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A transgender woman’s court victory highlights the Russian regulation’s absurdity
Kyle Knight is a senior LGBT+ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
A transgender woman in St. Petersburg, Russia has won a final court battle with a former employer who fired her in 2017 after she changed her legal gender.
The woman, known throughout the ordeal by her pseudonym “Anna,” had worked for a decade at a company that manufactured plates used in printing presses for candy wrappers. In 2017, she was legally recognized as a woman, and then fired. The grounds? That the Russian government had banned women from doing that job.
Rooted in 1970s Soviet propaganda that said women need “protection” from dangerous jobs to preserve their fertility, a regulation passed by the government of President Vladimir Putin in 2000 confirmed a prohibition on women working in 456 professions. These include train or truck drivers and auto mechanics.
Russian women have fought the law, including in a 2012 landmark case, when a woman who had studied nautical navigation was accepted for a job as a riverboat captain, then rejected a few weeks later, referencing the ban on women in the profession. She had never heard of the regulation before and had invested in her education for this profession.
Russian courts fumbled the case, but in 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women ruled in her favor, rebuked the Russian government for its baseless appeal to protecting women’s fertility, and recommended reviewing and amending the list of banned professions.
In July 2019, following that lawsuit and UN appeal, and an #alljobs4allwomen campaign by leading human rights groups, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection announced that it had shortened the list to 100 “restricted” professions. The reduced list will come into effect in January. Starting next year, Russian women will be legally allowed to drive trains and trucks and fix cars.
But the revised list still says women are restricted from working in jobs in the “chemical industry, metallurgy, oil production, coal mining, manufacturing of insulation, and some others owing to the harmful effects of certain compounds on women’s reproductive health.”
Anna’s recently concluded case illustrates the absurdity of the list, and the arbitrariness with which it is inflicted on Russian women. It also reduces women to their reproductive functions and perpetuates traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
Anna began transitioning in 2015 and fought to align the name on her ID card with her gender identity, replacing the male name given to her at birth. A battle to change her gender marker on her ID ensued. But success in changing her legal gender in 2017 quickly led to her termination. Anna immediately filed a discrimination lawsuit, but lost.
With the help of Vyhod (“Coming Out”), a Russian LGBT+ rights group, she appealed to a city court but lost again. In December 2018, the city court’s presidium declared the earlier rulings void and sent Anna’s case for a retrial.
In April 2019, she won, and the court ordered 10,000 rubles (US$144) in compensation for moral damages and 1.85 million rubles in compensation for forced absenteeism. In April 2020, her former employer’s appeal was rejected and the compensation ruling upheld at last.
Max Olenichev, legal adviser at Vyhod who helped on Anna’s case, said the court’s final decision was an important signal that transgender people in Russia could seek justice through the courts, but also sent a strong message about gender equality more broadly. “Every woman has the right to choose a profession,” Olenichev said. “The absolute prohibition on such a choice, established in Russia by a list of professions prohibited for women, is a manifestation of discrimination.”
Instead of limiting women’s access to employment, the Russian government should focus on ensuring that workplaces are safe and free of abuse and discrimination for everyone. Anna’s employer never challenged her capacity to perform her job before she legally changed her gender. Then they used Russia’s pernicious and discriminatory law to fire her.
Instead of misusing the law to keep women out of certain professions, Russian authorities should focus their attention on gender based discrimination like the wage gaps women in Russia face despite being, on average, better educated and healthier than men. Whether prohibiting women from doing 456 jobs, 100, or one, denying women equality in their choice of profession has no place in a legal system.