russian women in tech
Katerina pauses near King's Cross, home to a burgeoning London tech hub. IBTimes/Mehar Sultan

Ekaterina is a popular girl's name in Russia. It is a classic for a reason. Generation after generation, countless parents, some perhaps unwittingly, pay homage to one of the Motherland's most illustrious rulers - Catherine the Great.

A despot as was the norm of that era, Catherine was nevertheless heavily influenced by the liberal ideals sweeping the continent at the time. She was a great patron of the arts, who famously had regular correspondence with Voltaire.

She was also one of Russia's longest-serving rulers, at 34 years on the throne - though Vladimir Putin is trying hard to leave her behind in that department.

While Putin may aim to rival Catherine in longevity, he seems to favour going the opposite direction as far as Enlightenment ideals are concerned.

On a bright but cold London day, I met up with one of the empress's namesakes, Katerina, near King's Cross. Like so many of her compatriots, Katerina's story is one of courage in an impossible situation and a relentless drive that has helped her power through the crises brought on by Putin's war in Ukraine.

Catherine II would be proud.

Katerina works in the tech industry, like all four of the women I spoke to for this piece. She has had a long, mostly freelance career in business management roles. Though she spent parts of her childhood and early career in Russia, her life has always been very international, moving to various locations due to her parents' careers.

Eventually, she settled in Britain. However, when the Covid pandemic hit and offices were shut down, like so many tech workers, she figured she could use the mobility her job offered to her advantage.

Katerina decided to move back to Russia for a while, to spend time with family. After that experience, she decided to return to Russia in 2022 whilst working on an international project. Little did she know what was to come.


"I landed in Russia on 23rd February (2022) - just one day before the war started. I had gone to be with my family - but found myself on a war footing!" she says over a plate of chicken tikka at the popular Dishoom.

She had a skiing trip planned in the south of Russia with a group of friends. Tickets were already booked, and non-refundable payment on accommodation had been made.

As news of the conscription effort broke, male friends in the group had added incentive to go away for a while - nobody was buying the government's line that conscription would be limited to those with a military background.

Besides, it was hard to ascertain the scale of the situation given the censorship around the "special military operation".

"Perhaps it will deescalate and be over in a matter of days," she recalls thinking. That has been a common thread amongst the recollections of the four women I spoke to for this piece.

As the plane made its way to a ski resort in the south of Russia, Katerina got the first inkling of the magnitude of the war.

"A journey that should have taken two hours took four. The plane detoured to avoid Mariupol and Donetsk."

Of course, we now know both these locations as major Ukrainian epicentres of the war.

By the time Katerina returned to Moscow, panic was in the air. "Chaotic" is a word that featured prominently in our conversation.

"It wasn't like anyone could make great, rational decisions at that point in time."

The borders were closing. Flights were selling out.

"My credit cards - Visa and Mastercard - stopped working. There were unending queues at cash machines.

"My job was still based in London. I was being paid from London. My money didn't work!"

After two hours of scouring the internet, Katerina managed to book a seat on one of the last flights out of the country - to Turkey.

"I slept for 16 hours straight as soon as my head hit the pillow at the hotel in Istanbul."

Like many Russians, Katerina found herself in the crosshairs of a global crisis. The firm she was working with on a six-month contract ended her employment abruptly. In spite of her British citizenship, she was considered a "Russian supplier" by her firm, a turn of events made even more strange by the fact that she had been hired out of London.

Russian Women in Tech

There is a stereotype that Russia does better than its European neighbours at encouraging women to go into STEM fields.

Indeed, this author confesses to sharing in that general impression - not least because of Golden Eye's plucky Russian programmer character, Natalya Simonova. With apologies, I came of age when Pierce Brosnan was Bond and the 007 franchise still relied heavily on Cold War storylines.

Some stereotypes, however, may have a modicum of truth to them.

A study carried out by Microsoft in 2017 showed that more than 60 per cent of Russian parents encourage their daughters to pursue STEM subjects. By comparison, the equivalent number was just over 40 per cent for Britain, and just over 30 for Germany.

I asked Katerina if her experiences are in line with findings indicating a greater representation of women in tech in Russia.

She observes: "In the Soviet Union, everyone went to work - in factories, in education, in healthcare - didn't matter if you were a man or a woman. It was normal for girls to go into science and engineering in the last century or so. Many girls dreamt of being cosmonauts. They were not considered "male" professions or "difficult".

"In my generation - those born in the 80's - it was always encouraged."

There is some data to back this up. In the 1920s, Russia was one of the first countries to issue legislation that established equal rights to education and work for men and women. The percentage of women researchers catapulted after that - going from 10 per cent in 1917 to 42 per cent in 1938, according to the Russian Ministry of Education.

The picture is complicated. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 40 per cent of Russian researchers are women.

However, "researcher" accounts for a wide array of fields. The numbers fall for specifically tech-related representation.

Yandex, dubbed the Russian Google, says that a third of its employees are women, though this number falls to about 20 per cent for technology roles. This is more comparable to figures in Britain, for instance.

I posed the same question to Mila, who requested I change her name.

Mila works for a financial advisory firm in the tech sector. Though her family moved to Cyprus when she was young, she has visited family in Russia often and is a native Russian speaker.

"Moscow is one of the most progressive cities in the world," she says, before adding the caveat that Russia is still a conservative country in parts.

There is no simple conclusion to be drawn. Female labour force participation in Russia (percentage of working-age women in employment) is 69 per cent according to the World Bank (2019 figures). Corresponding figures for the United States and the United Kingdom were 68 per cent and 74 per cent respectively.

Mila also confirms that anecdotally at least, she gets the impression that a good proportion of professional Russian women go into technology careers such as becoming developers. She has a view as to why that is.

"If you study code, it's a universal language around the world. If someone studies Russian law, for instance, it won't be useful for employment abroad."

By contrast, she says: "A tech education helps not only to find employment abroad but also leads to some of the highest paid domestic jobs."

Russian military recruitment centre
A Russian service member stands next to a mobile recruitment centre for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov

Brain Drain: The war exacerbates a longstanding trend

Mila is on to something. The Ukraine War has turned a steady stream of Russian émigrés into a flood. Estimates vary. One prominent economist estimated that 200,000 fled within two weeks of the invasion.

Many have left to avoid the military draft that came into operation following the war.

Last September, Russia began its largest mobilisation since the Second World War, with a reported 300,000 Russians drafted to fight. The scale far outstrips the limited 12-month military service younger men are subject to in normal times.

A recorded 70,000 of those leaving within the first five weeks were tech workers. According to the Russian Communications Ministry, 10 per cent of the country's IT workers had left by December 2022.

In September last year, The Russian Ministry of Defence announced that IT, communications and finance professionals were exempt from the war effort - in a sign of not only how vital they are to the economy, but also how employable they are abroad.

However, everyone else is not so fortunate.

Currently, it is estimated that anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million Russians have left the country. In an effort to close the loopholes in last year's conscription decree, the government passed new laws in April 2023 to target draft dodging.

Draft letters that were previously sent using conventional mail now take the form of electronic communication through a portal used by Russians to pay for their utilities. They are considered binding the moment the government presses send. Conscripts are banned from leaving the country.

Many have left for economic reasons, as sanctions were imposed.

Others left for political reasons. They had long opposed Putin's rising authoritarianism. In addition to the possibility of martial law and the crackdown on free speech, the looming threat of borders closing encouraged them along the way.

In fact, Russians have been leaving steadily for the last two decades - the war has just accelerated the pace. Between 2000, when Vladimir Putin first became president, and 2019, 1.6 million to 2 million Russians have left the country - out of a population of 145 million.

In a survey conducted between 2017 and 2018 by the Atlantic Council, a think tank, 40 per cent of emigrants who had left since 2000 cited the "general political climate" and 29 per cent "persecution and poor human rights" - a change from earlier decades when people left primarily for economic reasons.

Those who have left since 2010 are also amongst the most educated and economically productive; mostly between 25 and 45 years of age, with 36 per cent having a master's degree or a doctorate, according to the Atlantic Council.

Russian émigrés are responsible for the world's most successful digital start-ups, such as Revolut, a mobile-banking app based in London co-founded by Nikolay Storonsky. It was valued at $33bn in 2021. Miro, a software publisher started by two Russian entrepreneurs, is now worth about $18bn.

Inna, whose name has also been changed, works as a developer at a medical services start-up in England.

She lived and worked in Moscow until she met her now-husband, who is British. She has now lived in England for seven years.

She mentions that many acquaintances have left Russia - particularly for economic reasons.

"Salaries are still lower than in other countries. Interest rates are high, so it's hard to buy a property.

"I have a friend with a PhD in Physics who moved to the US - this was even before the war. If people can move, they do - especially programmers, who can work remotely from anywhere."

Russian woman at a protest
A Russian woman is detained at an anti-war protest in Moscow. REUTERS

Everyday Life: USSR 2.0?

Katerina recalled the intensified atmosphere of censorship following the start of the war.

"I felt so suppressed. It was absolutely at odds with my values to shut up and not talk about the elephant in the room."

She told me she became even more cautious about what she said when it became clear she had to leave.

"It was becoming a little bit like USSR 2.0!" she told me. "You think your neighbours might tell the police: 'She's about to leave for London'.

"It messes with your head because you don't know who to trust."

Similarly, Karolina (not her real name), who works as a sales manager in the gaming industry, is fearful of visiting Russia. She says she would certainly face the might of law enforcement given her anti-war stance on social media.

She left Russia when she was young and lived in Cyprus. She has since worked in other cities around the world, before settling in London.

Mila said that, as with many Russians, her family felt the impact of the exodus of multinational companies from Russia.

"A relative worked for DHL in operations. It was a shock when they pulled out."

Like Katerina, she recalled the impact of the pulling out of financial services. "The biggest hit came when banking services left. I remember when the Swift ban came into effect.

"Russians were no longer able to pay for online services. My family had planned to book a visit to Cyprus, but found out they could no longer pay for it."

Swift is the world's largest international payments company. A 2022 Swift ban against some Russian banks is one of the sanctions imposed by the European Union and other Western countries.

Mila made the fascinating observation that the gap has been filled by alternative providers originating from countries that did not sanction Russia - such as China.

Inna recalled that the first thing family and friends mentioned was the spike in the cost of living.

"The prices of groceries went up immediately. My friend saved up money to buy a car, but now it's not enough anymore."

In one of the less dire but nevertheless, noticeable changes, Katerina mentioned how the face of the Russian high street has changed - what was once taken for granted is no more.

"They closed IKEA. Russians love IKEA!" she said with a wistful smile. "People love to furnish their summer cabins with IKEA."

She recalls people telling her how strange high streets look without mainstays like McDonald's and Zara - though local replacements may have plugged the gap in some areas.

Redefined Relationships: "Look! They're speaking Russian."

Inna was on holiday with her husband when the war broke out. He woke her up and told her it was on the news.

"I called my parents because they live near the border."

She, like the others, said she avoids talking about the war with family, for fear that phones may be surveilled. However, there is also another reason to avoid the topic.

Katerina told me: "Myself and other Russian friends abroad decided not to talk about it with our families because there was a difference of opinion. There is an opinion in some quarters, encouraged by state media, that Russia is (on a noble mission in) Ukraine."

Katerina went on to say that those who oppose the war "cannot talk about it" as they are fearful of the consequences. "There is a lot of propaganda in Russia at the moment. You could go to jail for a term of 7 years."

She likened the impact on interpersonal relationships to what the world experienced in the Covid pandemic - given flying to Russia is so difficult now, with no direct flights from Western Europe.

"Everybody - even those Russians who left many years ago - is in pain. Many émigrés still visit their families every year - and now that has become very difficult - either due to logistical complexities or disagreements between families over the war. My friends' children - who were born during the war - haven't met their grandparents who live in Russia."

The women I spoke to, who all live in England, largely said that in the aftermath of the war, they experienced no discrimination or ill-treatment linked to their Russian background.

Karolina mentioned that she has heard anecdotes from Cyprus of Russian children being bullied in schoolyards, but nothing in England.

When she has met Ukrainians through work engagements, interactions have remained friendly and polite, but there is one obvious change.

"Ukrainians I meet in a professional setting don't speak Russian to me anymore. My last name says it all (about my Russian background). Previously we would have spoken in Russian. To be honest, I have a lot of sympathy for their point of view - I completely understand."

She recalls an incident at a restaurant she visited with another Russian friend.

"This old English couple next to us stared. I heard one of them say: 'They're speaking Russian!'"

She laughed about it. "Maybe they would have said the same before the war."

All of my interviewees had Ukrainian friends. Without exception, they have maintained these relationships.

In a stance representative of all the women I talked with, Mila said, "My Ukrainian friends know very well that I side with them, so the war hasn't caused a rift there."

She adds: "In fact, it's caused more of a rift with some Russian acquaintances - who incidentally live abroad - who posted pro-war messages (on social media)."

"Nyet voynye!"

The four émigrés watch from abroad with trepidation as those of their compatriots brave enough to protest in the streets face arrest and imprisonment for chants of "Nyet voynye!" - "no to war".

These women represent yet another generation of Russians that had hoped better for their country - even though their life experiences and tech careers mean they need not return to the Motherland.

Karolina's family left Russia in the late nineties because of the creeping autocratic tendencies of the regime. She recalled her mother saying, "We fought so hard for you to have the choice and for your freedom - but we're back to square one (in regards to free speech)."

As someone rightly attached to Russia's rich cultural heritage, Inna was pained by the shadow cast over her Russian identity by Putin's war.

"When I think about myself as Russian, I think about the great writers like Pushkin and Tolstoy, about Russian scientists, about our culture...and now I feel people look at me differently.

"In fact, it has changed my perception of myself. It's hard to explain. It felt like, with this one move, Putin just erased all of this rich Russian history - and now it's just a terrorist country killing people."

In a sobering observation, Karolina said of the vast majority of people who have left "understand they cannot come back."

As many of us learned during the pandemic, it is a difficult thing to be far from loved ones. Add to that an inability to even visit your home country, which some of us also experienced during Covid, and you start to understand some of what Russian émigrés are feeling.

Until we can comprehend what it feels like to be so completely uncertain - and despondent - about where the country of your birth is heading, however, we cannot understand the limbo in which anti-war Russians, both abroad and at home, find themselves.