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Russia

Make Your Own Borscht! On The Still-Too-Slow Liberation Of Russian Women

In some ways there's been great progress in a woman's ability to control her destiny in Russian society. But in other ways, it's actually even worse than during the Soviet era.

Better off alone?
Better off alone?
Nadezhda Petrova

MOSCOW - What do Russian women want?

There has been much worried talk in recent years about the declining number of woman who want to get married. In 2009, unmarried women in Russia were less likely than men to say they wanted to get married. And yet by 2012, that had already been reversed, with women once again more likely than men to want to tie the knot. Combined with other demographic factors, that has brought marriage rates back to the same levels they were in 1990.

Still, there are many factors that determine women's decisions about marriage, but it is certainly more complicated than just romance.

Most women don’t look at a man’s wallet at the beginning of the relationship. They just “want to meet a man, who will allow them to be a woman and not worry about tomorrow,” said Yulia Gryisunova, from the dating service Wamba. “Almost all of the women write that they want to find a man with whom they can build a strong relationship. It is extremely rare for women to talk about incomes.”

But it’s hard not to worry about tomorrow if you don’t have money. According to the dating site eDarling.ru, which is marketed as a place to look for a serious relationship, the income of a potential partner is "very important" to 27% of women, but only 3% of men.

In contrast, men’s willingness to help with household chores was much less important. “If you look at the studies, it’s clear that expectations regarding future spouses are still very traditional,” remarked Olga Zdravomyislova, a sociologist.

The Sorting Hat

Income is something that can change, often for the better. Unmarried men who are living with a woman earn more than bachelors, while married men earn even more. According to the economist Andrei Aistov, only half of that phenomenon can be explained by women’s choices.

A study of long-term economic situations of men between 1994 and 2011 shows that there tended to be a significant increase in men’s income about four years before marriage and two years before living with a partner. Incomes tended to decrease after divorce, but didn’t drop to the levels of a bachelor’s income. That means that not only do women tend to pick men with higher incomes, but also that being married causes incomes to increase.

“On average, in Russia you see both effects, of about the same magnitude,” Aistov said.

If a man has a low income and is living with a woman, it is likely that he won’t make the step to marriage. “Men who earn very little or don’t have regular work aren’t very attractive partners for a marriage. Women will sometimes live with men like that for years, have their children, but never marry them. In focus groups, some women have told me, ‘I’m not his wife, I am not obligated to make him borscht. I can look around. If something better comes my way, I’m not tied to anything,” said Olga Isupova, a demographer.

According to Isupova, the society’s expectations are built on the model of women fighting for the successful man. As a result, she says, too much is still left on the woman’s shoulders. If a man cooks or takes care of children, it is only because of his good will -- not because society expects him to.

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"I can look around..." - Photo: Uncalno Tekno

Labor dynamics

It’s possible that women value marriage so much because they value themselves so little. Women earn on average 36% less than men (compared to 15.5% in the European Union). Woman are less confident in the labor market.

“Women have always been in lower demand in the labor market than men,” explained Valeria Chernetsova, an analyst from the job portal superjobs.ru. Specifying the gender in job requirements only became illegal on June 1, and among the job postings that did so, two-thirds wanted a man -- and for managment positions and high-paying jobs, the ratios were even worse.

“There are many more factors now that, from an economic point of view, don’t favor conservative families," says Isupova. "And women who earn money are always tempting.”

Zdravomyislova notes that many women are prepared to get married not because of social norms, but because they fear poverty. “There is still an idea, although it is an illusion, that marriage guarantees economic stability," she says.

But surveys show that this illusion is also slowly evaporating: fewer and fewer women believe that their husbands will be able to provide for the family, or hope to be housewives. Especially among the younger generation, there is a rising fear that the man simply won’t be able to bring home the bacon.

Disappointment

In all of this, men don’t seem to be suffering much. In surveys, they seem to rate their relationship satisfaction higher than women do in almost all categories. Women, on the other hand, are happy with their sexual relationships with their husbands and their husbands’ looks, but on average give their husband only average marks for ability to provide for the family.

“In the 1990s, we did several studies that compared marriage satisfaction in Russia to six European countries, and Russian women were always the least satisfied,” Zdravomyislova said. “Now marriage satisfaction is even lower. Sometimes they even say that they feel like single mothers because all the responsibilities are dumped on the woman, and she can never relax even for a minute.”

[rebelmouse-image 27087160 alt="""" original_size="333x499" expand=1]

In Moscow - Photo: Geraint Rowland

Zdravomyislova said this is worse than Soviet times, when all families could at least benefit from some social services, like free daycare, which also made it easier for women to work.

Currently, only about 7% of families can truly afford for the wife to stay home. “There is this idealistic notion for the family, but if nobody does anything to solve the problems that it may cause, then many young women will simply refuse to get married or have children. Because they know they can’t handle it.”

It’s a totally realistic scenario. Isupova says that if you look at birth rates in developed countries, it is usually the lowest in countries that have more traditional expectations for women, like Germany, Japan and Greece. In places like Scandinavia, where there is more gender equality, the birth rate is higher. “If a woman is going to turn into a servant if she has a family, then she will just refuse to have a family," says Isupova. "Not many people are really interested in a ‘traditional’ family anymore.”

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