Women Talk: Send the office sultans into the desert - or at least into retirement!

© Photo : Mikhail Kharlamov/Marie Claire RussiaSvetlana Kolchik
Svetlana Kolchik - Sputnik International
Every time my friend Katya, 27, a deputy director at a fairly large Saint Petersburg event management company, starts complaining about her job and her difficult boss, I tell her to shut up. Shut up or do something about it. “But you don't understand,” she usually whines. “I love my job. And I care about my boss even if he drives me crazy sometimes.”

Every time my friend Katya, 27, a deputy director at a fairly large Saint Petersburg event management company, starts complaining about her job and her difficult boss, I tell her to shut up. Shut up or do something about it. “But you don't understand,” she usually whines. “I love my job. And I care about my boss even if he drives me crazy sometimes.”

Mind you Katya does love her job where she had started as an assistant two years ago and quickly moved up to a top level. And she and her boss, a balding overweight guy in his mid-40s who seems to be going through a severe midlife crisis, are not romantically involved as opposed to what some of their jealous female subordinates are used to believe. Katya, an ambitious Saint Petersburg State University Economics faculty graduate who dreams of one day starting her own business insists that for her, working under a female chief might be a bigger nightmare than the tantrums she occasionally has to go through at her current job. These include sometimes working ridiculously long shifts, struggling with numerous unfit employees who got hired through bribery or connections, dealing with her boss' drinking binges and his chronic weakness for sexually loaded jokes.

Here we go. Twenty years after the plunge into the market economy, the workplace in Russia remains a peculiar hodgepodge of some Western 21st century corporate values, Soviet heritage and archaic feudal principles. Connections play a major role. Favoritism and authoritarianism often thrive. Gender discrimination is not uncommon. Striving for personal gain sometimes supplants striving for efficiency. One’s success depends as much if not more on building up interpersonal relationships (including the ability to please the higher-ups) as on demonstrating expertise and experience. A renowned early 20th century German sociologist and political economist Max Weber labeled this sort of management “sultanism.” And I have to admit in Russia, I hear about those office “sultans” - of both sexes - all the time.

“Everyone basically needed to worship her: read her thoughts, comply with her mood swings and tolerate caprices,” my friend Elena, 36, told me of her former female boss at a small Russian consultancy where she had worked after getting an MBA from a top American business school. Those who didn’t abide by that unspoken code of behavior were ostracized and stripped of any chance of promotion. “I was so relieved when I quit,” said Elena who now works at a large American corporation in Moscow with clearly defined work ethics.

Still, it's not only in the local companies where sultanism and patriarchal Soviet-era work attitudes still flourish. My other girlfriend, Irina, 33, after graduating from one of the U.S. State Department graduate fellowship programs, landed a job at a Silicon-valley-based high-tech corporation and then got transferred to the company's Moscow office. She said she felt the difference right away. “Everyone would talk and gossip much more, boundaries between the personal and the professional were constantly crossed. In the West, you could at least report about that, but in Russia, it’s not customary.” Irina headed a team consisting of mainly males, most of them older, and she said the most striking thing was the attitude of those coworkers. “I’d travel out to the regions, and the guys there would barely notice me, not to mention give me a handshake,” she said. “They just could not comprehend that a young woman could be doing anything serious and thought I was someone's mistress or at most an interpreter.”

Stereotyping and prejudice of sorts indeed still prevail in Russia’s professional domain. Studies reveal that even though the share of female top managers is steadily on the rise both in local and international companies, many still think that such qualities as entrepreneurship and leadership skills, independence and self-reliance are not to be valued in women as much as them being good wives and mothers. One recent poll among female professionals revealed that as many as 45% don’t consider excelling in both career and family realistic and 36% believe a successful businesswoman inevitably loses her femininity. And when a woman does manage to have it all, she doesn’t necessarily become a role model: only 4% say they’d want to work under a female chief.

I personally consider myself lucky. Throughout the last 15 years, I've worked with both male and female bosses. Some were quite authoritarian and/or unpredictable but not complete sultans, and I could still learn something from all of them. When I came back from studying and working in the States and joined a woman’s magazine with predominantly female staff, it was surely challenging for me to integrate into the web of intrigues and catch up with the sophisticated office games. I had to dive into deep realms of feminine mystique as a result and am actually a good deal relieved that for the last five years I'd been working in a mixed gender environment. I also believe the absence of strict rules in the Russian workplace could sometimes leave room for more creativity, and the importance of personal relationships could contribute to employees’ loyalty and effective teamwork. But I do hope a “know-how” hiring style gradually replaces the “know-who” approach here, and a more progressive generation of business leaders who prefer a merit-based to a sultanate management style emerges. I also hope from that odd jumble of Western and local traditions there’ll be more opportunities for Russian women to thrive, both personally and professionally. 

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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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.

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