When it comes to getting more women into STEM, the West could learn a thing or two from Eastern Europe
Women in industries across the world are fighting to close the gap in employment and in pay. No more so is this the case than in STEM.
Last week, a female tech professional in Colombia described her difficulties working in the tech sector in Latin America, where the “machista society” is alive and well. Meanwhile, it seems that barely a day goes by without another woman’s appalling experience in the “frat boy” culture of the Silicon Valley “boy’s club” making the headlines (Uber and Google to name but two).
But while the debate – and the anger – over attitudes towards women in technology rages in the West, women are gaining a much greater foothold in Eastern Europe. According to recently released Eurostat data, the number of women in tech in Bulgaria stands at 27.7%. Romania closely follows, as does Latvia, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania. More encouraging, perhaps, is the fact that the ratio of women to men is almost 50:50 in management as well as at entry-level.
Women are going into tech because they want to, not because they have to, and, more importantly, because they know they can thrive
By comparison, the situation in the West makes depressing reading. The number of women in occupations relating to computer science and maths has gone down in the US since 1990, while in the UK, Germany and France – all nations which pride themselves on their egalitarianism – the figure hovers around just 16.1%.
There’s much to learn from this. The reason for the high representation of women in technology in Eastern Europe is a hangover of the Communist regime. Women were pushed into engineering and science occupations during the rapid period of industralisation, which made these sorts of roles prestigious.
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This doesn’t mean we need to incite a political revolution, of course, but what this illustrates is that once the tide does begin to change, it is hard to stop. Although the reason so many women work in the sector lies in the growth of the Eastern Bloc workforce during the Soviet era, the number of women studying in tech-related fields is still increasing, year-on-year, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Women are going into tech because they want to, not because they have to, and, more importantly, because they know they can thrive.
For girls growing up in Bulgaria, for instance, or Romania, tech isn’t seen as a “male” profession, and the myth – still widely believed in the West – that men in some way have brains better suited to tech than women do is not only nowhere to be found, but also impossible to hold. In a recent interview, software engineer Iva Kaneva explained that at her school in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, girls did just a well as boys in maths and computer science and her parents, both engineers, expressly encouraged her to learn how to code. Look westwards, and you’ll still find people claiming that women won’t, can’t or shouldn’t.
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In Delusions of Gender, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine looks at how social issues about the sexes have influenced the theories and methods used to study gender in relation to the brain. What she found is shockingly lightweight research that is taken seriously, and nuanced research that is consistently mis- or underreported. What this, and the attitudes in Eastern Europe remind us, is not only that we need to do more to encourage girls and young women to study STEM subjects, but that we also need to show them they can succeed in order to give them the confidence to flourish.
The Eastern Europe phenomenon is stark evidence of the fact the huge disparity in tech between women and men is, without a doubt, a by-product of the social environment women find themselves in
More than anything, the Eastern Europe phenomenon is stark evidence of the fact the huge disparity in tech between women and men is, without a doubt, a by-product of the social environment women find themselves in. We should look to the strides that have been made by women in Romania, Bulgaria and other countries in the region for inspiration and an affirmation that the balance needn’t be weighted so heavily away from women, and that change can indeed happen swiftly.
It’s for those reasons that we should be optimistic. The tide might be changing slowly in the West, but it’s changing all the same. Soon, the very idea that women can’t thrive in the technology sector will be laughable.
Pip Wilson is an angel investor and CEO of amicable