Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is the fastest-growing industry in Estonia, with high average pay and a highly-competitive recruitment landscape. To state the obvious, people with tech skills are in great demand. In 2017 Estonia was short of 7,000 tech workers. By 2020, the shortfall is expected to reach 8,600 people. Moreover, with fast digitalization, there is heavy demand for IT-savvy labour in many industries, from medicine to education to legal to agriculture etc.
That said, women only make up about 25 percent in the tech industry. This is fairly consistent across the globe, with minor regional variations. According to a 2017 OSKA report, just 29 percent of tech workers in Estonia are female. The picture doesn’t improve when looking at the university pipeline. Out of students pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in ICT, only 29 percent are women. It would seem that we’re stuck.
When Tech Sisters set out to inspire and promote tech careers among women in 2013, we encountered hesitant whys. “Those women interested and motivated enough will surely find their way to the tech sector,” was a constant refrain. Based on this assumption, many wondered if engaging more women in tech would be an effort worth our (and their) while.
Five years later the discussion has evolved. As the deficit of tech talent remains acute across all sectors, whys have been replaced with “Yes, but how?“ We’re seeing several public and private initiatives aimed at removing barriers that keep women out of tech.
So what is keeping women away from the tech industry, one so desperate for talent? And how can we make a dent in this problem?
The divide between boys’ and girls’ interest in technology starts early. A joint 2015 study by Tartu University and Skype Microsoft Estonia revealed that girls tend to avoid Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education because of outdated misconceptions. These are often reinforced by parents and teachers, cementing a flawed understanding of what the field is actually about.
Boy jobs and girl jobs
The most common stereotype is that science and math are masculine fields, thus nudging girls toward a “softer” career path. Indoctrination begins in kindergarten where many activities are split by gender. Robotics and programming classes are mainly marketed to boys, while girls are encouraged to pick “more feminine” activities, such as drawing or photography.
Tech Sisters have witnessed this attitude firsthand. When promoting Digigirls, our entry-level tech workshops for teenage girls, we were once shut out by a school principal who bluntly said, “Our girls are not interested in these types of things.”
Another misconception is that programmers and developers are antisocial tech guys with poor hygiene. It’s an image partly created by sitcoms in the 80s. This stereotype still tends to prevail, never mind the myriads of globally successful tech superstars. Isn’t it time to retire this myth?
Hands-on experience and role models
Part of the solution is including more programming and hands-on experience with different kinds of technology to make STEM subjects more accessible and attractive to girls and young women. In Estonia, there are a number of kindergarten robotics initiatives, taught universally to both boys and girls. Many schools include programming in their first-grade curriculum.
Another part of the solution is to showcase positive female role models. Estonia is fortunate to have a number of outstanding female entrepreneurs and technologists building amazing products and careers. Kaidi Ruusalepp from Funderbeam, Kristel Kruustük from Testlio and Karoli Hindriks from Jobbatical are powerful examples of women running successfully global tech companies.
But it’s not only about promoting founders. It’s also about showing everyday work in the tech sector. With the Digigirls initiative, teenage girls participate in versatile and practical workshops held by women who work in tech. These workshops are a sneak peek into a rich variety of career paths and roles within tech, guided by amazing female role models.
Superheroes is another great example. It’s an entrepreneurship and leadership programme for teenage girls, designed to instil and inspire the growth mindset. During this four-month acceleration program, girls turn their ideas into working products and services, while being mentored by female role models.
In 2018, Estonia’s former CIO Taavi Kotka will launch a robotics school targeted specifically for girls. Also this year, the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs launched its ICT is Everywhere campaign, promoting ICT among girls and young women. Over two years, the campaign will run more than 50 events to get girls excited about tech.
To browse available job offerings in ITC sector in Estonia, visit Work in Estonia page.
While there are no quick fixes, these initiatives are an important front in dismantling systemic barriers that have kept young women from pursuing STEM degrees and tech careers. These barriers aren’t just holding women back. They keep almost every industry and entire economies from reaching their full potential.
Co-founder of Tech Sisters