Why Can't Russian Women Drive Buses?

Russian women are forbidden from doing more than 450 "dangerous" jobs.

MOSCOW, March 25, 2010 — -- Generations of American children have grown up with their parents telling them they can do whatever they want when they grow up, that anything is possible. Women have fought for decades to be treated the same as men, to be paid equally, to have the same opportunities.

So, if women in the U.S. were told that there was a list of over 450 jobs off-limits to them, chances are marches, speeches and nonstop debate in the media would soon follow.

Yet, all is quiet in Russia as women go about their lives, seemingly indifferent to the fact that their country's labor code lists 456 jobs they're not allowed to do.

They include firefighter, blacksmith, bus driver, train operator and ship's captain, to name a few. The vast majority of the jobs on the list are industrial, such as construction, metallurgy and mining.

In May, a 22-year-old law student in St. Petersburg named Anna Klevets applied to be an assistant operator in her city's metro system but was denied because of her gender, according to her lawyer. A discrimination suit filed in the District Court was rejected and Russia's Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling.

"The slightest possibility of risk for a woman herself or other people, must be excluded," a representative for the Health and Social Development Ministry said at the time.

The list originated in the early days of the Soviet Union when the regime was looking to empower women by getting them out of the home but wanted to ensure work conditions wouldn't put them in any danger that would affect their health and consequently the health of the family.

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Lest anyone think the list was a holdover from a bygone era, in 2000 President Vladimir Putin modified and re-certified the list in its current form, but made it more lax than its predecessor. For example, women can hold a listed position if the employer proves that work conditions are safe. In fact, the Moscow metro was going to appeal the ban on female drivers a year ago because, for a time, there weren't enough healthy male applicants.

The governmental decree states that the goal is to keep modifying the list and to eventually abolish it completely. There are more pressing issues, however, labor experts say, like making the conditions safer overall and encouraging equality in society as a whole.

"I'm actually happy with the court decision from the St. Petersburg case," labor lawyer Oskana Sinyavskaya told ABC News. "The more cases [like Anna Klevets'] that we have, the better would be the discussion and the more attention society will put to the issue of gender equality."

"Of course, it's not totally clarified why certain jobs are in this list," she said, "some of them are really dangerous, but the danger of working on the others are questionable."

Unclear Standards

One of the more questionable jobs listed is driving a subway train which, thanks to Klevets, has become a focal point over the issue. The inclusion of other large vehicles on the list is puzzling to many since there's no clear argument why driving them is dangerous for women.

"If a woman can work as trolley bus driver, why isn't she allowed to drive anything else?" asks Ludmilla, a 35-year-old who has driven a trolley bus for the better part of the last 15 years.

Trolley buses are a mysterious exception to the list since they drive just like buses, which are banned, and carry more than 14 people.

Ludmilla says she started ferrying passengers around Russia's capital in 1995 when the post-Soviet economy made it difficult for her family to make ends meet and other jobs didn't pay as well.

"You'll do anything to feed your family and kids, even drive trains," said Ludmilla. "Russia women will do whatever it takes."

The Russian Constitution does guarantee equal rights for men and women but the feeling among analysts and activists is there's still a long way to go before theory is put into practice.

(It should be noted that there are some restrictions on American women as well: women can't fight on the front lines in military combat, for example. And Demi Moore's portrayal in the movie "G.I. Jane," notwithstanding, women can't be Navy SEALS.)

"This is bad politics and it looks like hypocrisy," says Nadezda Shevedova, a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a feminist. "On one hand we have constitutional rights which say that women and men will enjoy equal rights and freedoms, and simultaneously we have these restrictions. This is not good for women, it is absolutely real discrimination against women."

Shevedova's is a lonely voice in the nearly non-existent debate over the list. Though, when pressed, Russians offer an even mix of liberal and more traditional views.

"Every person decides for himself how to live, where to work, what to eat and what to drink," said a young woman emerging from a subway train. "If [Klevets] wants to work as a metro driver, why not?"

"She doesn't have the physical capabilities as a man, a man is much more ready for physical labor," an older man responded moments later. "Time is needed to recover and women have family and children they have to take care of."

General apathy and a dire economic environment have all but guaranteed that the list will not change or go away anytime soon. So the small group of activists look toward the Klevetses of Russia to ignite a national conversation about women's rights and their place in the work force.

"If women would try to protect their rights so loudly as that woman did, I think it could have a reaction in the society," Sinyavskaya concluded.