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Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – an optimistic view

My name is Detelina Vasileva and unlike many other women, I had a privileged upbringing. I was born in Bulgaria and my grandmother was a programmer. My mother has a master’s degree in biology, and taught biology, chemistry, and physics in three different languages. It was normal in socialist Bulgaria to have women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), because everyone was required to have a job, and this left little room for prejudice. My grandmother used to say that she simply wasn’t a good math teacher, and a male colleague convinced her she should become a programmer instead. “You won’t regret it”, he said encouragingly – and she never did.  

We had a computer at home when I was 10 years old, which was a lot earlier than the other kids around me. My grandma’s female colleagues and friends often brought compact disks home with games for myself and my brother. You see, I was raised in an environment that would never make me question that a woman working in tech was something out of the ordinary. This is a privilege I wish every woman has growing up. 

Every year on 8th March we read about the lack of women in IT and what employers and leaders should do about it. My unpopular opinion is that most of the time this is not a problem solely for employers to solve. It is a societal change that needs to happen in every country. Prejudice exists, of course, and I don’t mean to pretend that it doesn’t. But it is personally difficult for me to relate because I live in a country where a male Quality Assurance Engineer is harder to find than a female one. Data gathered from 41 countries shows that Bulgaria has the most women in tech – 30.28%. The reason for this statistic is that we started offering women technical jobs a lot earlier than other countries. It is now normal here and there is less of a bias. We have the historical data to support the success women can have in IT and that’s our strongest argument for increasing the percentage of women in the industry.  

To figure out what is needed to increase the percentage of women in STEM, I looked at the success stories in my own family and the country I live in. These are the contributing factors I found, and I will run through the country related ones first: 

  • The government understood the need to fill STEM jobs and created an affordable public day-care system, so women could study and work. Bulgaria also has one of the best maternity leave programmes – 2 years paid leave and an optional 3rd year unpaid. Upon graduating, people were assigned jobs according to both demand and education. You could get sent to a different town if demand was higher there and you were required to go, it was mandatory. While this was an extreme approach, there are two important lessons here – day-care must be made widely available, and companies and educational institutions should work together to guarantee jobs for graduates.  
  • (Practically) Free higher education. If we want women to work in STEM, families should be able to afford to send their children, male and female, to university. 

I went on to examine the societal and family factors: 

We have a saying in Bulgaria that the man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck that moves the head. It serves to demonstrate that women generally do not feel powerless in our society. Recently, I went on a trip to another country and on several occasions, I was seated at a table with men and women where men were doing most of the talking amongst themselves. I didn’t even feel part of the audience. This simply doesn’t happen to me in Bulgaria. At home, I feel like being an active agent is expected of me. And of course, I may live in my own little bubble of reality, but it is an IT reality which tells you something about the Bulgarian IT workplace.  

I was raised by a single mother and my grandmother. I was always encouraged – almost required – to study hard so I could get a good job when I grew up. Since my family was never financially comfortable, I was conditioned to pick a high-paying field. When I was accepted in Psychology, I decided it was not well-paid enough and I was ready to walk away. Fortunately, I did enrol and while studying, I tried a few low-qualification jobs. In my second year, I made friends with a Java developer and after hearing about his work, I literally dug out a list of top 20 IT companies in Sofia and sent them my CV. I have been in IT ever since.  

IT jobs are different. Unlike other industries, you tend to get a more people-oriented culture, health insurance, dental care, more vacation days, socials, game rooms, free food, and even car allowances in some places. Compared to working in KFC, where I was required to stand up without so much as leaning for 12 hours straight, this is being pampered. At times, it can be mentally and emotionally tiring, but also involves wonderful states of mind like problem solving, creativity, and innovation. If this is your thing, you should absolutely pursue a career in STEM, you won’t regret it. 

As a child, I was raised no differently than my brother in terms of clothes, toys and rules. We could decide what to wear or play with and we were both expected to do well in school. I was praised for my efforts and intelligence more often than for my looks. I was also taught to praise myself and celebrate my own attempts and successes. Because of this, I am unusually self-confident. I always approach challenges with the assumption that I can overcome them and that makes working any kind of job much easier. We should try to raise all genders with these virtues around work and education – foster ambition, self-motivation, confidence and a hunger for knowledge.  

I have an older brother and since there weren’t a lot of girls my age around the block, I had to get accepted into the boys’ group. This meant striving to accomplish everything that the boys could do and as a second child, that’s what you are used to anyway. It taught me that the stronger and weaker sex thing is a complete myth. I recognise that because of this, it never felt odd to work within a male majority. And I can’t get myself to call it a male-dominated environment just because there are more males. Maybe this is because I was told that as a woman, I am the neck moving the head 🙂 

I had many female role models growing up – my mum, my grandma, teachers, and colleagues at work. I also had support from male co-workers who wanted to work with women simply because working with only men got boring after a while. I had people mentoring me, vouching for me to get promoted, and consulting me career-wise – people who genuinely wanted me to be successful. 

If we take my story of one Bulgarian woman in IT, I think we can learn some valuable lessons about how to raise and empower female talent in STEM. To summarise: 

  • Raise girls to become confident women 
    Praise their efforts and intelligence, tell them they can do anything they want, tell them they are powerful by nature, encourage them to play with boys and girls alike, encourage them to study and work hard for what they want. 
  • Support women at work 
    Whether male or female, we should all invest time in mentoring others and help them advance their careers. We have a huge shortage of talent in Cloud which is a great opportunity for many to try this exciting new career path. We need to keep an open mind and hold the belief that anyone who’s motivated, can achieve. Let’s help more women join this fantastic field. 
  • Education must be affordable and accessible to all  
    Universities, academies, courses. Being in the industry already, you’re probably aware of more than a few free learning courses. Share them with the women you know and encourage them to try. Be that guy who told my grandma she should be a programmer. 
  • Ensure good childcare and maternity/paternity leave is available  
    So that women have the option to take time off work. I can’t stress the importance of this enough – finding the right place to leave your baby or toddler so you can go back to work is hard, so it should at least be affordable. Normalise longer maternity/paternity leave and allow for flexible working – being a working mum is hard and employers should be understanding and accommodating.   

I believe that to get more women in STEM, the whole of society can drive positive change – not just businesses.  

I want to finish with a message to all women reading this. In Bulgaria, we wish each other good things for holidays and would say something like “Happy International Women’s Day! Be healthy, loved, and happy!” My message to all women, celebrating this holiday is “Be whatever you want.”