life, which often means household chores. In contrast, career-oriented women can be proud of working longer hours, because it gives them a sense of being hard to replace. They feel that working ‘like men’ makes them more valuable employees.

Furthermore, the perceived legitimacy of one’s career success is often based on essentialist ideas about ‘male’ versus ‘female’ work performance. Women are generally assumed to be driven by emotion rather than reason and defined by their role as mothers and homemakers. They are expected to spend much more time on household duties as opposed to their male colleagues who can afford to work longer hours in the office. There seems to be no question of sharing household chores between women and men.

According to most respondents, women in public administration rarely aspire to top-level positions. Nevertheless, female civil servants tend to seek professional recognition as ‘experts in their field’. Depending on their education and ambition, many women are not happy with routine, mundane work or low pay and use different approaches, such as working overtime, seeking promotion or moving into a different professional area, to increase their income. Those with lower career ambitions are often concerned about balancing home and work and associate job promotion with limited time for personal life.

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