'I pretended to be a man': Russia allows women to take on new professions including truck driver

Theo Merz
·4 min read
Female train drivers have started working on the Moscow underground - Vyacheslav Prokofyev\\TASS via Getty Images
Female train drivers have started working on the Moscow underground - Vyacheslav Prokofyev\\TASS via Getty Images

To carry out her work, Evgenia Markova had to use an assumed name and keep below the radar of authorities. The 36-year-old is not a spy but rather a truck driver - a profession that was banned for women in Russia until the start of this year.

While the early Soviet Union was ahead of much of the West in bringing women into the workplace, a decree in the 1970s barred them from hundreds of professions, supposedly for their safety and to protect their “reproductive abilities”.

The law was updated by President Vladimir Putin in 2000, covering not just jobs in heavy industry and transport but also positions as varied as parachutist, car mechanic, and even maker of certain musical instruments.

As of this month more than 300 jobs have been opened up to women, following a campaign, meaning Ms Markova's work is now entirely above board.

“These changes are really important, they show what is possible and that even the strict Russian law can be rewritten” Ms Markova told the Telegraph.

Trucker Evgenia Markova 
Trucker Evgenia Markova

“There is no reason at all why women should not be allowed to do these jobs.”

The Moscow Metro has allowed female drivers for the first time in its recent history, with 12 of them now working on the network. The national rail company earlier said it was training up 10 women to be assistant drivers.

Ms Markova, a former programmer for the Russian cybersecurity company Kaspersky, set out in 2014 to fulfil her long-term dream of being a trucker.

“I like the road, I like long distances,” she said.

After a year of working for herself, she transferred to a small trucking company.

The company ignored the ban on female drivers but issued her with salary documents in the man’s name of “Evgeny Markov”. She joked that she should have taken out credit in the man’s name and then disappeared.

It was only when Ms Markova was seeking work with a larger firm several years later that she ran into problems, with her prospective employers saying they were not prepared to bend the rules.

So she went to drive in Europe, which she found “too small” after the vast expanses of her home country. She returned to Russia last year after authorities said they would no longer impose fines on companies hiring women to banned positions.

Ms Markova stressed that many women were already working in such jobs but that they had no “social guarantees” before the law change.

“If you’re pregnant, your employer doesn’t have to pay a salary because this isn’t covered. There were some cases where girls didn’t get their salaries at all, and they couldn’t go to court because they weren’t supposed to be doing this work.”

The campaign to change the law began in 2012 when trained navigation officer Svetlana Medvedeva, now 34, was turned down for a position at a boat company because of her gender.

Female train drivers pose for a group photograph - Vyacheslav Prokofyev\\TASS via Getty Images
Female train drivers pose for a group photograph - Vyacheslav Prokofyev\\TASS via Getty Images

“When I started my training nobody told me about these forbidden professions,” Ms Medvedeva remembered. “Everyone had signed me off for the job. It was just at a last meeting with the HR department that they told me I couldn’t do it. I was in shock.”

After that meeting, Ms Medvedeva launched a five-year legal battle against the company. A UN committee eventually ruled she had been discriminated against and called on Russia to end its ban on women in certain roles.

Ms Medvedeva now works as a captain of a boat for another firm, where she says she has never faced problems.

“My colleagues treat me exactly the same way they would a man in the same position,” she said.

But despite the revision of the list, around a hundred roles are officially still closed to women, many of them in mining and oil production. Such lists also still exist in several former Soviet countries, such as Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Truck driver Ms Markova said she knew of Russian women who were already working in mining but were reluctant to launch a similar campaign for their rights, for fear of losing their jobs.

“It’s awful, it’s shameful that we still have such a list,” she said. “But these girls are working in smaller cities where there are not so many different options.”

Suburban train diver Elena Lysenko-Saltykova
Suburban train diver Elena Lysenko-Saltykova

Elena Lysenko-Saltykova, who has been working as a driver for a suburban train company for three years with the backing of her “progressive” employers, said it was not possible to “change everything” immediately.

“Our society needs time to adapt, a lot of people just aren’t ready yet to see women in those kinds of jobs,” the 25-year-old added.

Ms Lysenko-Saltykova, however, predicted a wave of women joining the professions that are now officially open. “The important thing is that the state has taken the first step.”