The problem with men in Russia

Many years Dutch businessman Jeroen Ketting had been looking for a Russian business partner, with whom he could further develop his companies. He didn’t find one. He was looking for the wrong person, he says, a man. When at long last he realized this, he found his business partner, Svetlana Shishakova. A conversation about work, traditions and gender roles in Russia.

by Hella Rottenberg

‘For about twenty years I’ve been looking for a business partner, someone who could be an entrepreneur next to me. I used to look for a man, it didn’t lead to any result. Five years ago, I found a business partner. It’s a woman’, says Jeroen Ketting. As an afterthought he adds: ‘In Russia the cornerstone of the society is not the family, it’s the woman.’

jeroen kettin en sv shishakovaJeroen Ketting and his business partner Svetlana Shishakova

He has been living and working in Moscow since 1994. His company, Lighthouse Russia BV, manages the operations of Western companies doing business in Russia. He and Svetlana Shishakova are together on a business trip in the Netherlands and they take a pause in their busy schedule to let me ask some questions. 

‘In Russia there’s a big difference in the characteristics of men and women’, says Jeroen. ‘Women are working harder, more structured, have less ego. With Svetlana I started to work 5 years ago. I immediately saw her qualities: fully engaged in the business, loyal, conscientious, ready to learn, ready to put her ego aside for the common interest. For Russian women it is more difficult to start their own business. For women with all these qualities it is harder to end at the top of the business world than for a man. And it is more difficult for them to start their own business.’

Svetlana, is this true?
‘I experienced myself how hard you have to work as a woman. If you enter a room, men look at you as if saying “oh that’s a nice lady! what a stupid conversation we’ll have now.’’ You need to go through the wall and change their minds until they understand: ok, there is some brain in this pretty head. You have to prove that you have some qualities.’

‘In Russia many women have a business not because they themselves started one, but because their husband or parents gave them the money. That’s in any case the perception of the Russian society. The facts are different. A lot of women start a business themselves, women do find their way. It’s just hard, you have to prove yourself twice towards any business partner you’re dealing with.’

‘I worked as an executive search consultant and talked to women in top management positions. I asked them: why do you stop at a certain level?  Many women are in mid-management positions. They say: it’s just too hard. You have to sacrifice a lot. They want their private life, not only their husband and kids, but also shopping, going to a spa, they want to spent time for themselves.’

What’s the problem with men in Russia?
Jeroen: ‘The successful ones have already their own businesses. There is a small group of successful businessmen. They are highly intelligent, highly driven, they have all kinds of productive kinds of aggression, they are the driving forces of their businesses. These men mostly outperform Western men. It’s a very small group though.’

‘Then you have a large group of Russian men without these qualities. They are not driven, they are not energetic, they lack a certain sense of responsibility, they have a fatalistic attitude: whatever happens, happens and there’s not much I can do about it.’

‘When someone gets an assignment, a woman in general is much more concerned about executing the task. A man may come back to you after a couple of weeks, saying “I didn’t do ABCD, but I did XYZ, that’s also good, right?” Men feel less need to be accountable. As a man in Russia you’re raised in the belief that whatever you do is good, because you’re a man.’

‘Often I told my female employees: this office is becoming like a chicken coop with only female colleagues, find yourself a male colleague, because I can’t find them. When we had vacancies I told them: you go out, you interview the people and find yourself a male colleague. But it failed. They also couldn’t find one or if they did find a man, then after half a year they themselves said: oh no we’d better let him go.’

Today Lighthouse Russia employs 9 women and 3 men. The men joined Lighthouse recently when Ketting and Shishakova bought a company that sells technical equipment to factories.  ‘There you need sales engineers’, says Jeroen. ‘The men in the factories with whom you deal want to do business with men as they think men understand the technical details better. There are enough women with technical education in Russia, more than in the Netherlands. But a woman has to work twice as hard as a man in a technical environment to be accepted.’

Becoming angry

Ketting had to learn how to deal with men as his employees. ‘The relations are much more authoritarian in Russia. The tougher you are with men, the more they respect you and the better they will work for you. It goes totally against my Dutch nature. I’ve lived more than half my life in Russia, but I’m still Dutch. But at a certain point I consciously allow myself to become angry, raise my voice and slam my fist on the table. You have to show that you’re the boss, almost in a physical way. In a Dutch business setting, you would go outside and walk around the block for twenty minutes to cool down and only then you discuss things calmly.’

Svetlana, how do you handle the men over whom you’re the boss?
‘If I slam my fist on the table, that wouldn’t be accepted by anyone. Not by men, not by women. Being a boss as a woman is hard. Sometimes you’re just not accepted. Men don’t want to report to any woman, so you need to find your way.’

‘In our case Jeroen helped me a lot.  You establish your authority with your knowledge, you have to be really professional. You have to be three times as professional as any man in your place, so that you start to be respected.  So that you are accepted as a boss, as an employer.’

With women there’s no problem?
Jeroen: ‘With women there’s another problem. You have these gender dynamics in the workplace.  A female employee does the work partly to please the male colleague or boss. When I’m not happy with the work of a female employee, she might say: “But I tried my best for you!” Then I answer “it’s not about trying for me, it’s about  doing the work right.” And then they start to cry.’

‘With a man it’s like taming a headstrong horse. Sometimes you need to use the whip, sometimes the carrot.  With women, and I find this the most difficult, you have to do your best to avoid these gender dynamics. I don’t like these gender dynamics because it leads to manipulative behavior. Work should be about work.’

Svetlana, do women accept you easily as their boss?
‘No, not easily. A man can be less professional as a boss, and still be accepted.  A woman must prove herself. And women cannot really separate personal from business. Men can be shouting in the meeting room at each other, and then have a smoke and be best friends.’

Strong traditions

In Russia women work on a massive scale since the October revolution, hundred years. Men and women are used to work together, are used to women in all kinds of professions Women have worked as engineers and even as construction workers. What difference does this make for the gender roles?
Svetlana: ‘I was working at the consulting firm McKinsey in Moscow. It has an international culture. Then I went to Rosatom, a state corporation for nuclear industry, dominated by men. I was much more respected as a professional at McKinsey and never had any issues with being a woman.  At Rosatom I was not at all respected at first as a professional, but I noticed that I felt myself a woman. The door was being opened for me. Women in the workplace continue to be in the first place a woman and secondly professionals. Women themselves in Russia are fine with that. They prefer to be in a dominant position at home, but they find their own benefits in traditional gender roles.’

‘I accept it, being Russian. Men and women are different. Men are better leaders, better achievers in general. Women are better in executive roles, for example in financial accounting. In court the attorneys are mostly men, the paper work is done mostly by women. Men are more creative.’

Jeroen: ‘For men it’s comfortable that women perceive the gender roles in this way. When a couple works, and the man comes home he doesn’t need to do anything. The woman cooks, takes care of the kids. It’s perfect! When I talk about Russian culture before a Western audience, and explain the gender roles, the men go like YESSS!’


Do you notice any discussion about sexual harassment in the working place, following the #MeToo accusations in Europe and the USA?
Svetlana: ‘You heard about this recent thing in the Duma [when women journalists accused Duma-member Leonid Slutsky, HR]. You see how it turned out. The women who complained are blamed. And the women in the Duma would be the first to say “those sluts in these short skirts, they could expect it”. It’s caused by general competition between women. There were more men than women in Russia. Now the numbers are more or less equal, but women compete for decent men. Some men sit in prison, some are drunkards. There is a lack of reputable men. At least, that’s the perception.’

Jeroen: ‘Young girls from the regions are coming to Moscow, snatching away the wealthiest men. If you’re not so pretty or don’t want to play that game, you lose. The reaction of these Duma women against these female journalists is also based on resentment.’

Men in the West feel more and more insecure while women become high achievers. An antifeminist movement is becoming popular among young men. They blame women that they suppress their manliness and that they are unhappy. Is something similar going on in Russia?
Svetlana: ‘Men feel themselves perfectly fit. They are comfortable in their role.’ 

Jeroen, laughing: ‘Russian men are unjustified  confident. They are confident, but you think: why the hell are you so confident? Hundred years of labour participation of women didn’t change gender roles in Russia. For the next fifty years nothing will change either.’ 

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