Restrictions and Domination: Gender Imbalance in Belarusian Labour Market
In February 2016 Belarusian national air carrier Belavia announced that the first female pilot had joined its ranks since the company’s creation in 1996. Her name is Svetlana Yeryomenko, and she comes to Belarus from crisis-hit Russia, with strong family traditions in aviation.
The Belarusian labour market with its occupational segregation remains a reflection of the significant imbalance in power between male and female workers. In other words, there are still traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions in Belarus. According to Belstat data, up to 83 per cent of teachers and 85 per cent of doctors are female, whereas up till now 100 per cent of pilots were male.
Restrictions women face in the labour market
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Yeryomenko comes from a family in which both of parents have worked for the Russian aviation industry. Her husband also flies planes in St. Petersburg. Yeryomenko may very well be breaking ground, but among the small fraction of women who make it into aviation, her exceptional profile proves the rule. Because of the virtual lack of female role models, very few young women even consider this profession. Among those who do, the majority grew up with it.
In her interview, Yeryomenko remarks that modern society no longer distinguishes between ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions. One needs passion, health and proper education to fly a plane, and planes for their part do not care who flies them.
However, Belstat data does not support this claim. Stereotypes persist when choosing a career: some tend to be exclusively male, while others attract mostly women. ‘Female’ occupations happen to be among those with the lowest remuneration in the country. All these factors contribute to the 25 per cent gender wage gap.
Figure 1: Male and Female-dominated Occupations in Belarus
|Professional Occupation Sphere||Women||Men|
|Health, Medicine and Social Services||85,3%||14,7%|
|Hotel and Restaurant Business||76,4%||23,6%|
|Industry (electricity, gas, water)||29,8%||70,2%|
Self-selection among girls and boys
It may all very well start at school. Belarusian schools continue with their practice of teaching sex-segregated home education classes. Boys learn woodwork and the basics of welding, while girls engage in cooking and sewing. One can neither switch nor opt out.
Girls also outnumber boys at higher educational institutions. Many boys choose to leave after the 9th grade to pursue professional education, rather than spending two more years at school. It seems that girls can afford to get more educated, while boys need to start earning their leaving.
According to the national census of 2009, in Belarus for every 1000 people 179 men and 190 women have higher education, vocational post-secondary education – 256 and 276 respectively, and professional vocational training – 105 and 80 respectively.
Figure 2: Percentage of female and male students at different levels of education
|Level of Education||Women||Men|
|Higher Education (including universities, master and PhD programmes)||57,7%||42,3%|
|Professional Vocational Training||33,3%||66,7%|
Those young people who choose to enrol in universities and colleges generally face equal competition, except when they do not. At least two Belarusian educational establishments discriminate openly against girls: the Belarusian Military Academy and Police Academy. They both set enrolment quotas for girls. In the period from 2011 to 2015 the Belarusian Military Academy admitted zero women in accordance with the quota set by the Ministry of Defence. The Police Academy had a more generous 5 per cent quota for women.
In the period from 2011 to 2015 the Belarusian Military Academy admitted zero women Read more
In 2010, representatives of the Police Academy quoted care for women and need for physical strength as the justifications for setting low quotas for girls. When challenged that neighbouring countries have more female police officers in their ranks, they responded that Belarus has its own peculiarities that require male officers. That may very well be true, but it closes many doors for girls to some of the more lucrative careers in the government, where the Ministry of Interior, KGB and other ‘male’ ministries still reign.
State protection for female workers
The government continues to protect women from possible professional hazards. Up until 2014, the Cabinet of Ministers enforced a decree with a list of professions unavailable to women due either to potential hazards to their reproductive health or their lack of muscular power.
The list included 252 professional occupations, most of which seemed obsolete and unappealing to women to begin with: beamster, blacksmith,and mill operator, for example. Yet some of them raise eyebrows, such as diver, bus driver, long haul driver, and various machine operators.
At least two issues arise with having such a list: firstly, this means that men continue to be employed in these hazardous professions and the state does not seek to protect their reproductive health. And secondly, in many cases where physical vigour was previously needed to perform duties, modern computerised equipment requires no such special powers any longer. But nobody seemed responsible for either revisiting or updating the document. Thus some professions continue to be on the list despite the obvious progress in the respective areas.
A change came about after this document came under criticism during the work of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2011. The Belarusian delegation reporting to the Committee on its progress took note to reconsider the outdated document. And it indeed ceased to exist in 2014, only to be replaced by a Ministry of Labour Provision with almost exactly the same list. Only now the responsibility shifted towards the employer.
The clarification by the Ministry of Labour reads that the employer has the right to hire a woman for such one of these position if they can provide the proper conditions for her. In other words, it is the employer’s responsibility to prove to the Ministry that they are in compliance with the special requirements for women’s safety and wellbeing. Women’s chances of getting hired automatically reduce. Not only do women have to compete with men to get a job in a male dominated sphere, but also the employer has to make extra effort to gain approval for their engagement.
It seems unlikely that more women pilots will fly in Belarus in the near future. Or that more women will drive buses or long haul trucks, for that matter. Firstly, most women can’t even fathom competing with men in these areas. Some professions appear so obviously out of reach for young girls that they can’t even dream of them. Secondly, special standards for women’s safety at work mean employers need to spend extra time and effort proving compliance.
The economic crisis could actually work in women’s favour Read more
It is rarely so, but the economic crisis could actually work in women’s favour. After neighbouring Poland became part of the EU, many Polish long haul truck drivers left for more lucrative employment further west where the salaries were bigger. That created a big demand in the market, with little supply among men. Women stepped up and in 2014 there were more than 3000 female long haul truck drivers registered.
In Belarus, at least for now, women continue to steer toward traditional ‘service’-oriented professions, forgoing career opportunities and making less money compared to men. Harmful gender stereotypes enforced through the education system, restrictions imposed by the government, and low quotas for girls upheld by the traditionally ‘male’ universities all contribute to gender inequality and rigid occupational segregation in the labour market of Belarus.
In this context, Yeryomenko should be celebrated as a positive role model for young girls for whom the sky indeed is the limit. As new technologies promote brain power and do away with the need for muscular strength in workers, the state needs to step back and allow the labour market to regulate itself. The smarter worker shall win.
Europe Tests Belarus’ Willingness to Change – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest
The diplomatic exchange between Belarus and Europe got into full swing in February. Over a dozen visits took place within a few weeks either side of the European Union's decision to abrogate its sanctions. Greater involvement of “old Europe” in direct dialogue with Minsk is becoming a noteworthy trend.
Belarusian diplomacy scored a big victory by prompting the EU to lift most of its sanctions against Belarus. The country’s authorities had to make only a few concessions to secure this decision. Minsk has now been focusing on reaping economic and financial benefits from the new reality in its relations with Europe.
Europe Lifts Sanctions
On 15 February, the Council of the European Union decided to end travel bans and assets freezes against 170 individuals and three companies from Belarus. Europe introduced these sanctions following a brutal crackdown on the Belarusian opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections.
The arms embargo and sanctions against four individuals suspected of involvement in the disappearances of President Alexander Lukashenka’s opponents will remain in force for the next twelve months.
Belarus' 'positive steps' are limited to more and softer talking to Europe Read more
The EU justified this decision on the basis that steps taken recently by Belarus have contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations. The Council's conclusions list these steps. Interestingly, all of them are limited to different negotiation tracks between Belarus’ government and the EU bureaucracy.
Europe values “Belarus' constructive role in the region”. EU leaders have also noted the release of the remaining political prisoners and the violence-free presidential elections in 2015.
Since those peaceful presidential elections last October, which triggered the four-month suspension of sanctions, the Belarusian authorities have failed to introduce a single measure to remedy the situation in the areas of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Miklós Haraszti, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, noted “numerous cases of new violations of basic rights” in his statement issued a week before the sanctions were lifted.
EU has rewarded geopolitical neutrality and restraint towards opposition Read more
Most experts agree that geopolitical considerations played a major role in the EU's decision, even if European officials deny it. The EU has rewarded the Belarusian government for its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Europe has also noted the authorities' willingness to show some restraint in their reactions to opposition activities in the country.
In the existing regional security context, Europe is reluctant to rebuke Belarus, which has recently acted as a fairly independent player. The EU fears that any further delay in the abrogation of sanctions would push Belarus into Russia’s embrace.
Makei Goes to Munich
On 12–14 February, in the days immediately preceding the EU decision on sanctions, Belarus’ foreign minister Vladimir Makei went to Munich to attend the 52nd Munich Security Conference. The Belarusian foreign ministry called this trip a “working visit to Germany”.
Indeed, Makei had a working lunch with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and met several other German officials. Germany is doubly important to Belarus as the leading EU member and the current OSCE chair.
Makei has managed to gain Steinmeier’s trust in the sincerity of Belarus’ intentions to move gradually towards allowing more democratic freedoms in the country. “Belarus' motivation for adopting its foreign and domestic political decisions is better understood today,” Makei said in his interview with a Belarusian TV channel.
Makei’s European agenda included meetings with the foreign ministers of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway, the EU commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn, as well as businessmen and foreign policy experts.
While in Munich, he also met the foreign ministers of Ghana, Georgia and Iran, the defence minister of Pakistan and unnamed senior US diplomats.
Belarus was not on the agenda of the Munich Security Conference. Meanwhile, many speakers in the debate mentioned the name of the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Some of them even went beyond the simple geographical reference. US senator John McCain found it “commendable that the Belarusian authorities [had] assisted in resolving the Ukrainian conflict”.
Belarus Talks to Europe
By lifting the sanctions, the EU has sought to establish “enhanced channels of communication” with Belarus’ government to help achieve “progress in a variety of fields”. The intensive dialogue with European countries and institutions in the weeks immediately before and after the EU decision have demonstrated that Belarus hardly lacks lines of communication with Europe.
On 1-2 February, deputy foreign minister Alena Kupchyna visited Brussels to meet a range of EU officials. Ten days later, she went to Madrid for bilateral consultations with her Spanish counterpart.
Belarus' WTO accession gets discussed before and after the lifting of sanctions Read more
Belarus’ foreign ministry as well as the agencies in charge of the economy, agriculture, and industry received Péter Balás, a special advisor in the EU directorate for trade on 3-5 February. Belarus and the EU discussed mutual access to markets as well as issues related to Belarus’ accession to the WTO.
On 9-10 February, Minsk hosted separate delegations of senior diplomats from Austria, Germany, Romania, and the United Kingdom, as well as a joint delegation of the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Diplomats came to Minsk mostly to finalise their countries’ position on the issue of sanctions against Belarus.
Already after the lifting of the sanctions, on 16 February the foreign ministries of Belarus and Switzerland held political consultations in Minsk.
However, the most important bilateral event in Belarus’ relations with European countries was the first meeting of the intergovernmental Belarusian-Italian commission for economic cooperation held on 23 February in Minsk (originally it was scheduled to happen in Rome). Alena Kupchyna called this meeting a “historical event”. Indeed, Belarus has been seeking to establish this bilateral body for many years.
The Italian delegation headed by under-secretary of state Benedetto Della Vedova discussed promising areas of bilateral cooperation, including the creation of an Italian industrial district in the Brest region of Belarus. The Italian diplomat also met first deputy prime minister Vasily Matyushevsky.
Alongside lifting the sanctions, the EU has promised Belarus assistance with WTO accession and enhancing cooperation with international financial institutions, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EBRD, while encouraging the authorities “to accelerate much needed economic reforms”.
On 24 February, Makei received a joint delegation of the European Commission and the EIB. The delegation also held meetings with senior officials at the National Bank, the ministries of economy and finance and the presidential administration.
The end of sanctions makes possible greater engagement of Europe, and specifically the "old Europe”, in high-level contacts with Minsk. However, Europe is still likely to prefer Makei and Belarus’ government technocrats over Alexander Lukashenka as their negotiating partners.