Harmful gender stereotypes enforced through education system, limits imposed by the state, and low quotas for girls upheld by the traditionally ‘male’ universities add to gender inequality in Belarus.
In February 2016 Belarusian national air carrier Belavia announced that the first female pilot had joined its ranks since the company’s creation in 1996. Her name is Svetlana Yeryomenko, and she comes to Belarus from crisis-hit Russia, with strong family traditions in aviation.
The Belarusian labour market with its occupational segregation remains a reflection of the significant imbalance in power between male and female workers. In other words, there are still traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions in Belarus. According to Belstat data, up to 83 per cent of teachers and 85 per cent of doctors are female, whereas up till now 100 per cent of pilots were male.
Restrictions women face in the labour market
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Yeryomenko comes from a family in which both of parents have worked for the Russian aviation industry. Her husband also flies planes in St. Petersburg. Yeryomenko may very well be breaking ground, but among the small fraction of women who make it into aviation, her exceptional profile proves the rule. Because of the virtual lack of female role models, very few young women even consider this profession. Among those who do, the majority grew up with it.
In her interview, Yeryomenko remarks that modern society no longer distinguishes between ‘male’ and ‘female’ professions. One needs passion, health and proper education to fly a plane, and planes for their part do not care who flies them.
However, Belstat data does not support this claim. Stereotypes persist when choosing a career: some tend to be exclusively male, while others attract mostly women. ‘Female’ occupations happen to be among those with the lowest remuneration in the country. All these factors contribute to the 25 per cent gender wage gap.
Figure 1: Male and Female-dominated Occupations in Belarus
Professional Occupation Sphere
Health, Medicine and Social Services
Hotel and Restaurant Business
Industry (electricity, gas, water)
Self-selection among girls and boys
It may all very well start at school. Belarusian schools continue with their practice of teaching sex-segregated home education classes. Boys learn woodwork and the basics of welding, while girls engage in cooking and sewing. One can neither switch nor opt out.
Girls also outnumber boys at higher educational institutions. Many boys choose to leave after the9th grade to pursue professional education, rather than spending two more years at school. It seems that girls can afford to get more educated, while boys need to start earning their leaving.
According to the national census of 2009, in Belarus for every 1000 people 179 men and 190 women have higher education, vocational post-secondary education - 256 and 276 respectively, and professional vocational training - 105 and 80 respectively.
Figure 2: Percentage of female and male students at different levels of education
Level of Education
Higher Education (including universities, master and PhD programmes)
Professional Vocational Training
Those young people who choose to enroll in universities and colleges generally face equal competition, except when they do not. At least two Belarusian educational establishments discriminate openly against girls: the Belarusian Military Academy and Police Academy. They both set enrolment quotas for girls. In the period from 2011 to 2015 the Belarusian Military Academy admitted zero women in accordance with the quota set by the Ministry of Defence. The Police Academy had a more generous 5 per cent quota for women.
In 2010, representatives of the Police Academy quoted care for women and need for physical strength as the justifications for setting low quotas for girls. When challenged that neighbouring countries have more female police officers in their ranks, they responded that Belarus has its own peculiarities that require male officers. That may very well be true, but it closes many doors for girls to some of the more lucrative careers in the government, where the Ministry of Interior, KGB and other ‘male’ ministries still reign.
State protection for female workers
The government continues to protect women from possible professional hazards. Up until 2014, the Cabinet of Ministers enforced a decree with a list of professions unavailable to women due either to potential hazards to their reproductive health or their lack of muscular power.
The list included 252 professional occupations, most of which seemed obsolete and unappealing to women to begin with: beamster, blacksmith,and mill operator, for example. Yet some of them raise eyebrows, such as diver, bus driver, long haul driver, and various machine operators.
At least two issues arise with having such a list: firstly, this means that men continue to be employed in these hazardous professions and the state does not seek to protect their reproductive health. And secondly, in many cases where physical vigour was previously needed to perform duties, modern computerised equipment requires no such special powers any longer. But nobody seemed responsible for either revisiting or updating the document. Thus some professions continue to be on the list despite the obvious progress in the respective areas.
A change came about after this document came under criticism during the work of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2011. The Belarusian delegation reporting to the Committee on its progress took note to reconsider the outdated document. And it indeed ceased to exist in 2014, only to be replaced by a Ministry of Labour Provision with almost exactly the same list. Only now the responsibility shifted towards the employer.
The clarification by the Ministry of Labour reads that the employer has the right to hire a woman for such one of these position if they can provide the proper conditions for her. In other words, it is the employer’s responsibility to prove to the Ministry that they are in compliance with the special requirements for women’s safety and wellbeing. Women’s chances of getting hired automatically reduce. Not only do women have to compete with men to get a job in a male dominated sphere, but also the employer has to make extra effort to gain approval for their engagement.
It seems unlikely that more women pilots will fly in Belarus in the near future. Or that more women will drive buses or long haul trucks, for that matter. Firstly, most women can’t even fathom competing with men in these areas. Some professions appear so obviously out of reach for young girls that they can’t even dream of them. Secondly, special standards for women’s safety at work mean employers need to spend extra time and effort proving compliance.
It is rarely so, but the economic crisis could actually work in women’s favour. After neighbouring Poland became part of the EU, many Polish long haul truck drivers left for more lucrative employment further west where the salaries were bigger. That created a big demand in the market, with little supply among men. Women stepped up and in 2014 there were more than 3000 female long haul truck drivers registered.
In Belarus, at least for now, women continue to steer toward traditional ‘service’-oriented professions, forgoing career opportunities and making less money compared to men. Harmful gender stereotypes enforced through the education system, restrictions imposed by the government, and low quotas for girls upheld by the traditionally ‘male’ universities all contribute to gender inequality and rigid occupational segregation in the labour market of Belarus.
In this context, Yeryomenko should be celebrated as a positive role model for young girls for whom the sky indeed is the limit. As new technologies promote brain power and do away with the need for muscular strength in workers, the state needs to step back and allow the labour market to regulate itself. The smarter worker shall win.