The tech sector has a big problem with women. Bulgaria has the answer

The tech sector has a big problem with women. Bulgaria has the answer

While women are woefully under-represented in most tech industries across the world, in Bulgaria they make up nearly one third of the workforce. The Calvert Journal takes a deep dive into Bulgarian tech culture in order to understand how this Balkans country became a pioneer of gender equality

10 January 2019

It is no secret that the tech sector has a diversity problem. Across the European Union, statistics show that only 16 percent of tech workers are women. Things are little better in the United States. Still, a 2016 report showed that 41 percent of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) end up leaving, usually due to poor workplace experiences. There are many factors behind this gender divide, but one of them is undoubtedly the prejudice — both inside and outside the sector — that technology is a man’s world.

But it is not all bleak. There are some beacons of hope and if you are serious about tackling discrimination in IT, you can do no better than to take a leaf out of Bulgaria’s book. Long ignored because of the ominous label of “the EU’s poorest member”, Bulgaria in fact has the bloc’s highest proportion of women tech workers: 27 percent (in the UK it’s 18 percent, in Italy it’s 16 percent and in Germany it’s 17 percent).

A Coding girls class in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. Image: codinggirlscom / Facebook

So what’s Bulgaria’s secret? On one level, it’s a regional trend: Eastern Europe’s tech scene has long been more inclusive than its Western counterpart. According to Eurostat, four of the EU’s top five best gender-balanced tech workforces are in the New East: Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. It’s a phenomenon usually credited to a history of socialism, which placed women’s workplace emancipation at the heart of state ideology. Socialist women were expected to contribute to scientific breakthroughs and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, these women became role models for a new generation. “In kindergarten, I told my teachers that I wanted to work with computers, just like my aunt,” says Anna Radulovski, 26, the founder of the Bulgaria-based Coding Girls. “I wanted to be just like her, without understanding what that meant.”

But it is not just history: Bulgaria has also reaped the dividends of investment in a modern education system and its many outreach programmes in the tech sector. The fate of other former socialist states, which languish at the bottom of the table for tech gender balance, show it’s not just the socialist legacy. Hungary and Slovakia score particularly badly while the Czech Republic comes in last place, with less than 10 percent of all technology jobs filled by women.

Bulgarian Communist leader Todor Zhivkov famously declared the country’s future was to become “the Japan of the Balkans.”

Bulgaria has consistently invested in maintaining its high-tech pedigree. The country cemented its place as a computing hub as far back as the early 1980s when it supplied hardware to the rest of the communist world. Cold War trade embargoes prevented the West’s fledgling computer tech being exported to the Soviet bloc, so technicians made their own versions, usually by reverse engineering U.S. models. One of these Bulgarian machines, the Pravets 82, was exported in huge numbers. At its peak, 40 percent of all computers in the Eastern Bloc came from Bulgaria, which ranked third worldwide for per capita production of electronic devices.

Bulgarian Communist leader Todor Zhivkov famously declared the country’s future was to become “the Japan of the Balkans.” When Communism collapsed in the 1990s it inflicted considerable damage on the industry (the Pravets computers violated copyright laws and could no longer be sold) but a precedent had been set — and the tech industry was already part of Bulgaria’s national identity. Computing remains at the forefront of the mind of young women as they make their way towards the workplace.

Bulgarian-made Pravets computers in use in the 1980s. Image: Pereslavl Week under a CC License

The country’s education system has laid the groundwork for both girls and boys to look upon tech as a must-have career. Parents and teachers prize maths as an “exact science” and emphasise its importance. Specialist maths schools are a feature of most Bulgarian towns and, as these schools demand top grades, they are a prestigious choice, offering a route to computer science courses at university. Perhaps most importantly, the government in Sofia is dedicated to promoting a strong STEM ethos. Some schools offer AI classes to children as young as 15 and teachers receive training to improve their digital skills. There are also a growing number of STEM-themed events outside of schools, which are crucial for girls who feel stifled or face negative peer pressure.

“For the last few years, there have been good steps in advancing the Bulgarian education system,” says Dr Milena Krumova, founder and manager of EduTechFlag, an organisation which promotes STEM and the use of technology in education. “[That includes] workshops, tech-camps, conferences and educational events organised for students. Informal settings for STEM learning are a good motivating factor for more girls to start projects in STEM, to collaborate and to develop those skills so important for problem-solving.”

While a STEM-focused education system and a long-standing computing culture may have set the basis for a diverse tech workforce, it is economics that has ensured women remain in the sector in high numbers. When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, its young, educated workforce became a resource to be tapped. International companies rushed to take advantage of lower operational costs in the Balkans and the benefits of EU membership. Bulgaria’s IT sector has been booming ever since.

Anna Radulovski set up Coding Girls in Bulgaria. Image: anna.radulovski / Facebook

“[Companies are attracted by] factors like low currency risk… the most competitive costs of labour in Central and Eastern Europe and an excellent broadband infrastructure, [as well as] government incentives, access to EU funds, and a strategic location for a wide coverage of time-zones,” says Teodora Kacharova who founded Women in Tech Bulgaria along with Emiliya Sokolova and Valeria Doncheva. “The Bulgarian IT sector has been one of the driving forces behind the country’s steady [economic] growth over the past few years.”

With Bulgaria’s IT sector recording an average annual expansion of 17 percent since 2007, companies need highly trained staff — and they simply can’t compete if half the workforce is excluded. The strength of demand has also incentivised companies to push for inclusivity and examine their own practices. “There’s less bias [in interviews] because people are looking for skills,” says Coding Girls’ Radulovski.

When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, its young, educated workforce became a resource to be tapped

To fill vacancies, some companies have free IT training schemes and women benefit from these more flexible routes into employment. Those women who felt pushed out of STEM at school can re-enter training at a later stage, as can those who may have taken a break to care for children. “As an example, the software company Telerik created its Telerik Academy for software engineers in 2009,” says Kacharova. “Since then, it has trained more than 9,000 students.” Women who complete the training are well-rewarded: wages in the tech sector are substantially higher than many other professions in Bulgaria.

Yet even as Bulgarian women lead the way in the European tech industry, campaigners say there is more to do. “Once I had a talk with a man in a high position,” says Radulovski. “And he even joked — can girls code? It will take years to shift this mindset.” But all believe that they are making progress — and, with over a third of Bulgaria’s computing students being female, the future is bright. Countries where the IT gender imbalance is more stark would benefit from Bulgaria’s example. “It is no longer a man’s world. The tech world is open and ready for everybody and we’re here to embrace it,” says Kacharova.