Why is it that a woman could drive a tram, but not a metro? Why could women on railway construction regularly lift 50 pounds, but not do other jobs [requiring] lifting?
-Galina Mikhalyova from the Yabloko party
Recently the Court of Appeal of Saint Petersburg held that a transgender woman’s job dismissal was unlawful. Her former company cited, as grounds for her dismissal, an official government list that prohibited Russian women from 456 male-dominated professions that included driving public transport, carpentry, naval military service, and certain kinds of engineering trades. Although the Court of Appeal decision sets a precedent against abusive transphobic employment dismissals, the list prohibiting women from certain professions survives. The ‘banned jobs list’ is a legislative document that demonstrates how government paternalism supports deeply entrenched sexism and gender stereotypes in Russia. It must end.
The banned jobs list policy’s origin is rooted in 1970s’ Soviet propaganda and a subsequent 1974 legislation. That legislation sought to “protect” women from jobs deemed either too arduous or harmful for women’s reproductive health. The Putin Government later updated it prohibiting 456 professions through Resolution No. 162 of 2000, which was recently trimmed down to 100 professions amidst criticism from the United Nations. At the time, activists hailed the reform as partial progress.
The list of banned professions perpetuates the stereotypical role of women as mothers, and fails to consider their lives outside of child-rearing. It ignores their professional lives and career aspirations, and it upholds the monopoly reserved for their male-counterparts. The policy is embedded in representational narratives of benevolent sexism, which portray women as caring and soft entities that require protection from life’s harshness. Most importantly, it legitimises the persistence of gender-stereotypes which view women as homemakers and men as breadwinners.
The policy ignores women’s individual circumstances and lived experiences. For some women, fertility is irrelevant for more reasons than could be catalogued. However, it places a blanket ban on all women, regardless of their age, preferences or marital status.
More importantly, the policy ignores social research that examines the presumed link between women’s fertility and those prohibited professions. Today, extensive research suggests that some of the listed professions in fact seriously impact male, not female, fertility, even though Russian men are not excluded from those. For instance, exposure of male welders to toxic chemicals is known to cause oligospermia and exposure to lead or manganese is a known risk factor for hypospermia and erectile dysfunction.
Excluding Russian women from professional opportunities harms social equality. The list allows women to seek only those occupations that coincide with lower pay and lower status. Meanwhile, the highest paying jobs are reserved for men. In fact, the ramifications of this selective employment segregation are to be understood in a broader gender pay gap perspective: Russian women earn thirty percent less than men, and occupational segregation contributes to this gap significantly.
The continued enforcement of the list of banned professions violates both the European Convention on Human Rights and the freedom, guaranteed in Russia’s Constitution under Article 37, to freely use one’s labour capabilities and profession. Article 8 of the ECHR provides for the right to respect for family life. The ECtHR in Sidabras and Džiautas v. Lithuania observed that this right includes the right to choose and access any profession. In another case, the ECtHR held the ability to form and develop meaningful relationships with the outside world and other human beings, including professional ones, as central to one’s personal development. The policy prevents women from forming meaningful professional relationships, reduces their personal development to their matrimonial circle, and is based on an immutable factor about ‘who they are’ (their womanhood).
The policy regulates women’s autonomy and defines their choices within a limited capability set. In Development as Freedom, while discussing the correlation between women’s employment, income and well-being, Amartya Sen imagined access to economic facilities and social opportunities as instrumental to women’s well-being. He argued that deprivation of those opportunities denies women “agency” as a matter of social injustice. The list of banned professions does all of these and more. It restricts women’s economic independence and social emancipation, and it diminishes their well-being while it promises to enrich it.
Russia ought to fulfil its obligations under Article 11(1)(f) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979 (CEDAW) by mandating employers to minimize the negative impacts of work-related hazards on women. A blanket ban that excludes the female workforce as a safeguard to their own reproductive health is plainly unjust. It must end.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.