March 8 is the day of working women’s rights, a fact frequently forgotten in former Soviet countries, where the fight for worker’s rights and equality between men and women has been supplanted by flowers, gifts, and treats for “dear ladies.”
March 8, 2017 is also the one-hundredth anniversary of the Revolution, which gave all women in the former Russian Empire rights equal to those of men “regardless of gender.” The Empire and the Union are long gone, and former Soviet countries have been independent for 25 years now, but many of them have yet to move beyond gender stereotypes and restrictions against women enshrined in the law and based on these stereotypes. A number of countries ban women from certain professions and types of work. These bans, which copy Soviet laws, figure directly in labor laws, which means that women who aspire to find work that is interesting to them are unable to do so if anything about the profession they have chosen has been determined to be “harmful or dangerous for women.”
In reality, millions of women have been deprived of the opportunity to fulfill their dreams in interesting and well-paid professions like a number of positions on sea and river vessels and cargo transport, operating electrical trains, working in a mine or the metro, many types of construction and industrial activities, and steeplejack work. An absurd example is the ban existing in a dozen countries that prohibits women from driving intercity passenger buses carrying over 14 passengers (if there are less than 14 passengers, women are allowed to drive, but if there are 15 passengers, than a man has to do it. But why?...)
When women have tried to assert their rights in courts by appealing denials to work in their specializations on river vessels or the metro, RF high courts have rejected their appeals, citing the in-no-way-proven “harmfulness” and even difficulty of the jobs, which require extreme focus and precision. (Are we to understand that women cannot work quickly and precisely? That they are more stupid than men?!)
A favorite argument of jurists opposed to equality between men and women is “protecting the reproductive health of women,” as if working underground, in the air, or in noisy conditions can somehow harm reproductive health. This crafty argument is meant to prove that the ban on profession is not discrimination, but a manifestation of concern about motherhood, and that it cannot be considered a violation of equality (and we can say, for example, that maternity leave is a form of such protection, and no one even maintains that this is discrimination, but a ban on types of activities for all women is another matter entirely).
There are three main objections to statements of concern about women’s reproduction:
1. There is no scientific evidence of harm to women’s health for virtually any of these “banned types of activities” - why is installation on the ground not harmful, but installation in the air is? Why can women work as crane operators on dry land, but not on water platforms? The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women requested that the RF to submit scientific evidence that it is harmful for women to work as a helmsperson-motorist (when it was considering the case of Svetlana Medvedeva, who complained of being denied employment in her specialization with a river fleet – in this case an entire body of restrictions on the labor rights of women was found to be discrimination), but the RF government did not submit any evidence.
2. Women have the right to decide for themselves what is more important to them – being a mother (i.e. realize the reproductive function that the government is so concerned about), or being a successful professional, going out to sea, working in the air, or doing other interesting things, being successful, and attaining career growth. If there is a risk to their reproductive functions, women should be warned about them. In many cases, risks should be taken into account when planning pregnancy, but this should not lead to blanket bans on certain types of activities.
3. Bans violate the principle of equal rights for men and women – there are no bans connected with risks to the reproductive health of men (even though their reproductive functions could be harmed in a number of professions, like atomic scientists on nuclear submarines). Moreover, men are left the choice of being professionals or engaging in reproduction. The state does not intrude on the choices men make, but it does on the choices women make (in the form of a legislative ban!), which is direct discrimination.