It has been customary to feel sorry for womankind since the times of Klara Zetkin, as this half of humanity faces discrimination at the first attempt to engage in business or join the authorities.
If the great German revolutionary appeared in present-day Russia on March 8, when it traditionally celebrates International Women's Day, her usually harsh features would break into a smile. Russia's ladies are charging into the business world and are enjoying no small measure of success.
Recent statistics paint quite an optimistic picture. The number of private firms and small business structures run by women is growing and they now employ every fourth person in the country.
Indeed, this contribution to the nation's economy does not come without its rewards. According to recent sociological surveys, 25% of Russian women earn more than their male colleagues. Indeed, the country's business papers, though admittedly so far only the humour columns, have started bemoaning the return of a matriarchy.
This is, of course, a joke and a clumsy one at that. Women in Russia, as a rule, have it harder than men and this is twice as true for women in the private business world.
Russian businesswomen are usually at a disadvantage when they start up their businesses. Unlike their husbands, brothers and sons, they typically do not have any comparable access to credit or administrative resources. Moreover, they often even lack funds that could be proudly called start-up capital.
Despite all these problems and maybe even in defiance of them, women have been forging amazing careers in modern Russian business.
Everyone remembers, for example, the rise of Lyudmila Antonyuk, a wonder-women from Kaluga, who headed the Kraft limited liability company, Russia's only company producing water chlorination equipment, and successfully competed with well-known foreign producers.
Today, this captain of industry has such authority in business circles that people forgive her for even outspoken statements. For example, at the recent international conference "Women and Business. Comparing the Experience of Russia and Germany", Antonyuk came up with an interesting supposition. According to her, women's self-humiliation and men's self-confidence are partially responsible for Russia's inefficient economic development.
The conference decided that the thesis was paradoxical but not lacking common sense.
This may be so, but gender self-confidence, as well as self-humiliation, seems to be gradually becoming a thing of the past. Russian sociologists maintain that successful management is not female or male in essence. It is a "gender-free zone." In other words, in modern Russia, which is somewhere between the planned economy and undeveloped capitalism, a good manager has to use both male strategies, usually aggressive and energetic, and female ones, which are more flexible and based on combinative thinking.
Today, the most important thing for a Russian businessperson is to survive, which forces both women and men to resort to the same management methods.
Nevertheless, Russian businesswomen are so far more inclined to run a small and mobile business, organised like a second home. A club, a picture gallery, a beauty shop, a hairdresser's or a cosy food shop are examples of enterprises that conform well to principles of family organisation that are close to female thinking. In a way, the business becomes a second family. Then a business lady can without too much stress combine the role of the manager, wife and mother. The average statistical portrait of a Russian businesswoman is wonderfully diverse.
Two-thirds of businesswomen are married and have one or two children. A quarter of them started their business at a relatively young age, when they were under 35, 40% were in the 35-45 bracket when they began and another 35% set up their own commercial structures when they were over 45. Typically, companies run by women have been working for between three and seven years. Even the intellectual level of Russian business ladies is impressive: 80% of them are university graduates.
There is a stereotype that Russian women are obedient, exclusively domestic creatures that can be easily moulded. This, however, is an illusion. Russia's history is full of cases when the country was ruled by women or when male rulers did not dare take a step without consulting their wives. Today's Russian businesswomen prove that they have inherited this independent gene.
Of course, so far Russian large business has mainly a male face. But already the country's banks are employing women as senior managers in increasing numbers.
One would like to hope that quite soon a Russian name will appear in the famous Forbes list of the 50 most influential businesswomen, alongside Marjorie Scardino, president of the Pearson publishing concern, Anne Lauvergeon, president of the Cogema French state monopoly, and Mary Ma, top manager of Hong Kong's larger computer company, Legend.
Now that would really add something to the March 8 celebrations.