War in Ukraine

On How Ukrainian Women Are Reshaping the Workforce Amid War

On How Ukrainian Women Are Reshaping the Workforce Amid War

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a remarkable societal shift. As thousands of Ukrainian men defend their country, women are stepping up to fill the void in traditionally male-dominated industries.

“Women are good all-rounders—if something needs to be done, we do it,” says Lucy Volter, a psychologist from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. She spoke to me from a city under heavy bombardment for two years. When I first contacted her, Lucy asked to postpone our talk—she wouldn’t reliably be in touch during her trip to the Ukrainian frontline. “We’re heading out on another tour,” she explained.

Since 2014, Lucy has dedicated most of her time and efforts to volunteering, primarily as a psychologist. She works with Ukrainian soldiers and their families, veterans, volunteers who support the army, and families of the deceased, providing psychological support during the burial of their loved ones. Recently, despite having no prior experience, Lucy learned to drive large cargo trucks, aiming to become a more versatile volunteer and help even more people.

“There are many nuances specific to this field,” she notes. “Like the size and dimensions. Training on cargo distribution was helpful. I want to do things properly, not haphazardly, to avoid accidents. Cargo is cargo, it is always valuable.”

Across Ukraine, companies are now offering training programs to equip women with the skills needed for these new roles. Many organizations and foundations are joining the effort: the Right to Protection supports socially vulnerable groups, Vona Hub and Renewable Energy Training Center offer training courses, particularly for internally displaced persons and women who lost jobs due to the war, the Mining State Enterprise actively recruits both men and women for mining and equipment operation positions. Thanks to programs like Reskilling Ukraine, Lucy Volter is now a skilled cargo truck driver.

The challenges these women face are significant. Many jobs demand physical strength and stamina, and the psychological toll of war adds another layer of difficulty. Lucy admits that it was sometimes frightening, but she lives by the motto: “Scared, but going for it.”

“Don’t be afraid,” she says confidently. “Understand why you need it, what you want, and what you’ll do with it. Self-sufficiency and self-identification—who I am, what I am, and why I need this—help you overcome these moments that life throws at you.”

That, Lucy says, is our progress.

Historical parallels

How do thousands of women enter a new industry in the span of a few years?

This isn’t the first time war has required a change in traditional gender roles. During World War II, “Rosie the Riveter” became a symbol of female empowerment as women filled factory jobs left by men at war. Similarly, women in the UK were called up for vital roles in mechanics, engineering, and munitions work. “Women of Steel” changed labor and helped win a war.

At first, only single women aged 20-30 were called up, but by mid-1943, almost 90% of single women and 80% of married women were working in factories, on the land, or in the armed forces.

Kathryn J. Atwood, author of Women Heroes of World War II, wrote: “They [women] followed their consciences, saw something that needed to be done, and they did it. And all of them helped win a war, even though many of them paid the ultimate price for their contribution.”

This mass mobilization of female labor demonstrated their capabilities and defied the norm. During the Cold War women played a vital role in codebreaking and technological advancements. Figures like Grace Hopper, a US Navy rear admiral and computer scientist, became pioneers in this new field. Similarly, the telephone industry thrived on female switchboard operators, and expanding education systems in the 19th century saw a rise in female teachers.

The motivation

Tetyana Pashkina, an HR specialist, illuminates the reasons driving more Ukrainian women to enter traditionally male-dominated professions.

“Often, a woman’s husband may have been a long-haul truck driver or tractor operator, leaving behind equipment and expertise,” Tetyana explains. “Women take up the mantle, learning to drive trucks or operate machinery to support their families.”

Job opportunities for women in small towns often involve long hours and insufficient pay, prompting them to seek employment in welding or machine operating, offering training, a good salary, childcare facilities, and other social benefits.

“The rarest scenario is when a woman has always dreamed of operating a heavy-duty soil compactor—a large, robust machine,” Tetyana continues. “With time, men become less likely to argue against a woman’s capability to master such machinery, recognizing that she can indeed handle and excel in the role.”

Illustration by Anna Ivanenko
Illustration by Anna Ivanenko

The biggest issue is bias

The presence of women in male-dominated industries has not been without its challenges. Often, entering such fields could be akin to Sisyphean labor for Ukrainian women, or as the famous poet Lesya Ukrainka put it, “Up the flinty steep and craggy mountain, a weighty ponderous boulder I shall raise…” Many women, like Lucy, have had to deal with skepticism from their male colleagues.

“Some grumpy men felt invaded when a woman intervened in 'their' domain,” she smiles, recalling her training experience. “But when you say, ‘I will do this because I need to. You guide me, I can do it,’ they cooperate, and they share their knowledge.”

As a volunteer who often helps Ukrainian soldiers by driving them to their positions, Lucy has extensive experience working alongside men.

“I see it in the military,” she notes. “At the war’s onset in 2014, they only took women as cooks, medics, and clerks. Now women are mastering what interests them. I know women who are mortar gunners, reconnaissance commanders, and combat vehicle operators. They’re doing it and they’re interested. They’re not afraid and they get involved. The main thing is—they do it well. The mindset here is ‘I need to prove that I can do this. And that I can do it better.’ That’s a powerful motivator.”

Despite efforts, the gender imbalance persists, even in fields that don’t require physical labor, such as computational technology and cybersecurity, regardless of women’s intelligence and capabilities in these areas.

“Men’s reactions can be mixed,” Tetyana says. “Sometimes it’s like breaking into the ‘old boys' club’—what we know as ‘bro culture’—where everyone is buddy-buddy, slapping each other on the back, and swearing is no big deal.”

“Women often have to assert their right to be there. Eventually, as male colleagues realize that women are not there to compete or ‘out-alpha’ anyone, tensions ease, and men discover that, hey, women are people too.”

She says advocacy and awareness campaigns help men realize the benefits of women on the team; men see that a dedicated team member is better than being shorthanded.

However, bias is still a big issue at the leadership level. Tetyana emphasizes the need for companies to tackle it and create workplaces where women feel valued and respected for what they bring to the table.

“This fixed mindset trickles down, creating impunity below,” Tetyana explains. “Trolling and bullying do not arise in a vacuum. There has to be a toxic leader in the team who provokes such behavior, or a boss who says, 'HR hired you as a programmer, but I know women make lousy programmers. Well, give it a shot! ' With motivation like that, a woman is boxed in a corner thinking, 'How do I get out of this? ' Such situations exist, unfortunately. However, plenty of companies don’t provoke this kind of environment.”

Encouraging female employment

While prejudice remains a hurdle, the situation is improving as more organizations recognize the value of diverse and inclusive work environments. Companies like DTEK and Metinvest are actively promoting gender diversity by featuring women in their workforce in interviews and profiles. Poltava GOK, FerrExpo, and many other industrial enterprises also employ women—whether out of necessity or choice. Historical precedents, such as the involvement of women in mining professions during wartime, serve as inspiration for today’s women breaking barriers.

“A deep dive into Wikipedia reveals that mining wasn’t always an exclusively male profession,” Tetyana remarks. “A woman almost broke the Stakhanovite norm.”

The woman in question is Mariia Lomonos-Hrishutina, a coal miner from Horlivka, Ukraine. In 1943, she encouraged women and girls from the Donbas region to pursue mining work. In response to her call, “Girls, down to the coalface!”, 20 women’s coalface brigades were formed, competing with each other.

Mariia achieved an impressive feat, almost matching the legendary coal miner Alexei Stakhanov’s record. She began with one and a half norms and ended with a remarkable 11.5 men’s norms; Stakhanov himself had achieved 12. Yet, while the famous miner worked with a jackhammer and had three timbermen assisting him, Mariia used only a pickaxe, with her disabled father as her sole support in the workings.

“During wartime, women going into the mines was a normal practice,” Tetyana says. “When we talk about hard labor here, sadly, women are used to it.”

Illustration by Anna Ivanenko
Illustration by Anna Ivanenko

Positive trends in gender diversity

As Ukraine tackles the immense challenges of war and reconstruction, the inclusion of women in more professions is crucial. Women bring a wealth of valuable skills, perspectives, and resilience to the workforce, significantly contributing to the nation’s recovery efforts. This shift has the potential to reshape Ukraine’s workforce for years to come.

Technological advancements have played a significant role in this progress. In 2017, legislation that prohibited women from practicing some 450 professions was abolished, removing outdated restrictions and opening doors for women. This has led to the active recruitment of women in warehouses, production lines, and various sectors where technology or automation allows.

While the increasing number of women in diverse industries is a positive trend, it’s important to see quality alongside quantity. By ensuring positive experiences and addressing existing challenges, we can move beyond past perceptions and create a more inclusive and empowered workforce for a stronger Ukraine.

“Women will pave the way for another category—our demobilized men, those discharged due to amputations or other physical impairments,” Tetyana notes.

Estimates suggest that between 20,000 and 50,000 soldiers have become amputees in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion. As the war continues, the numbers will only grow. Ukrainian soldiers returning from the war with amputations face a complex web of challenges in finding employment. Physical demands of many jobs, the high cost and ongoing needs of prosthetics, a lack of workplace accommodations, and societal biases regarding amputations can all limit job options and create difficulties in reintegration.

“By adjusting our business processes to accommodate physically weaker women, where the job involves lifting but the woman controls the remote, even a man with an amputated limb or a prosthetic could find employment, as the business processes are already tailored to such needs,” Tetyana says.

“Another aspect to consider: psychologically, international and intergender teams thrive because they complement behavior models, adding nuances; where men may exhibit risk-taking behavior, women may exercise caution, and vice versa.”

Women remain underrepresented in the labor market, not only in Ukraine but also in most countries around the world. In times of war, when the growing economy is a big struggle, the economic loss due to the gender employment gap is a big blow. Improving gender equality could lead to an increase in GDP, as even globally there’s a U-shape relationship between female labor force participation and GDP per capita.

“Instead of being freeloaders, women join the workforce, produce goods, provide for themselves, and thus help the state accordingly,” Tetyana notes.

Access to career guidance, engagement, and support is seldom readily available, she says. If all the necessary elements aligned, many women would flourish in the workforce. Clear opportunities, offering not just retraining but also mentorship and support, would enable women to thrive.

Demographics shift, as women over 40 take the lead

“When we analyze our demographic pyramid, the most substantial segment of the market currently comprises women aged 40 and above, up to 80,” Tetyana remarks.

Women outnumber men in Ukraine by over 5%, especially in this age group.

“This generation is experiencing a second maturity,” Tetyana says. “There may come a time when judgments about women and men based on birthdates will cease because they are indispensable. This 'aha' moment will provide us with additional resources. Women are underutilized in our workforce. Engaging women will help in tackling the challenge of an aging nation.”

The gradual aging of Ukraine’s population, exacerbated by the ongoing war, underscores the urgent need to utilize the country’s workforce fully. Leveraging every available resource is crucial for the nation to endure and overcome the challenges brought on by this devastation.

“I have hope that women will emerge in leadership positions, both in middle management and higher-ups,” Tetyana shares. “It’ll foster a sense of unity. Women will begin to see themselves as the architects of their own destinies, which will give us a boost.”

“I see many women with incredible potential who could accomplish great feats. These women are ready to work; they want to. They undertake all these endeavors in the hope of being valued. We have many people in their forties and fifties who have potential, but for now, they’re getting jobs based on a final principle, so to speak.”

What the future holds

The transformation seen in Ukraine, driven by necessity, has the potential to permanently reshape the workforce. As women continue to break barriers and take on roles traditionally held by men, they not only support the immediate needs of their country but also set a precedent for future generations. This shift towards gender equality and inclusion can lead to a more resilient, innovative, and prosperous Ukraine.

By embracing this change, fostering inclusive workplaces, and supporting women through training, mentorship, and career opportunities, Ukraine can harness its full potential. The stories of women like Lucy Volter and the efforts of organizations dedicated to empowering women highlight the significant progress made and the work still needed to achieve true gender equality in the workforce.

“I wish women in these tough industrial professions a better fate than just using their strength,” Tetyana concludes. “Often, women enter such tough professions to prove they can handle it. 'I might snap, but I’ll do it' they say. I don’t want women to snap. I want them to thrive.”

See all