Job creation in the ICT sector could help address the gender divide in Europe's labour market, but the sector is mostly dominated by men. Bulgaria stands out with a high rate of women employed in the sector

12/06/2018 -  Marzia Bona

ICT employment is currently undergoing very rapid growth in the European Union as digitalisation spreads throughout all realms of life. The sector represents a broad category, including professional profiles as diverse as systems analysts, software developers, telecommunication engineers, ICT sales professionals, graphic and multimedia designers. Specialists in this highly promising sector are in particularly high demand, with employment growth more than eight times higher than the average employment growth in the EU, according to Eurostat.

As a result of this trend, a shortage of 500,000 ICT specialists is expected in Europe by 2020. A gap which may have a positive impact on gender equality: women could benefit greatly from employment in a sector with high working time flexibility, if only this field was not marked by stark gender segregation, with less than two women employed for every ten positions.

Bulgaria stands out among European countries, with more than 30% of women in the sector compared to the EU average of 16%. This data is particularly meaningful as ICT specialists represent a high ranking position compared to ICT technicians. Only in Romania and Bulgaria do women hold more than 25 per cent of these roles, while for any other European country they represent less than a quarter of ICT specialists. How comes the country strikes such a positive record?

Women in tech since the 1960s

“We are far from perfect: 30% is not 50%, that should be clear”, explains Sasha Bezuhanova, founder and chairperson of the Bulgarian Centre for Women in Technology (BCWT). “One factor explaining the positive situation in the country – she points out – is that the ICT industry has deep roots in Bulgaria, as the computer industry was among the main economic sectors in the country already in the 1960s. Since then, a lot of women engineers have been working in this field along with their male colleagues”. Bezuhanova, who founded BCWT back in 2012 and has more than 20 years of executive business career in the digital industry, also notes that “it is a specific trait of Bulgaria that it is socially perceived as normal for a woman to be an engineer”.

Indeed, women were not always absent from this sector. In France particularly, women’s share was much higher in the 1970s and 1980s, when the bulk of jobs were seen at the time as low-status and clerical by nature. With the advent of the personal computer industry and the development of the internet, the status of ICT jobs changed, as did the gender-neutral image of the IT technician: “Low-skilled data entry and analysis roles were progressively either transferred abroad or automated” illustrates a recent report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), “at the same time as higher status drew more men to the field”. This is why the figure of the ‘geek’ or ‘hacker’ is nowadays very closely associated with masculinity.

"The long-term presence of women in the ICT sector may be one of the explanations of this positive performance", notes Bezuhanova “but this is not enough: we still need to stimulate awareness about the fact that the digital era gives chances to reconcile family life and professional career for both men and women, and that it is fine for men to decide to support the career of women.” Organizations such as BCWT strive to create an environment in which female professionals can exchange their experience on the opportunities to work on a flexible or remote basis, which is crucial to reconcile family and career obligations.

In Bulgaria, there is no quota system ensuring that women are equally represented in business management. “Such a policy was debated but ended up not being approved by the Bulgarian Parliament”, explains Bezuhanova, adding that “quota systems as temporary measures may facilitate an environment in which existing practices and traditions can be overcome.”

The gender gap starts in education

Yet gender imbalance in this sector starts with education, which impacts, in turn, the employment situation. Bulgaria strikes positively also in this dimension, with women representing 40% of those enrolled in ICT studies. “The start-up ecosystem is quite lively in the country, and it represents a stimulating factor for young women to choose the digital education.”

“The real factor here is biases and prejudices that need to be addressed in the young age. The family vision and tradition in this respect is a critical factor”, comments Bezuhanova. BCWT’s activities in this field aim to stimulate girls in seeing themselves as potential innovators: for 5 years now, the yearly competition Entrepregirl invites young girls and women from 16 to 25 years to introduce their business idea on an online platform and to join a community of female founders and professionals in digital industry. “Entrepregirl is an encouragement for the girls to make a step in starting their businesses if they have an idea and inspiration. Going through this process at an early age, they learn how to structure their entrepreneurial idea, sign it with their name, and to say to the world that they are the ones standing behind this idea”.

OECD data, collected within the framework of the PISA test, shows that career-expectations take shape at a very early stage: that’s why attention should be paid to reducing the difference between girls and boys in the field of technology already in primary schools.

Visibility and role models

A positive impact is also played by female role models. “Women leaders in the digital economy and founders of enterprises are the most effective and inspiring factor for the next generation to decide to choose career or start their own businesses in digital industry”, stressed Bezuhanova.

Yet the road to it is not easy. “Female founders of start-ups are getting financed in a more difficult way than men. In Bulgaria as elsewhere, we need to work towards the understanding that entrepreneurship is for those that have talent and inspiration to do it, no matter if they are men or women”, remarks Bezuhanova, who is also a member of the European Angels' Investors Women Group.

Among the role models that Bulgarian girls may be willing to look at, EU Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Mariya Gabriel recently announced actions that will be implemented over the course of the next two years to facilitate the participation of more women in the digital sector by promoting digital skills, higher education in ICT-related areas and startups.

This article is published in collaboration with the European Data Journalism Network  and it is released under a CC BY-SA 4.0  license.

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