Finding Our Place as Female Professionals

Today the rain patters down on Bishkek.

Last night I went to a Professional Development Group held by the Bishkek International Women’s Club in the Tash Rabat Sierra Cafe, which is owned by an Uzbek-New Zealand woman who belongs to the club (and has far faster internet than its kin on Manas Ave).

We gathered in the room, twenty or two dozen of us, on a black and rainy eve to understand our employment in Bishkek, to understand our place and our potential for growth in the city.  Cookies and coffee, sign-in’s and introductions.  An ethnomusicologist with bright red glasses, short wavy hair and an ebullient personality.  A tall blond from Denmark in a billowing silk shirt and trousers, a mother and wife and former professional consultant. An Armenian woman who finally – with a year or so left on her husband’s posting in Bishkek, found a local-salaried job at USAID.  A German PR Specialist just arrived and having the same struggle with looking young and being female. Another American ex-grad student, here married to a Kyrgyz man, and for three years struggling to find real work in her specialized field – water resource management.  Mothers and wives who don’t work, a few younger re-locates to Bishkek.  All of us trying to find a place – a place that respects us for our skills, that allows us to develop and grow – in this city where there are few opportunities.

Many of the women present were ‘trailing spouses’ with husbands in development or working at the embassy (as are many of the women at BIWC), women who feel they have a responsibility to make each new house a home, to manage their kids’ schooling, and who are still trying to maintain a career over successive moves at the end of the day.  Nowhere must that be easy, and in Bishkek – where there are so few opportunities – especially not.

We had a speaker, a local female entrepreneur and founder of Bishkek’s first PR firm.  She led us through introductions – why we were present, what we expected – and then through a semi-discussion of obstacles that hinder us from reaching our “dream tomorrow”.  And then the presentation ended, which was a little odd, as it seemed she’d just given us the tip, the first 5% before diving into her actual topic. Practical advice there was lacking.  In the ensuing Q&A I asked a question that’s bothered me in Bishkek – as a successful female entrepreneur herself, what kinds of strategies had she developed to overcome being taken too lightly in a city (and a country) where women are often less respected than men.  Other women nodded.  The water specialist had once discovered she was paid 1/3 less than a male colleague for the exact same job.  I was initially offered 20% of E’s salary at the university – and presented the offer with a straight face, as if it was a fare deal.  Last week I sat in on a meeting where a male candidate was chosen over the female (both were about equal in standing) because it was feared she wouldn’t be taken seriously when dealing with government representatives, most of whom are older and male. Same story from someone else – though in that case the woman was far more qualified.

The answer our speaker gave was not to assert yourself or act in any special way, to take advantage of the courtesies offered to women, to disprove people’s assumptions by succeeding as a woman, and to find the group who will accept and respect you as a woman and a professional. In a city where there are regularly three international job openings a month – we don’t have the luxury of being so selective. We need to work with what we have, with what is available.

The young German PR specialist came up to me later and said, “She didn’t answer your question”.  No, she didn’t.  And I’ve noticed that often in Bishkek – Gender inequality is a serious problem in the city. Few local women see it as such. The same when I was working on the Gender Action Plan for a vo-tech education project run by a Swiss organization last summer.  The woman I was supposed to be reporting to – who was hired to be the project’s HR and Gender Equity specialist – ridiculed her title and said it was unfortunate she’d been put in charge of gender issues, as gender inequality and discrimination didn’t exist in Kyrgyzstan, and women were equal partners.  And then she stumbled for a bit and spent half an hour detailing all of the gender-based issues she’d had to deal with while sorting out interactions between employees as an HR specialist for other firms. Women are different citizens in Kyrgyzstan. And finding a way to establish ourselves as professionals equally worthy of respect – that is a challenge, one that hasn’t gone away.

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