Women still under-represented in Nordic IT despite region’s efforts

Although countries in the Nordic region are often hailed as pioneers of digital and equal worker rights, there is still gender inequality in the IT sector.

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The Nordic countries are often hailed as leaders in gender equality, with Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden taking the top four spots in the 2016 Global gender gap report, but the results are not all rosy for the IT industry.

Women are still under-represented in Nordic IT – where pay disparity also remains an issue – and Iceland is tackling the problem with the world’s first legislation obliging companies to prove they offer equal pay.  

Equal pay is stipulated by law in all Nordic countries, but the Icelandic legislative change, which was passed in June 2017, takes this a step further. It requires companies and institutions with 25 or more workers to obtain an equal pay certification to ensure they are fulfilling their requirements.

Hrefna Lind Ásgeirsdóttir, vice-president of engineering at Icelandic software firm Meniga, welcomed the new legislation.

“I have a hard time believing any company intentionally discriminates based on gender, so the legislation should serve to boost towards fixing these matters,” she said. “I think companies should be proudly pursuing gender equality certification.”

Is salary the issue?

How big of a problem is gender pay in the Nordics? In Iceland, women’s gross hourly earnings are on average 17.5% below men, compared to the EU average of 16.3%. Finland hovers around the same number at 17.3%, while Denmark, Norway and Sweden fare slightly better with 16.1%, 14.9% and 14% respectively. For comparison, the pay gap in the UK stands at 20.8%.

The IT industry is among the better performers when it comes to equal pay. According to Swedish employers’ organisation Almega, women in IT were paid 92% of the salary of men in 2016 when in the number was 85% in 2006. In Finland, IT industry’s salary survey from 2015 found women earned 98.6% of the salary of men, and the average salary gap has decreased from €240 per month in 2014 to €63. This difference is said to be explained by a smaller proportion of women in leadership and demanding expert positions.

While statistics from Iceland are not available, the trend is similar in Denmark. Data from the Danish ICT Industry Association (ITB) shows the gender pay gap in technical jobs, such as software development, is only 2%, but rises to 17.3% in IT management positions.

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Pirja Heiskanen, vice-president of operations at Finnish software firm Futurice, does not think equal pay issues can be solved with legislation alone. She said the problem with using legislation, such as in Iceland, is that it is hard to enforce, with the risk of adding extra bureaucracy.

At Futurice, equal pay is tackled by voluntary transparency. The company uses a “career model” where everyone on the same career level receives the same salary. The company also encourages its employees to make their career levels public, to effectively let others know their salary.

“About 50% of our employees choose to publish their career level,” said Heiskanen. “It creates trust that remuneration is done in a fair way.”

The gender challenge

But pay disparity is only one side of the coin. Despite various schemes to get more women involved in technology and the Nordics’ reputation as a thriving digital region, gender diversity is still a problem in the IT industry. In Sweden, men hold 72% of all IT and telecom jobs and 70% of managerial level positions. In Finland, women account for only 24% of the IT workforce.

The industry wants to see the wheel turn, but progress is slow. Mette Lundberg, director of politics and communication at ITB, said gender diversity has been a focus for the Danish IT industry for the last 10 years – yet the problem persists.

“In Denmark, we have a severe lack of IT specialists,” she said. “The problem is increasing, as the government has predicted we will need 19,000 IT specialists by 2030.

“There is an increasing focus on [getting girls interested] in tech and science, with initiatives to attract women to IT, supporting them in developing a career in the sector and becoming leaders.”

Ishtar Touailat, head of innovation incubation at Nordic IT services provider Tieto in Sweden, is rising to this challenge. She is the founder of a week-long accelerator programme for female entrepreneurs called Women in Business and starter business course Starta Eget. Both were driven by her own experiences as a female technology entrepreneur in Sweden 10 years ago.

“Back then, a lot of people asked me why I didn’t just get a normal job,” she said. “The startup community didn’t really support me. I didn’t care about that myself, but I noticed many other women caved under the pressure.”

Attitudes have changed, but that the IT industry is still largely a men’s club, said Touailat, who believes companies should make their recruitment processes and work culture more accessible to women if they want to see real change.

“A lot of companies and individuals are talking about these issues but they are not truly aware of the impact on their business,” she said. “If you look at the economic impact, 50% of consumers are women. If you don’t have females around the table in all steps of product development, you are reducing your chances of addressing that market.”

No quick fixes

Positive signs are emerging. A 2016 survey, Young women and IT by the Internet Foundation in Sweden, found the proportion of women interested in an IT career had increased from 36% to 48% compared to 2015. In addition, 38% of respondents stated they were not working in IT but would consider it as an option.

Ásgeirsdóttir said this trend is true in Iceland as more women are choosing to study engineering and computer science, but added this is not enough:

“We need to ensure the IT field is an equally natural career choice for both genders,” she said. “This needs to happen in the school system, at home and in society by promoting and being good role models.”

Heiskanen said girls adopt a different attitude towards mathematics and computer science than boys as early as primary school, and aren’t necessarily encouraged to succeed in such subjects. The effects of this ripple into their future:

“It can be a challenge to hire women as so few of them choose to study computing subjects,” she said. “I believe attitudes are changing, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

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