Nordics top gender equality, but IT still men's club

Nordic countries regularly snatch the top positions in gender equality surveys, but they still haven't figured out how to get more women into IT

Nordic countries regularly snatch the top positions in gender equality surveys – in the recent Global gender gap report by World Economic Forum, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark took the top five spots – but even these poster boys (or girls) of gender equality haven’t figured out how to get more women into the IT sector.

While the IT sector is a major employer across all the Nordic countries, it has largely remained a male-dominated industry. 

Comparable figures are hard to find, but the latest report from Statistics Sweden showed that out of the around 80,000 people working in various IT-related jobs, such as system analysts, programmers and IT project managers, only 20% are women. In Finland, around 23% of all IT professionals are women, and the figures for Denmark and Norway are similar.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Anne Gretland, co-founder of Oda-Nettverk – a network for women working in IT in Norway – sees a positive trend in the industry. Gretland herself had a long career at Microsoft and recently started as business development lead at the software development company Compello.

“When I started in IT industry 16 years ago, I think there sort of was [a glass ceiling for women working in IT], but not so much anymore," she said.

"Now more companies really have understood they need diversity and that they are not going to attract any young talent, men or women, if there are only men in the company. 

"However, when I say lots of companies are interested in hiring women that’s true, but not all are understanding why it is important. Also, some companies might say they want more women but aren’t doing anything about it,” she added.

Those companies may need to take a look at the EU study on women in the IT sector. It concludes that organisations which are more inclusive of women in management achieve 35% higher return on equity and 34% better total return to shareholders than other comparable organisations.

And it’s not only the companies that gain, but the economy as well. The EU study states if women held digital jobs as frequently as men, the gain for the European gross domestic product would be roughly €9bn per year – hardly pocket money.

Leadership challenge

Despite the studied benefits of having diversity in management, it is senior IT roles where gender differences become the most significant. 

Read more about women in IT

The latest figures from GrantThornton’s annual International business report reveal only 3% of CIOs in Swedish small and medium-sized enterprises (50-500 employees) are women. This also makes CIO the most unusual title for women of the so-called C-suite titles. 

For context, in the same report, 28% of senior roles in Sweden were held by women and the most common title for women was chief financial officer (46%).

However, other countries can’t boast either. The report puts the share of women CIO’s in Finland at 6%, while the latest number from Norway is 4%, which is also the global average. The top position went to India, where the proportion of female CIO’s is still a measly 10%, with Nigeria (9%) and the US (8%) following close behind.

In Denmark, a 2012 study by the Danish IT Industry Association puts the amount of female top executives at 8%. However, this only includes companies in the IT industry.

Gretland is not surprised by the low numbers, but doesn’t see one clear reason for the lack of women in leadership positions.

“It can’t be about leadership alone as there are many women leaders in the public sector, there has to be something else. I think it’s a combination of many things. You don’t want to be the only woman, you want to have a network of women around you in the workplace – some might think it’s scary to be in a high visibility position,” said Gretland. 

"The catch-22 is that to get more women we need to have more women. It’s important that there are women who take responsibility and at the same time are visible.”

A quick look at CIOs in the largest companies in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden show large corporations aren’t an exception in this matter. Only two of the top 15 companies, both Norwegian (Statoil and DNB Bank), have a woman as a CIO or head of IT.

“You don’t look like a nerd”

But the challenge is not only in how to get women into senior roles, but how to get them interested in the IT sector in the first place. Despite the booming startup culture in the Nordics and digitalised everyday life, the IT industry is still failing to attract women.

In a recent study in Sweden, only 5% of women aged 16-30 were interested in working in the IT industry compared with 27% of men in the same age group.

Annie Thorell, founder of Faces of Tech – a network promoting women in IT in Sweden – sees perception of the industry as a major factor. Thorell herself has changed careers from an IT consultant to work as a front-end developer at Mentimeter.

“When you ask women why aren’t you interested, they say things like I’m a creative person, I want to work with a team, I don’t want to work alone,” she said. 

“But that’s the essence of what you do as an engineer, you are always working in a team and it’s very creative. There is a big gap in what people believe working in IT is and what the reality is.”

Gretland has had similar experiences, but believes attitudes are slowly changing.

“Lot of young girls come to our seminars and come up to me and say 'Wow, I didn’t know about the IT industry. You look so normal, you don’t look like a nerd’. The IT industry is still seen as a little bit nerdy. This is changing because more women apply for IT studies – it is just not changing fast enough,” she said.

Early education is key

While Gretland and Thorell both highlight the importance of role models and having publicly visible female IT leaders, they believe real change is achieved by teaching girls to programme and learn about working in IT industry at a young age – before gender codes kick in.

“We have a shortage of women as very few girls choose math and science subjects and they don’t end up in tracks that can lead them to the IT industry,” Gretland said. 

“Right now there are too few women, that’s a fact. The IT industry actually wants more women than what is available. It will continue to be a challenge if we don’t get more girls interested in these studies.”

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