A Small Town Russian Timber Company is Helping Women Conquer a Man’s World

FSC / Margarita Kirilina
Woman worker operating saw in wood workshop
FSC / Margarita Kirilina
December 3, 2019
Category : Stories

Started as an enterprise for the disabled, timber company Red Star is now championing Russia’s women workforce.

Mozhga, RUSSIA: Fifty-seven-year-old Tatyana Antonova has been the director of a discotheque, the head of shift for school products and a security guard—having spent 35 years (almost two-thirds of her life) working in the same company.

While her stint at the discotheque was fun, she says her last two jobs – both at Red Star – were the ones that helped her build a home and raise a family.

In 1984, at the age of 22, when Ms. Antonova moved to Mozhga with her husband, they were looking for a job that could provide them the means to buy a house. One tragedy, two kids and thirty-five years later, she says the company is her comfort zone.

“My husband got tragically killed in 1999 and I was left with two kids to take care of all by myself. My job at the company helped me pay for the expenses related to my husband’s funeral, educate my children and buy another apartment. Without this support, managing would be very difficult,” she said. “This is my life. That’s why even after I retired from the company as head of shift, I applied for a job in another area and came back as a guard.”

Ms. Antonova is one of the many women employees at FSC-certified company Red Star, located in the town of Mozhga – around 1250 kms to the east of capital Moscow, in the Udmurt Republic. Women comprise around 45 per cent of the company’s workforce of 668 employees.

Marina Kuzmenykh poses for portrait in warehouse
FSC / Margarita Kirilina

Gender balance in the workforce a norm

The company, which was started in October 1927 as an enterprise for the disabled, has seen a series of troughs and highs over the decades. But in the typically male-dominated sector of forestry, Red Star wants to be an example of normalizing the presence of women in the industry.

Its director general, Rashit Abashev, is of the view that efficiency in a system is brought about by a balance in male and female employees.

“Women have a different way of doing and looking at things – which men sometimes cannot even think of. Why should we have to particularly think about creating a gender balance? It should already be there. Women have as much a right to be part of the workforce as men and that should be normal,” he said.

As someone that pushes the envelope in gender equality, Mr. Abashev also reintroduced the concept of giving company shares to its employees. The company had a similar ownership pattern till 1963, when it was suspended. This was reinstated in 1991 when Mr. Abashev became the company’s director general.

Under this scheme, 328 employees are shareholders—of which 163 are women. Female employees hold over 50 per cent of the company’s shares.

To accumulate these shares, employees must have a tenure of between 4 to 5 years at the company, display professional and personal development and be an active participant in community activities.

The shares serve as financial contingency for many employees, over and above their salary and retirement benefits.

Like Ms. Antonova, who used some of the money from her shares to purchase an apartment, 55-year-old Svetlana Mymrina plans to sell her shares when she retires and use the money to repair her house.

Ms. Mymrina has 16,000 shares which she has accumulated in the 20 years she has worked at Red Star. “I get more shares each year that I work here. This system of owning the company through shares is a good initiative. It provides more stability to our lives, like a government structure would. This is very unusual in a private company like ours.”

Tatyana Shustova, despatcher of production, agrees. “The shares provide stability. It’s a good feeling to know we have something for the future. The good thing is that these shares can also be transferred to another family member who works at the company.”

The shares helped Marina Kuzminih, specialist in the commercial department, take out a loan to repair her house. “The rate of interest from a company loan is 5 per cent – which is much lower than any bank,” she said.

Elena Mischikhina surveys wrapped timber in warehouse
FSC / Margarita Kirilina

Women on Top

Another initiative to put women behind the steering wheel is constituting a board with women. The company’s current board, which also serves as council of directors, has six women serving on a board of 11 members.

Marina Kuzminih, Tatyana Shustova and Elena Mischikhina are three of the women sitting on the board.

“It’s a huge responsibility to be on the board and help the other members and director make important decisions,” Ms. Mischikhina said.

Mischikhina, a 20-year veteran and head of the plywood products department, likens the company to her second home. “I’ve worked here for so long that it’s my second home. Just like in a family, one sometimes has differences and difficulties, but, we still love them,” she said.

Similarly, for Ms. Kuzmenykh “going to work is a celebration.”

Despite Russia’s female labour force participation being higher than its global average at 54.91 per cent, women are still banned from participating in 456 occupations and 38 branches of industry.

Companies like FSC-certified Red Star push the envelope for women one employee at a time.