“In my opinion, all women are idiots. It may strike you as ironic, but I’m absolutely sure that women are stupider than men.” Those words weren’t spoken by a Communist-era Russian industrialist, but by Maria Podlesnova, the female founder of Rusbase, a Russian website about startups and venture capital. And her opinion is not exceptional.
The Soviet Union was once proud of its female engineers, and it might seem as if Russia is moving towards even greater gender equality. A 2015 study found that it had the most women in senior management positions (admittedly out of a rather selective list of countries), and even Quartz recently reported that many women feel empowered to become business leaders and don’t see a lot of gender bias or discrimination.
But in reality, the recent conservative turn in Russia’s politics and the importance of “traditional values” is influencing all spheres of life. Women are being pushed to become mothers, daughters and sisters, and outdated opinions about them are especially apparent in the tech industry.
At the Moscow Coding School 30% of students are women, according to Vadim Rezviy, the founder. That’s on a par with Stanford University’s computer-science department, according to a Stanford student’s estimate last year. But there is only one female teacher: an Artec 3D front-end developer, Vasilika Klimova.
“Once I was called in for an interview simply because the men had never seen a girl programmer, and they wanted to see one,” Klimova says. She says the problem of gender inequality in IT needs to become a public issue: “Women who are already working in this sphere need to show that they do exist.” It probably doesn’t help that Russian spell-checkers invariably autocorrect the word “программистка” (programmistka, female programmer) to “программист” (programmist, male programmer).
In an attempt to highlight how many women work in Russian venture capital, Rusbase released a calendar (Russian) titled “Venture Legs,” explaining that “The girls of venture capital have decided to give the men a new year’s gift and simultaneously show what beautiful ladies work shoulder to shoulder with men in the venture industry.” As if that weren’t bad enough, most of the employees featured were secretaries and other junior staff. Rusbase also has a “Venture Lady” category at its annual Venture Awards Russia event, but Podlesnova admits that it can be hard to choose a winner because there just are aren’t enough nominees.
Podlesnova, however, believes that the key problem isn’t discrimination, but female nature. “Venture capital investment is about big risks. Women symbolize order, reliability, and planning.”
Of 374 projects chosen for the Internet Initiatives Development Fund (IIDF), a government body that invests in and nurtures early-state startups, only 8% are headed by women. (To be fair to Russia, Y Combinator, one of the best-known accelerators in Silicon Valley, which now has 23% women founders, had only 9% as recently as 2012.)
According to Artem Azevich, the head of startup tracking at IIDF, the fund plans to launch a separate startup accelerator for women. However, this isn’t in order to tackle discrimination in the workplace, but rather because it’s “more pleasant to work” that way. “First of all, men are likely to want to be wherever the girls are; secondly, it’s always pleasant to work when there are girls on the team; and thirdly, female teams are always a great motivator for men,” he said. The IIDF hasn’t started implementing the idea yet, though.
There is an existing community specifically for female entrepreneurs, called Startup Women. But its CEO, Maria Kosenkova, says there aren’t many tech-based projects in Startup Women: Most are in fashion, beauty, food, or child care.
Of course, there’s Channelkit, a tool for organizing information online, which was founded by three women. CFO and information architect Lara Simonova says that this has its advantages: Channelkit is often highlighted at events and contests because a startup created entirely by women is such a rarity.
In order to overcome the gender imbalance, many major Western companies have launched programs to support women in the industry. Salesforce has a program called Women Surge, Airbnb has a team of female developers who call themselves The Nerdettes and teach at a school for women at Hackbright Academy, and Palantir annually gives out grants to female developers.
Of the large Russian companies I reached out to (Parallels, Kaspersky, Yandex), none had any special programs to support women. Moreover, with the exception of Kaspersky’s US-based subsidiary, there are no rules in the companies’ charters to regulate incidents involving harassment or psychological pressure on employees.
Almost all the people interviewed for this story were confident that Russian women could have successful careers in IT, but how to change the current situation is a different question. “In my opinion, people who work in IT have to be able to think systematically and consistently, to effectively convey their ideas to others,” says Simonova, the Channelkit CFO. “This should be taught from an early age, but the average family believes that girls don’t have to have their own opinion. Obedience, beauty, and other ‘girlish’ traits are more valuable.”