Last week, as the girls at the Marie Claire's Moscow office were making themselves pretty for the magazine's grand yearly soiree to take place later that evening, their male colleagues were busy throwing them compliments of sorts. Some of those comments were of a rather cheeky and fairly explicit sexual nature. An average American woman would probably gasp and think of making harassment charges, but at our office nobody seemed to mind. Moreover, we girls have been enjoying our male colleagues' attention a great deal and surely would be disappointed if we went unnoticed.
While in the last two decades Russia has been striving to integrate into the West on multiple levels, there's one issue where a striking disparity still prevails: the rapport between the sexes. Gone are the times when in the early 1990s Russian employers included such prerequisites as "sex appeal" and "no inhibitions" into the job requirements list. Still, sexually charged banter remains an essential workplace component here, especially, at the companies with predominantly local staff. The term "sexual harassment" is well-known in Russia, mainly thanks to the infamous Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but we don't rush to make it part of our daily lexicon. In fact, recent polls among professional Russian women aged 18-35 revealed that what could be labeled chauvinistic, sexist or simply inappropriate at a Western workplace (dirty jokes, looks and even open sexual advances) is treated as a normal part of work relations here. And when things go too far, the incidents hardly get any publicity.
But I am not planning to examine rampant harassment cases here, I just wonder why our workplace so often becomes indeed a flirting playground, if not a battlefield. Not that I really mind, by the way. I also think it's more often the females who initiate and encourage these dangerous office liaisons. It could be our unconscious revolt against the Soviet era's epitome of gender relations - herculean, scarily sexless worker and kolkhoz women walking hand in hand with men. Or perhaps it's another Soviet residue - the nearly non-existent space between public and private life, hence crossing the borders at the workplace is perfectly accepted.
"Russian women love the attention and they appreciate when men react to them. It makes us feel more attractive and desired," Elena, 34, a fellow editor at Marie Claire Russia who's a married mother of a five-year-old daughter, said. "We spend so much time at work, so the office becomes your second family. Why not have some fun there?" she added.
Really, why not? Especially since the men are usually happy to indulge. "You ought to notice a woman - always, even if she's your coworker or a boss. That's the way my parents brought me up," another colleague of mine, Georgiy, senior editor at Marie Claire, noted. Thirty-six-year-old Georgiy is a devoted father of two, who, when arriving at work, becomes a gallantry Casa Nova sometimes making girls blush with his pointed and rather bold remarks. But he seems totally cool about it. "Everyone knows it's just a game, innocent flirting. It lifts the spirit and helps the day go by. Who's got a problem with that?"
No one, in fact, even when the "innocent flirting" goes much further. The renowned 1977 Soviet epic movie titled Office Romance had immortalized affairs at a Soviet workplace (a remake of this all-time favorite hit is to come out next month). In the movie, a most ordinary statistics bureau turns into a boudoir every morning with girls meticulously beautifying themselves for prospective romantic conquers. Ironically, it's the men who become the sexual harassment targets there, and eventually a hopelessly shy divorced clerk marries his female boss.
Thirty years later, professional Russian women don't see anything wrong in mixing business with pleasure. "Where else can you meet eligible men if not at work?" my good friend Anya, 34, manager at an American company with a very strict work ethics code, speculated. She said at her work where open courting is out of the question, coworkers still manage to get together all the time, and a number of her girlfriends had excelled in their career after getting involved with a male superior. "Sexuality is one of the resources Russian women often use to get promoted, along with their wits, education and work experience. It's just part of life here," she said.
Marina Zinovieva, managing partner at LegaLife, a Moscow-based international law firm, agreed. "Some women are audacious enough to use all their charms to succeed. A la guerre comme a la guerre." A prominent lawyer with almost 15 years of experience, Zinovieva said that while she's all up when office flirting thrives, unabashed protectionism or flagrant sexual harassment is not to be tolerated. Yet she could not cite a single precedent when such cases went to court. "Even if an employee dares to go to court, any lawyer would say there's no chance of winning," Zinovieva said.
Alexei Venediktov, host of one of most reputed radio stations, Ekho Moskvy, who's often referred to as Russia’s Larry King, said in an interview to GQ Magazine Russia that he fully supports sexual harassment as it "improves the demographic situation in the country." "Our office boasts 12 marriages, 16 kids, and eight divorces. Besides, there's a jovial atmosphere - always," he said.
This sounds really familiar to me. But life's too short, so why suppress ourselves? Or does it seem so only in Russia?
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.