Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Women Professionals Face Obstacles in USSR

Colleagues in the West can help encourage fuller development of Soviet human resources through increased exchange programs

AMID well-deserved enthusiasm for the freedoms wrought by perestroika and glasnost, little notice has been given to the very few benefits trickling down to Soviet women professionals. Soviet women find themselves caught in a double bind of the harsh realties of daily family life - worsened by massive shortages and hours of standing in line - and special obstacles they, as women, face to career advancement. This is the dominant conclusion reached by our group of eight women, all experts in the field of international security, during a week's visit to Moscow. Sponsored by the Women In International Security Project of the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland and by the Committee of Soviet Scientists for Global Security, our delegation met with researchers at the Academy of Sciences-affiliated Institute of World Economy and International Affairs, Institute of the USA and Canada, and Institute of State and Law, as well as the Committee of Soviet Women. We discussed the constraints and opportunities for women's careers in international relations, and explored avenues of interdisciplinary collaborations.

Life in the Soviet Union has never been easy for women, personally or professionally. The ``equality'' granted by the Soviet Constitution was and is nominal. While 92 percent of employable Soviet women work or study outside the home, they also perform a full 90 percent of all domestic chores. The new Union Supreme Soviet has a Committee for the Protection of Women and another Committee on Families, but no women deputies serve on them. On the republic level, membership for women on committees overseeing foreign or defense policies is, for most, a far-off dream. There are only two women with ambassadorial rank and no women visible in either the military or civilian elites in the Defense Ministry.

About these ads

While academic institutions are increasing opportunities for women researchers, the pace of change is grindingly slow. As yet, there are no women directors. Women researchers are rarely included in official delegations or professional exchanges abroad. Little of their research has been seen outside the Soviet Union. Few of these women are even known to their Western colleagues - a situation we hope to remedy in the field of international peace and security studies.

Soviet women ``instituteniks'' are now forming professional self-help networks, breaking down the barriers of hierarchy and the often competitive isolation of most institutes. Barred at the front door, others have found ``side'' doors - in the media, in grass-roots institutions, in environmental organizations - to express their concerns about the economy and ecology, the potential use of Soviet force in the Gulf, and the need to conceptualize new core values for the hard times ahead.

These ``side'' specialties turn out to be those most crucial for a changed Soviet future. Soviet women - conservative and liberal - have become the nation's experts on ethnicity and nationality differences, methods of peaceful conflict resolution, human rights, mental health laws, and the requirements for national and international economic integration in the free market system.

Nevertheless, as the Soviet economy tumbles, these women face straitened circumstances. We in the West can respond in one of two ways. We can offer such enticing opportunities at our universities and research institutes for Soviet researchers that the best and brightest will be irresistibly pulled westward. Or, preferably, we can establish new means of individual and institutional collaboration that will enrich both Soviet and Western intellectual life. What is needed now is a commitment to the fullest possible development of Soviet human capital, women as well as men. One example would be to create exchange programs of six to 12 months each to enable Soviet and Western researchers to work at each other's institutions for extended periods of time. Such reciprocal visits not only will help develop a much needed dialogue, but will underpin the development of joint projects to attack the many immediate policy problems facing both nations.

What we found most impressive about the women we met was not their substantive accomplishments, though those were indeed significant, but their struggle as individuals to deal with the problems of perestroika and glasnost. ``We are looking at the nature of values from a new perspective. We are used to being given things from above: orders, jobs, instructions,'' said a professor at the State and Law Institute. ``Now it's not enough to be obedient,'' said a long-time party member. ``Our future lies in defending freedom of choice and assuming individual responsibility with all of its consequences.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.