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Attracting women to challenging professions – a Russian perspective

Posted on: 1 November 2015

On 22-23 September 2015 a round table meeting took place in St Petersburg, Russia to look at what motivates women to embark upon a career in challenging professions, such as at sea and in space, that have been traditionally the preserve of men. Organised by the Russian Federation of Cosmonauts, the Admiral Makarov State Maritime University and SCF Group (Sovcomflot), also the event hosts, the meeting saw contributions from a wide range of leaders in their field.

The round table meeting involved over 30 of participants, including: professors of the Admiral Makarov State Maritime University; SCF Group psychologists; female ship’s officers and female students of the Admiral Makarov Maritime University.  The key speakers of the conference included the youngest Russian Cosmonaut Mrs Yelena Serova and Fourth Officer Ms Lyana Mitrofanova from Sovcomflot.

When considering what motivated their career choices, Mrs Serova said that her interest in space was aroused from an early age, in the first year of primary school, as a result of a teacher that discussed space a lot. For Ms Mitrofanova, by contrast, a seagoing career was certainly not an early ambition: “I never thought of becoming a seafarer and before embarking upon my maritime education had never even seen the sea.”  Once she has seen the sea, however, she quickly became enchanted by it. She now believes the attractions of a career at sea include the ability to focus fully on work, as a true professional, with long holidays in between that offer the opportunity to spend time with friends and family.

Mrs Serova commented that in any profession you have to meet certain requirements and these need to be specified clearly. “Not every man can become a Cosmonaut or a seafarer but our example demonstrates that women can have a career as a Cosmonaut or at sea. If you meet the necessary requirements you have to dare to do it.”

Looking at the challenges of their respective careers, Ms Mitrofanova remarked that initially she had to work especially hard to be taken seriously and to prove to some male colleagues she was “good enough to work with them.” Mrs Serova added the importance of not just having the right education to train as a cosmonaut but also of being suitable physically for space travel – these strict criteria rule out both men and women from becoming a cosmonaut.

Asked to identify areas in their respective professions where women perform better, Mrs Serova and Ms Mitrofanova both agreed that there is no need for competition between the sexes, and that a better work outcome is possible as a result of cross-gender cooperation.

The roundtable meeting conclusions were:
·         Challenging professions depend above all for their effectiveness upon attracting people with the right skills, knowledge and commitment, rather than seeking to apply gender-based quotas
·         High profile women have an important part to play as role models to inspire young women to broaden their career horizons and ‘dare to be different’. This is true even though gender stereotypes have largely been broken down in careers in space and at sea.
·         Careers in space and at sea need to be demystified – especially for women
·         Employers should have the courage to see women first as professionals and then as women rather than vice versa. This approach is critical to eradicating gender bias.

Russia has a track record of facilitating the progress of women in their careers, dating back to the early twentieth century. A recent international research report ‘Women in Business: the path to leadership’, published by Grant Thornton (2015), found that women represent 40 per cent of those in senior management roles in Russia. This compares with 15 per cent in Brazil, 14 per cent in Germany and just 8 per cent in Japan. The organisation of this round table meeting reflects a continuing desire, on the part of leading Russian organisations, to maximise the full potential of women in the workplace.

Commenting on the conference Mr Sergey Frank, President of Sovcomflot said: “This round table has been an opportunity to share experiences and to raise the profile of careers in space and at sea amongst women. At Sovcomflot, human capital is our greatest asset and, together with the Russian Federation of Cosmonauts, we are committed to employing and developing the highly skilled professionals that our respective organisations depend upon.. Anything we can do to encourage applications from women not only makes us better corporate citizens it also makes sound commercial sense.

“What this round table meeting also demonstrates is a need to build awareness of careers at sea and in space, especially as when such awareness is low amongst women in contrast to other professions such as medicine and law. I’m very grateful to all the round table participants for their input and especially to Mrs Serova and Ms Mitrofanova for being excellent role models as professional women.”

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