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Nordic countries in denial over IT industry equality

Arriving in Denmark to find she was the only woman on a computer science master’s course was a shock to Plamena Cherneva

Nordic businesses are forward-thinking in technology, but when it comes to equality between men and women in the sector, that is a misconception.

A group set up to address the gender equality gap has now launched Nordic IT awards to recognise women in the industry and to help raise awareness of the problem, in what it believes is a regional first.

When, in 2010, Plamena Cherneva left her native Bulgaria to study a master’s in computer science in Denmark, she didn’t expect to be the only woman on a course with 120 places.

In Bulgaria, where she studied her first degree in IT, Cherneva said there are laws to ensure that a certain number of men and women get places on courses. “My bachelor’s course was half and half and being the only woman on the course in Denmark was a real eye-opener,” she said.

Since finishing her master’s, Cherneva has spent her adult working life in technology as a developer and consultant.

But her surprise when joining her master’s course has continued into the workplace, and she said the perception of the Nordic tech industry as a place of equality between men and women is wide of the mark.

“Before I moved to Denmark, I had never experienced or even heard of the gap between men and women in tech,” she said. “I had never felt like I wasn’t good enough or doubted my skills until I got to Denmark. This was a huge shock because everybody sees the Nordic countries as being forward-thinking in terms of equality between men and women.”

Cherneva said everyone was talking about equality in Denmark and how strong women are, but when it comes to technology, the gap between women and men is big. Her experience in IT was often a lonely one, she said, which spurred her to set up WonderCoders, a meet-up group for women who code, in Copenhagen in 2017.

The group organised workshops in computer programming and entrepreneurship with the goal of attracting more women into tech through role models.

Read more about women in the Nordic tech industry

“I am trying to open the eyes of people in the Nordics because they are living in a bubble and think everything is perfect, but there is a misconception around women in the tech industry,” said Cherneva.

Today, WonderCoders has 2,200 members and 30 volunteers. This is the first year the group is running its Nordic Women in Tech Awards, which has a mission to create more female role models to persuade more women to join the tech sector.

More than 350 nominations from across the Nordics have been announced for the awards.

Cherneva said these are the first awards of their type in the Nordics. “I could not believe there were no such awards in the Nordics,” she added. “I think organisations believe they don’t need it.”

Cherneva said she has faced challenges in finding sponsors because many organisations are against something “they believe brings more discrimination”.

Despite those challenges, the awards are being supported by KPMG, Danske Bank and tech companies Telia and NNIT.

WanderCoders is also working with organisations in Sweden and Norway on a project focusing on women and girls aged between 13 and 19, who are at a time in life when they are thinking about their future.

Role models

“Our plan is to introduce them to role models and help them get experience and understand the possibilities,” said Cherneva.

One of the judges at the Nordic Women in Tech Awards is Camilla Ley Valentin, co-founder of Danish tech startup Queue-it, which helps systems cope with website traffic congestion by directing visitors to a queue, where they can wait.

In contrast to Cherneva, who studied computer science, Valentin said she was drawn to the IT industry after starting work in another sector. After completing an MBA and a few web technology courses, she took a non-IT role in the shipping industry at Maersk Line. This led her indirectly to IT.

“After a few years, I started to get engaged in a number of internet enablement projects, which is what sparked my interest in technology,” she said. “So I made a conscious decision to steer my career in an IT direction and have been working in technology companies since around 2000.”

Valentin agreed with Cherneva that there is a shortage of women in the Nordic IT industry. “I don’t think we’re any more advanced than most other European countries, unfortunately,” she said.

But she added that there are positive signs for the future, with a “significant” increase in the number of top leadership positions in tech being assigned to women. “Also, this year we saw an uptake in females applying for the technical higher education degrees,” she said. “Both are, in my opinion, drivers for increasing gender diversity in our field.”

Valentin added that closing the gap between men and women in Nordic IT is complicated, but more visible role models and the elimination of bias and micro-harassment will help. “And of course females supporting other females in general,” she said. 

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