MOSCOW – On paper, Russia is not a bad place to be a working mother. It has one of the most generous parental leave schemes in the world, with new mothers entitled to 70 days of leave before the birth of their child and 70 days after, at full pay. Further leave can be taken by either parent up until the child’s third birthday, at 40 percent pay.
The state protects a mother’s job for three years, and most women in Russia plan to care for their child for at least two years, recent research from the Romir Institute has found. What’s more, while the gender pay gap in Russia is 22–27 percent – above the average for both the European Union and the OECD – there is no significant gap between the earnings of women who have children and those who don’t.
Despite these protections, many Russian women still find themselves struggling after they have children. Some, particularly single mothers, find it difficult to get by on 40 percent of their full pay. They also struggle to get back to work.
There is a significant area in which Russian workplaces have not kept up with global trends: Only very few companies – around 5 percent – provide their employees with flexible hours or the opportunity to work from home. Nor is there a well-developed freelance sector in the country. This leaves mothers who want to work flexibly, rather than full time, with few options – a problem compounded by limited places in free, state-run childcare kindergartens. Private childcare is not popular in Russia, due to high costs and a lack of carers.
“On the one hand, there is state support, which [is] in many ways [a result of] inherited Soviet ideas about the importance of mothers’ access to work,” says Janna Chernova, a sociologist at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “On the other hand, neither the USSR nor the Russian Federation has ever promoted the idea of greater involvement of men in childcare. So in the Russian business sector – based on market logic requiring an effective employee to be one who is willing to work overtime – women with children immediately lose out to male colleagues, who have the opportunity to shift the functions of caring for children to their wives.”
Olesya Kashaeva, a P.R. specialist from Moscow, experienced these challenges firsthand. “Many mothers don’t want to come back to their usual work [after having a child], because they are afraid that they won’t manage both the child and the job time schedule,” she says. “I was one of those who was not sure of their abilities in this situation. But I wanted to go on with my professional career as well as have time with my child.”
Kashaeva decided to establish a foundation, called “Way Into Life,” to help mothers on leave after the birth of a child to work out what they want to do with their careers. She struck on the idea of a coworking space for new mothers. “The idea … came to me with the birth of a second, younger son, who I had to take to work with me,” she says. “It is not always possible to concentrate in such an environment, when the child is around. You can, of course, call a nanny to the child, and then work, but it is economically unprofitable. It turns out that coworking is the best way out.”
Hence the main goal of her project, rebranded as “Working Mommy,” was to give mothers space and time to work, by creating free coworking spaces with carers on hand to look after children.
The first space was created in 2012 in Moscow with the help of a grant of 1 million rubles ($14,000) from Russian charity Our Future. By 2017, there were 10 coworking spaces operating across the city.
“This year we will also start expanding into the regions. By the end of 2018, our coworking centers will be open in 35 Russian cities, from Vladivostok in the east to Almetyevsk in the south,” Kashaeva says.
There are many coworking spaces with embedded childcare around the world, from London to Paris, Berlin and New York. But the difference with Working Mommy is that it is free.
“Free entrance is one of the main reasons for our popularity,” Kashaeva says. “Originally we were thinking about taking some money for it, but then we understood that mothers who can pay for the coworking don’t really need us.”
She says that when opening a new coworking space, the foundation first contacts local government to negotiate the use of an existing free space. That way they only have to pay for the childcare workers – something they fund through grants, fees from corporate training they provide and the proceeds of an associated sewing center, where some mothers are hired to make tote bags for events.
In addition to the free space, Working Mommy also helps women acquire new skills, providing them with online and offline courses and master classes. After completing a course, a specialist from the foundation helps the mothers find a new job, which might better suit their lifestyle. The most popular courses are those that provide introductions to psychology, law and accountancy.
“I give consultations to around 30 mothers in a month,” says Anna Larina, one of the career specialists at the foundation. “In general, most of them have a high [level of] education and are looking for a freelance or full-time job. Around one-third want to start their own business, often in a sphere of children’s facilities.”
This was the case for Ekaterina Syrina. She was working for a printing service in Moscow, when, while pregnant with her third child, she realized that having children was making it hard for her to get back to work. “In my industry, technologies change all the time, and if you are a mother, it is hard to catch up with trends and not lose qualifications,” she says.
Syrina also felt that she wanted her work to be connected with children, so struck on the idea of opening a children’s leisure center. “Specialists from Working Mommy helped me start this project in terms of getting sponsorship, space and essential documents. Now, after two years, I lead two centers in one of the neighborhoods of Moscow, visited by more than 300 people monthly,” she says.
Kashaeva says that, every year, Working Mommy supports dozens of such startups.
“Mothers are great workers – they know how to plan time, they are hardworking and able to organize everything. But sometimes they just need a little help in finding their way in the modern professional world,” she says.