Russian and Ukrainian Women Working in Digital Talk About Their Career Challenges

Russian/Ukrainian women in digital talk about career challenges

This article was prepared and published just before the events in Ukraine. Since then, within a matter of days, the world has changed dramatically, but the career topic still remains strong and deserves attention.

We say special thanks to all those who found time to contribute to our article in those difficult times. Our hearts are with Ukraine now.

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If you google “women in digital Russia/Ukraine” or “gender pay gap Russia/Ukraine”, you mostly get results like research papers or articles based on that. Research is great, we swear by research here in Selzy — just look at our long articles all backed by the most fresh research you can possibly get! But this article here is different. It’s not about research, it’s about people.

We interviewed 7 women working in digital in Russian and Ukraine and put together their honest stories about how they’ve been building their career, what difficulties they’ve faced and what’s important for them.

There’s not much info out there on how women from the Russian-speaking part of the world build their careers. We decided to shed some light on it.

We say a huge thank you to everybody who contributed to this article:

Facts to consider before you read

Before you start reading, here are some facts that’ll make it easier to understand the reasons behind many of the stories below.

  • The gender stereotypes are much stronger in Russia/Ukraine than in the Western part of the world. The culture of men being mostly breadwinners and women taking care of the family is still thriving, especially beyond the big cities. Lots of women tend to be on maternity leave for years, while the overwhelming majority of men regard taking care of kids as “women’s job”.
  • The salary gender gap in digital careers is real. This is the research data from 2020:
Source: Serpstat
Source: Serpstat

What was the most challenging thing in your career? How did you handle it?

Changing my attitude to mistakes and failures
Mariia Lo
Mariia Lo

~uę&j)Lj)s

At the beginning of my career, I made lots of mistakes, so this was quite a sensitive topic for me. My first boss used to say: “don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try”. The hard part was to carry on doing my work, try to figure out what went wrong, fix it and learn from it.

Becoming a team leader as an introvert
Ksenia Burkina
Ksenia Burkina

i٢+-bb-JH1

As I am pretty much an introvert, it was rather challenging for me to become a team leader — to lead the way for my team and to inspire them to work independently, to become an example of professionalism and to be tolerant to failures. At first, I had to overcome my barriers and step out of my comfort zone, but now I feel very comfortable with my role as the leader and the mentor for my team.

Starting from scratch with a completely different background
Yuliana Kalaytanova
Yuliana Kalaytanova

uz!zv1zا

Gaining experience in email marketing and CRM-marketing while having a completely different background (I was a designer) was one of the most challenging things for me. I had no marketing background so I had to learn everything from scratch. I took on all sorts of projects that didn’t always pay what I wanted, but it was worth it.

I believe that only by taking on different challenging projects can you learn new skills. If you only do one thing that you’re already good at, there’s no room for self-development and progress.

Handling a big event cancellation
Evgenia Budrina
Evgenia Budrina

yحr}Iz

I used to be an obstacle race communications director. Once we had to cancel our event 24 hours before its date due to criminal actions from the owner of the venue which we rented for the event. It all happened very fast and came as a shock to me and the whole team. And to 1500 participants that were looking forward to the event. We took this decision as it was not safe to still allow the event to take place, and made a refund to all the participants.

As a head of communications, I had to go through a huge wave of negative comments and threats in social media. The worst thing? It took me a couple of years to overcome the feeling that it was my personal failure and that “I could have done better” to avoid this.

This situation left me thinking that sometimes, even if you do everything you can, it all can be ruined in a matter of hours.

Struggling with fear of mistakes
Alexandra Smarovidlo
Alexandra Smarovidlo

条Gx)bz{e

I’d say it’s the fear of making mistakes. At school and university, we grow in the atmosphere of constant competition where failing is not appreciated. No one tells you that the ability to lose and move on is one of the most important soft skills one needs for a living.

When you work in IT, you can’t avoid mistakes: from minor typos on the website to buggy product releases, resulting in disappointed clients and financial losses. I still remember a lot of the mistakes I’ve made, but each of them helped me boost my expertise, taught me how to handle conflicts and how to turn frustrated clients into the most committed fans of your business.

What was the one thing that made you stronger in your career?

Working with people who are smarter/more skilled than you
Mariia Lo
Mariia Lo

uę&j)Lj)s

Working with people who are more skilled than me is what made me stronger. I believe that if you see you’re the smartest in your company, you need to change the company and go to a place where you can learn something.

My biggest challenge was working with web developers. That feeling when you realize you actually don’t understand anything they talk about, makes you ask more questions, dig deeper, and as a result learn more. I think that being in an environment where you can learn something new is the most precious thing you can get in your career.

Being brave enough to do things you never thought you’d be able to
Evgenia Budrina
Evgenia Budrina

yحr}Iz

The challenges that make you understand that you are actually able to do things that you never thought you could – these ones really make you grow stronger.

For example, I always thought of myself as an introvert. But when I took on the tasks connected to interacting with people (for instance, hiring, project managing, building partner networks), I realized to my own huge surprise that I’m not just handling it well, but I really love it, too! It didn’t happen immediately: first I had to overcome a huge impostor syndrome and the fear of stating my point. But since then, it’s become clear to me that dealing with people is my favorite part of the career.

Saying “no”
Alexandra Smarovidlo
Alexandra Smarovidlo

条Gx)bz{e

I remember the first time we refused to work with a potential client. My team and I spent hours discussing the pain points of their business and giving recommendations on how to boost sales and attract more website visitors but finally turned down the project. Such decisions don’t come easy but always pay off. Unless you share the same values or the client doesn’t seem to be ready to cooperate effectively, it’s better to say ‘no’ and stick to your principles.

Saying ‘no’ might be tough for the first time, but eventually, it helps you connect with like-minded people, create projects you love, and achieve outstanding results. 

Moving to Europe to work for a big international company
Varvara Romanova
Varvara Romanova

,ڶ*'bh

Moving from Moscow to Berlin to work for a big international company is what made me stronger. Here’s why.

First of all, I had to learn to build communication with people from different countries and cultures. What works for Russians might absolutely not work for people from Asia, etc.

Secondly, overcoming fierce competition and getting hired by a big international company is a big win for me. I’m not a web developer, so I’m not in a position to browse through job offers and just choose what’s best for me. I had to fight for it. As a result, I felt it made me so much stronger and many other challenges that seemed so hard don’t look so difficult to me anymore.

Is there an employment gender gap in Russia/Ukraine? Do you think your country is a good place for women to pursue their careers?

If you prove you’re an expert in what you do, your gender won’t matter
Mariia Lo
Mariia Lo

uę&j)Lj)s

I think career success depends more on your communication/negotiation skills than on your gender. When I quit my job to start my own business, I was scared that clients won’t take me seriously because I’m a woman. That’s why the co-founders of my first agency were men. I thought: “Well, I’m a girl, I’m quite short, I look younger than my age (with no make-up, literally like a 13-year-old!) – nobody will take me seriously!”. But then I realized that if you prove you’re an expert and you can negotiate professionally, nobody will even think about your gender.

I mean, I understand there are women who are paid less than men. I think what they should do is just leave the place where this is happening. There are lots of sexists out there in every sphere of life – and it’s your responsibility to decide if you stay in this environment and complain or if you go and look for a better place, with healthier attitude and a higher salary.

If you own what you do with your career, not just blindly do what your boss tells you, the gender gap situation won’t affect you
Evgenia Budrina
Evgenia Budrina

yحr}Iz

I believe that if you really own what you do with your career (I mean, when you are proactive and ready to question things, and do not just blindly do what you are told by your boss), the gender gap situation won’t affect you too much.

At one of my first jobs 10 years ago, I was a content-manager. It was quite basic and boring, and I wanted much more from my career but was too scared to approach my boss to discuss what else I can do except for writing product descriptions. Years later, I learned that my boss had been giving lots of opportunities for growth to another guy who also worked as a content-manager in our team, without doing the same for the rest of the team. Me and other girls in my team had no clue this was happening.

This was the only case when I felt that the gender gap thing is real. I think this case also had to do with certain gender stereotypes that are so deep in the heads of many women in Russia: girls generally try to be “convenient” for others, even when it goes against their own wishes and plans. They’d better be patient and wait for the right moment rather than be straightforward about what they really want. Again, it’s just my personal feeling, but I’m sure many women in Russia will agree with me.

Nowadays, things have changed a lot. I see a certain culture of both women and men being more open about what they really want, asking questions and being ready for additional responsibility, not just doing whatever you’re asked to do. I think this eliminates any gender difference on the career level.

There’s no gender inequality at the hiring stage in Russia, but there’s definitely a gender salary gap: women are paid less than men in Russia
Varvara Romanova
Varvara Romanova

,ڶ*'bh

Once a guy asked me about my family plans* at a job interview. He asked when I plan to get married and have kids. It seemed completely normal to him. To me it came as a shock as before that I worked for several years in Germany where such questions are simply inappropriate.

I’d say this case was more of an exception than a rule in our country. Nowadays IT companies do not ask these questions. I do not think there is a gender gap at the hiring stage in Russia. But there’s definitely a salary gender gap. The statistics show that women are paid less than men in Russia. I personally think it has to do with gender stereotypes. Women are more likely than men to agree to work for less money than they want as they are scared to lose the opportunity. In Russia, it’s mostly women who work in government institutions (schools, hospitals), which, according to me, only proves the fact that women are more ready to put up with low salaries than men**. It’s not connected to discrimination but to how our generation was raised.

I think women should stop trying to be convenient and agreeing to something they do not want. They should start talking about how great they are as professionals and monetize their skills to the fullest.

*In Russia, the official maternity leave can last up to 3 years, during which your employer has to pay you a certain minimum wage every month. This is the reason why many employers do not want to hire a woman who plans to go on maternity leave after working a couple of months.

**In Russia, teachers’ and doctors’ salaries in government educational institutions/hospitals are extremely low.

Payment gap in Russia really exists
Valeria Shulga
Valeria Shulga

jaȚgIz

I used to work for a company that constantly delayed payments. When I asked for money once, they said something like “Oh, you must have a husband who pays for you, and we are sure that this salary is not your main source of income”. I bet they would never say such things to a man.

I think that an employment gender gap, and, especially, payment gap in Russia really exists. In our country, men are considered to be the family’s breadwinners – that’s why very often their salaries are 10-20% higher than the women’s. Luckily, the tendency has been changing lately.

Nowadays, we see more and more women building successful careers in IT even in the positions that have been traditionally considered masculine: software engineers, business analysts, or web designers.
Alexandra Smarovidlo
Alexandra Smarovidlo

条Gx'\

There’s definitely a gender gap. Men still occupy the majority of leading positions in the industry. Male candidates are more likely to be chosen over equally qualified female candidates. However, over the last few years, we can see more and more women building successful careers in IT even in the positions that have been traditionally considered masculine, such as software engineers, business analysts, or web designers.

I believe in the future where employees are hired because of their skills – not their gender – and Russia seems to be moving in the right direction.

What do you think makes a successful career in digital in your country?

Critical thinking, curiosity and flexibility
Mariia Lo
Mariia Lo

uę&j)Lj)s

First of all — a good laptop (laughing). This is what I spent my first salary on. Ok, just kidding. As for me, curiosity and critical thinking are real success drivers, not only in your career but in life, too.

Critical thinking is crucial in our times, when you’re constantly bombarded with information. For example, if you want to learn something, it’s important not just to take an online course and you’re all set to go. You need to dig deeper and try to find out if the coach that’s going to teach has actually had any success in the matter, if the reviews confirm what’s written in their promotion campaign, etc.

Curiosity and flexibility are important, too. If you just follow traditional patterns and are not curious about what the current trends are (they are always changing), it won’t lead to anything productive. It’s also crucial to find that balance between the good old schemes and the cutting-edge trends.

Being proactive and brave
Evgenia Budrina
Evgenia Budrina

yحr}Iz

Being proactive and being brave — these 2 things will move the world! Ok, not the world, but at least your career.

I’ve worked in many IT companies and I’ve seen many people not being brave enough or thinking that they cannot do something because they are not skilled enough for a task. I believe this is a big risk not to develop.

I have a friend who has been desperate for quite a while to change her career to something more interesting than social media management, but she keeps saying she doesn’t have the skills to do anything else. So she keeps applying to other social media management positions, keeps hating it, and this vicious circle goes on and on…

My own “success recipe” is about going out there and taking on new projects, trying things that you’d like to do but don’t really have the skill. In Russia, we have a funny saying that goes “One doesn’t need a divine spark to make pots”. I think a good English version of this is “Whatever man has done, man may do”. This saying perfectly describes what I mean: many are scared or don’t have skills, and many still try, and many succeed. Why would you be an exception?

Ability to learn fast and being expert in more than one field
Alexandra Smarovidlo
Alexandra Smarovidlo

条Gx'\

I guess that regardless of the country there’s a universal set of skills that can help you climb the career ladder. First off, it’s the ability to learn fast. The digital world develops at a very high speed so you should always be ready to adopt new skills and technologies.

The industry also requires you to be an expert in more than one field or at least have an understanding of how things work in the related spheres. For example, to be a successful marketing manager, you should also be good at sales, project development, and even psychology. I’d also highlight the importance of having a high level of emotional intelligence as it helps build solid relationships and better understand people you work with.

Being ready to learn non-stop
Yuliana Kalaytanova
Yuliana Kalaytanova

uz!zv1zا

You need to be ready to learn non-stop. In our country, very few people want to learn. The most common situation is when a person learns a couple of things, becomes a junior specialist, and thinks: “That’s it! I’m a specialist now!”. In reality, you always need to learn new things and skills to move forward in your career. I think that is applicable to any country, not just Russia and Ukraine.

In our country, you also need to pay attention to who you’ll learn from. If you take a course, it needs to be taught by practicing professionals, not just theoretical speakers who haven’t done anything themselves for the last couple of years.

How do you manage your work-life balance?

Each time a task comes my way I ask myself: is it worth reducing my family/hobby time?
Mariia Lo
Mariia Lo

uę&j)Lj)s

I live by the rule that work is not all my life.

I’ve gone through times when I had nothing but work, I worked 10-12 hours a day, then studied, and was completely off on weekends, just sleeping mostly.

With coronavirus I lost some of my family and it made me change my attitude. I think work is definitely not all there is. The key is to find the balance. If you feel like spending some time on your hobby instead of working — do it. If you feel you want to focus on work today more than usual — do it, because tomorrow it will be balanced out by spending time on something else than work.

Now I work less time-wise because my priorities have shifted. Family is my priority now. Even if I have a lot of work, I try to delegate as much as I can, because family time is of utmost importance to me.

It’s me who creates that balance for myself. Each time a task comes my way I ask myself – is it worth my time? Is it worth reducing my family/hobby time because of this task?

I used to be a workaholic. Eventually it made me lose my interest in everything that’s not connected to work — and I didn’t like it
Evgenia Budrina
Evgenia Budrina

yحr}Iz

When I started at Selzy, I worked really long hours, taking more and more projects. At a certain point I realized I’m starting to have less and less energy.

I’m a bit of a workaholic. When I had my own business, I’d work 7 days a week and that feeling of work adrenaline was like a drug for me. It might feel good but it also led to the fact that I lost my interest in everything else that’s not connected to work.

A couple of months ago I changed my attitude and found out that quality rest is my source of energy for the actual work. I know I’m not the best example of a great work-life balance situation, but I’m heading there.

Sometimes I work 24/7. When my 5-year old daughter asks me: “Mommy, when will you finally stop working?”, I realize that I do not manage my work-life balance well
Ksenia Burkina
Ksenia Burkina

i٢+-bb-Y[

Nowadays, when remote work prevails, my working hours are not basically defined. Sometimes I work 24/7. That is a real challenge. When my 5-year old daughter asks me: “Mommy, when will you finally stop working?” I realize that I do not manage my work-life balance well. That is why I try to fully devote my weekends to myself, my family and friends and to spend time with the best profit to my mental (and physical) health. I hope to succeed in it.

I plan my time off just like I plan my work time
Varvara Romanova
Varvara Romanova

,ڶ*'bh

I try to plan my time off just like I make plans for my work time. If you don’t plan it, you might end up lying in bed the whole weekend instead of doing things that actually give you energy. For me, these things are going to the theater and fitness.

You also need to assign priorities to things you do in your free time. For instance, if I know I should clean the apartment but I’m much more willing to go to a fitness class instead — I’d just go do sports and delegate the cleaning.

What advice would you have given to a 20-something you when you were just at the beginning of your career?

  • Look bigger instead of focusing on what you’re already good at. This piece of advice would’ve helped me big time to figure out that what I am good at is not necessarily what I am passionate about. I think, the longer you narrow yourself to your top skills area and the more you’re afraid to look outside that box, the longer it will take to discover your true passion (Evgenia)
  • Stop sitting at home, live your life to the fullest! Your education is important, but don’t prioritize it. Start working instead of warming your seat in the classroom – it is best to learn by doing.” ( Valeria)
  • Don’t be afraid. To voice your ideas, even if you think they are stupid and boring. To apply for that job you want so much and think you might not be competent enough. Your fear cuts the opportunities big time. We don’t lose anything when we’re rejected – but we lose everything when we don’t even try”. (Yuliana)
  • Communicate more, create connections, build your network” (Varvara)
  • “Set some critical judgment on your study plan in the university. Don’t waste your time on disciplines you are not interested in. Develop yourself in what inspires you and try yourself in various activities. Thus it will be easier to find your place”. (Ksenia)
  • Don’t take things too personally when it comes to criticism or other people’s judgment, do some sports even on a busy working day, and stop eating chocolate biscuits at each coffee break:))” (Alexandra)

What’s the biggest career challenge have you faced?

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