Human Resources

Yandex interview: Russia leads for women in tech

Maria Orlova, head of geoinformational products at Yandex in Russia, is keen to make it clear that she never considered her gender an issue when pursuing her dream. “My mum has a doctorate degree in technology, as does my grandma, so I never questioned whether or not I could work in tech,” she says over the phone. “Is it only for men? No, it’s for everyone.”

Yandex is a Russian technology company that aims to help their users better navigate the online and offline world. Known by many as ‘the Russian Google’, it also operates email, eCommerce, taxi and map services, to name but a few.

Orlova started working at Yandex nine years ago, accepting a job offer from the company just days before completing her final exams. “I knew I wanted to work in IT from the moment I got to know about the internet as a small girl. When I first discovered it, I was so excited I didn’t sleep!” she laughs down the phone. “Technology was something close to my heart and I wanted my job to reflect that.” As the number one IT company in Russia, Yandex fit the bill and after graduating from the Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute with a degree in mathematics and programming, Orlova started working as a project manager at a team responsible for Yandex’s map services.

And so begun her climb up the career ladder; a journey which has included overseeing the launch of Yandex Panorama [described on the site as “a detailed world map”], initiating the production of maps in-house and the eventual promotion to head of geoinformational products.

“For me, it’s never mattered that I’m a woman not a man,” she repeats. “I know what I can do, I know how I can help my company… there has always been someone who’s supported me. My family, my boss, always someone.”

While growing up with two women that had already earned their doctorate degrees in technology allowed Orlova to see she should never be held back by her gender, the support offered by her male boss when she went on maternity leave proved to be crucial. Russia is already leaps and bounds ahead of countries like that United States for maternity leave, offering new mothers 140 days (20 weeks) leave on full pay. Before she’d even left, Orlova knew she wanted to return to work and upon doing so, she was supported every step of the way.

“When I was on leave I realised I wanted to be more involved with product decision making so while I was away I read and studied product design, customer development and best practices so when I returned I could take up my current position as head of geoinformational products.”

Orlova had discussed her career ambitions prior to leaving and the conversation continued once she came back. “He [her boss] knew I could help him with product development,” she explains, “he was waiting for me to come back.” However, such a luxury is rare in the UK where currently, two thirds of female professionals who do return to employment end up working in jobs far below their capabilities or only find employment in part-time positions.

In addition to maternity support, when it comes to women’s progression into senior leadership roles, Russia is something of an outlier. Back in 2004, when the average global percentage of senior executive roles held by women was a measly 19%, Russia was averaging at 42%. Fast-forward to the present day, where globally 34% of companies have no senior female leaders, there is not a single organisation in Russia that currently doesn’t have at least one women as a partner or holding an executive, directorial or C-Suite level role.

Interestingly, other countries that were also once a part of Russia’s Communist bloc boast similarly impressive statistics. Research has shown that women in these countries went to work in greater numbers [pdf] than their capitalist counterparts and it’s believed that the legacy of initiatives such as state-supported childcare is still being reflected in these figures.

This cultural attitude towards gender diversity seems to closely reflect Orlova’s personal views on the matter. “Of course in Russia there is some discussion about it but it’s not talked about all the time.” She explains; “I think the situation is better than it was but even before, my grandma and mother both got their doctorates in technology so there was clearly something right happening, even then.”

In a country where International Women’s Day is a public holiday, Orlova believes that the lack of diversity is a result of the technology sector’s image problem, rather than a widespread culture of gender discrimination. “It’s not ‘cool’ to work in tech and I think that’s the main problem. When I was at school, not many of my friends wanted to go into tech; marketing and design were much cooler so lots of girls wanted to study those subjects instead.”

“Now, I see more girls are going to technical universities,” she continues, “I’m sure it’s still not enough but there’s definitely been progress.” Yandex already runs several educational programmes that aim to introduce girls into the world of tech and in Orlova’s department, two of the three teams she oversees are already headed up by women. However, she’s unsure about just how much of the pressure to increase diversity should be placed on individual organisations. “It’s not a question for companies after people have graduated, policies need to be in place when children are young and deciding who they want to be.”

So, what does the future hold for women in tech? Orlova believes that with the right support and education initiatives in place, women have a bright future in the world of technology. “Throughout my life, I’ve had my mother and grandma telling me knowledge was important, not my gender. As the mother of a very young girl, I’m now trying my best to show her what’s important is what you do, not who your gender says you are.”

It’s a valuable message and one that needs to be taken seriously in an industry that continues to be dominated by men. While Russia appears to be ahead of the curve with gender diversity, the figures show the rest of the world still has a long way to go before they catch up.


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Charlotte Trueman

Charlotte is Staff Writer at IDG Connect. She is particularly interested in the impact technology will have on the future of work and promoting gender diversity throughout the tech industry.

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