The seeds of Natalya Tumanova’s future were planted at age five, when she watched her grandfather build the family dacha just outside Yekaterinburg, the city named after the first woman ruler of imperial Russia. She studied architecture, moved to Moscow and, while working at Andrey Chernikhov, one of Russia’s leading studios, led an apartment complex project in the city of Kazan, in 2009.
“I realized then that I could be a leader, that I didn’t need a boss telling me what to do,” the 33-year-old explained during a recent interview at a hotel in central Moscow. “I could create a project from the start through to the end, like my grandfather had done, so I decided to start my own firm.”
A deeply patriarchal state populated by repressed beauties and lorded over by a domineering, oft-shirtless president—that’s the simplistic Western view of Russia. But an avant-garde of Russian businesswomen has in recent years developed a nurturing environment for female entrepreneurs. And despite its often retrograde culture, some of them believe their country could become a model of gender equality in the workplace.
At first glance, Russian women seem unusually influential in business. In a 2015 study of 35 countries by the consultancy Grant Thornton, Russia had the most women in senior management positions: 40%, nearly double the rates in the UK (22%) and the US (21%). A similar proportion is cited in surveys by PWC in 2012 (pdf, link in Russian) and by the International Labor Organization last year (pdf), though the ILO ranks Russia 25th out of 80 countries.
Look closer, however, and the picture is less rosy. PWC found that women in senior management are most often found in auxiliary roles, such as chief accountant or head of human resources. A 2013 report from Ward Howell found that Russian women account for just 1% of CEOs in the country’s top 160 firms (link in Russian); compare that to a (still meager) 4.4% in the Fortune 500 in the US. And they make up only 8% (pdf, p. 8) of company board members according to Credit Suisse (and less than 5%, according to the ILO), compared to a global average of 12%.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. Since 2007, the number of companies founded by women has grown by 350%, compared to 65% for companies founded by men, according to data from the Moscow-based think tank Human Capital. Overall, some 55% of Russian businesses are run by women.
Alena Popova, co-founder of Human Capital, sees several root causes. Due to decades of war and a high (often alcohol-related) male mortality rate, Russia has nearly 115 women for every 100 men. Russian men are still expected to be breadwinners, and thus feel considerable pressure to succeed; as a result, women tend to be more willing to take risks. The financial crisis of 2008 and Russia’s ongoing economic troubles have lowered barriers to entry and presented new opportunities. Finally, the enforced gender equality of Soviet times—itself partly a product of the loss of so many men to war—changed social attitudes.
Female entrepreneurs and advocates interviewed for this article agreed that Russian workplaces are generally free from sexism. Maria Podlesnova, the founder and CEO of Rusbase, a media site focused on tech and entrepreneurism, has a hard time remembering a single incident of unprofessional or boorish behavior from her male peers and colleagues. “Maybe sexual harassment is widespread in the US and Europe, but this is absolutely not the case in Russia,” the 31-year-old said during a recent interview at her office in central Moscow. “In modern tech society there is no place for sexism or machismo.”
Russian women tend to do best in creative, tech, and media fields, which generally attract more progressive types and require less startup funding. Also, the Internet marketplace is ready-made: in Russia, women online shoppers outnumber men 10 to 1.
Natalia Sindeyeva owns Dozhd (“Rain”) TV, Russia’s last remaining independent news station. Marina Kolesnik, a Harvard MBA and former McKinsey consultant, oversees Oktogo.ru, the country’s leading hotel booking site. And Svetlana Mironyuk oversaw one of the leading state-owned news outlets, RIA Novosti, for years, until its 2013 closure. (A new agency opened under the same name.) The list goes on.
Yet the deck remains stacked against businesswomen. For starters, women in Russia earn about 30% less than men on average, according to a recent World Bank study, and some two-thirds of Russia’s women entrepreneurs are unable to access the funding they need, according to a 2014 study (pdf) from the World Bank Group’s private sector arm.
Tatiana Gvilava, head of the All-Russian Public Organization for Businesswomen, Russia’s largest organization for women in business, has proposed a Russian bank exclusively for women—pointing to successful equivalents in Saudi Arabia.
Another obstacle is prejudiced attitudes. Podlesnova says most Russians working outside the tech, creative, and media sectors assume successful women have had some help. “It’s important to prove to other people that you’ve done it by yourself, not with any man’s, or with ‘daddy’s’ money, especially if you’re beautiful and young,” she says.
Yana Zadorozhnaya, a 26-year-old journalist and public relations manager from Almaty, Kazakhstan, might fit that description. She fell in love with Moscow when she arrived a few years ago, and in September partnered with an American techie friend to launch Moskvaer, a media site presenting a sharp, 21st-century perspective on life in the city.
“Nowadays women in Russia, just as in Europe, have all the opportunities to be what they want to be,” says Zadorozhnaya. “But what I noticed is that, not all, but a lot of Russian and Central Asian women still prefer to be ‘happily married’ housewives and mothers, rather than strong, confident women. Probably it’s a matter of habit, hardened by generations.”
Moreover, certain industries have a habit of keeping women out. Popova wrote recently (Russian) that female CEOs and board members tend to be in “education, health, food service, retail, hotels, tourism, beauty products, and sport, as well as advertising and media,” and predominantly in small businesses without access to large amounts of capital. Political power, and the natural-resource industries that underpin Russia’s economy—oil, gas, and metals—remain male preserves.
“We need to work hard to promote women leadership in Russia,” says Popova. She also runs Startup Women, an organization that supports women entrepreneurs, and a project called First Team, which aims to add a dozen women candidates to the ballots in the 2016 parliamentary elections.
Yet even in politics there are signs of change. In 2013, a few months before the US’s Janet Yellen was named chair of the US Federal Reserve, Russia’s Elvira Nabiullina became the first woman to head the central bank of a G8 state (even if Russia has since been kicked out of the G8). Valentina Matviyenko heads the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, and Olga Dergunova oversees the government body that manages state assets.
Any advances women are making, however, are happening despite, rather than because of, government policy. The Duma began work on gender equality legislation in 2003, and again in 2011. Both times it was put on hold. A proposal to implement quotas for women’s participation in politics, specifically the Duma, has received approval from some legislators (including Elena Mizulina, who wrote Russia’s notorious law against “homosexual propaganda”), but has gone nowhere.
Moreover, as Russia’s conflict with the West has intensified—and especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in mid-2014—so has a return to traditional values and gender roles, as a kind of salute to nationalism and a bulwark against “degenerate” western society. Finally, domestic violence affects up to one in three Russian women, and as many as 10,000 of them are believed to be killed each year by their husbands.
The surprise, for many, is that Russia has made the advances it has. Today, an aspiring woman entrepreneur in Russia can tap support groups, conferences, mentors, angel investors, even a hotline, all focused on shepherding her to success.
Back when Tumanova launched her studio in 2010, she had little help and few models to emulate. Still her firm has gone on to complete more than 300 projects all over Russia, as well as in Germany, Italy, and England. She points to one area where she never needed advice: dissuading wealthy clients, predominantly men, from their own bad taste.
“Sometimes a client has unusual ideas that he doesn’t want to let go of,” she said, the corners of her mouth hinting at a grin. “I like to remind him that he came to a specialist for a reason: because he wants expert input. Sometimes it takes some convincing, but generally my voice is heard.”
Disclosure: David Lepeska reported from Moscow during a media conference held by the Moscow city government, which paid some of his travel and accommodation expenses.