What the US can learn from women in the Soviet workforce

Let’s talk about women’s work.
Let’s talk about women’s work.
Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
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In episode two of HBO’s 10-Emmy award-winning series Chernobyl, lead character Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) delivers a scathing line to a male Soviet Communist Party leader: “I am a nuclear physicist. Before you were deputy secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.”

The dialogue hints at a fascinating reversal of traditional gender roles. In fact, writer Craig Mazin invented the fictional character of Khomyuk in recognition of the important scientific contributions of socialist women.

“One area where the Soviets were actually more progressive than we were was in the area of science and medicine,” Mazin explained on Variety’s TV Take podcast. “The Soviet Union had quite a large percentage of female doctors.”

Most historians agree that the Eastern Bloc countries aggressively pursued policies to promote women into previously male-dominated professions and supported women’s full-time employment through the provision of job protected parental leaves and state subsidized crèches and kindergartens.

Girls in STEM

This isn’t just a historical phenomenon, however. Socialist programs that encouraged women and girls to study and work in math and science have been a gift that keeps on giving.

This is especially timely for the US as it approaches the 2020 presidential election and candidates advocate for policies that can increase women’s political representation, promote fare wages, and support more inclusive healthcare. As capitalist Western countries continue to wrestle with a dismal record of gender parity in the workforce, it’s worth examining this Soviet-era blueprint.

Even three decades after the end of the Cold War, scholars still find substantial differences in aptitude and professional success between women in capitalist and former state socialist countries. A 2018 study titled “Math, Girls, and Socialism” examined a robust dataset of self-reported academic grades in mathematics together with standardized test scores. Using the former division of Germany as a natural experiment to isolate the historical effects of capitalist versus state socialist education—and controlling for differences in economic conditions and teaching styles—the researchers found that teenage girls in the former Eastern part of the country significantly outperformed their western German peers in terms of closing the gender gap with boys.

The researchers found that “girls in the East feel less anxious and more confident about their aptitude in math than their counterparts from West Germany,” and were less likely to be intimidated in competitive situations with boys.

By further comparing the standardized test scores for children across the continent, the authors also found evidence that “the gender gap in math is smaller in European countries that used to be part of the Soviet bloc, as opposed to the rest of Europe.” In some former socialist countries, the gender gap in mathematics aptitude disappeared altogether.

A similar story can be told about medicine. In Latvia and Estonia, for example, women accounted for nearly three out of every four medical doctors in 2018—75% compared to only 34% in the United States. Across the former Eastern Bloc, women dominated the field of medicine throughout the Cold War, so that in 1975, the USSR actually introduced quotas to increase the proportion of men attending medical school.

In the realm of technology and engineering, four of the European Union’s top five most gender-balanced tech workforces in 2017 were in former socialist countries: Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. According to Eurostat, Bulgaria boasted the highest percentage of women working in information and communication technologies at 27% compared with the EU average of 17%.

In 2018, eight of the top 10 countries with the highest proportion of women working in high-tech companies were in Eastern Europe.

Bulgaria also had the highest percentage of female students in these fields in 2017; at 33% one in every three tech students in Bulgaria was a woman. Across the EU, the average was 17% with the Netherlands at an abysmal 6% and Belgium at 8%, most likely because girls avoid studying subjects in fields where they are unlikely to find employment.

But what explains these stark differences? Eastern Bloc countries once celebrated the equality of men and women as one of the unique products of building a socialist society, in no small part because socialist countries faced severe labor shortages after WWI in the USSR and after WWII throughout the Soviet Bloc.

As a result, socialist countries began training women in science and engineering well before Western countries.

For instance, 43% of Romanian students enrolled in engineering institutes were women in 1970, as were 39% of all engineering students in the USSR and 27% of students in Bulgaria. Compare these percentages to the United States, where by 1976 women earned only 3% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering.

Rebalancing act

But it wasn’t only state investments in education that made the difference. Socialists understood that women would always face a disadvantage on the free market for labor because of childbearing and their domestic responsibilities. If care work occasionally forces women out of the labor force, employers view them as less reliable employees, which means they are paid less and have fewer resources invested in their professional development in the long run. In science and technology careers where research, innovation, and product development proceed at lightning speed, the perception that women are more likely to temporarily leave the labor force renders them less than ideal employees.

In countries such as the former German Democratic Republic or Bulgaria, state-owned technology enterprises—such as those that made the Robotron computers in East Germany or the Pravetz computers in Bulgaria—could hire qualified women with more confidence.

Family responsibilities interfered relatively less with women’s work because the state had socialized many of the domestic tasks shouldered by women in capitalist countries. Childcare, public cafeterias, and public laundries, as well as an extensive network of sanatoria to care for the aged and infirm, meant less care work for women in the private sphere. And when an expectant mother took her paid job-protected maternity leave, the state easily organized her temporary replacement with a qualified university graduate completing their mandatory national service.

As more women thrived in careers in science, math, medicine, and engineering, more girls pursued studies in those fields. The higher percentage of women in the dynamic technology sector today is a direct result of state socialist policies that both encouraged women to enter male-dominated fields and alleviated their domestic responsibilities through the public provision of social services.

Chernobyl’s Ulana Khomyuk may be a fictional character, but she represents a valuable lesson from 20th century Eastern Europe that is well worth remembering:

Girls and women are no less capable than boys and men, but without institutional interventions to encourage their studies and support their informal responsibilities for care work, gender gaps in fields like science and medicine will persist.