In central Bulgaria, in the town of Gabrovo, which prides itself on being an international capital of humor, Iva Kaneva wasn't joking when it came to programming.
As a child, she drew her first triangles in Basic, her eyes riveted to the computer screen like a NASA control-room engineer zeroing in on a lunar approach. "I was immediately fascinated," she says. "And I decided that's what I wanted to study." It was the mid-1990s, and she was 12 years old.
At her school, girls did just as well as boys in math and computer science. Kaneva says nobody told her technology was not suitable for girls. Both her parents were engineers and they expressly encouraged her to learn how to code. Now, she is a senior Python backend developer.
Across eastern Europe, it is far from unusual for women to work in technology, but Bulgaria has the highest proportion, with 27.7 percent, according to recently released Eurostat data. Romania closely follows with 27.2 percent.
Next come Latvia, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania with over 20 percent. The European Union's average is 16.1 percent, with the UK, Germany, France, and Spain hovering in that range. The country with the lowest number of women in tech is the Czech Republic, with a figure of less than 10 percent.
"In the East Bloc, women as well as men were pushed into engineering and science occupations," Kaneva says. Industrialization, carried out on fast-forward, made these jobs prestigious.
The communist regime needed the workforce, so it did not allow mothers to stay at home and care for their children. Often, it assigned them jobs typically performed by men, such as welding, mechanical repairs or tool making.
"'Equal work [for men and women], equal pay', the saying went. This laid the foundation for today's large proportion of girls in tech," Kaneva says.
The other thing communist harshness taught women was to aim for a well-paid job. Today, developers in Bulgaria and Romania often make two or three times their countries' average income, working in outsourcing or R&D for western European or US companies. Sometimes tech jobs have a flexible schedule, so mothers can take care of their children while staying in full-time employment.
In both Romania and Bulgaria, women are often found in large proportions in jobs that combine computer science and economics. Financial software firm Misys takes pride in achieving almost a perfect balance in their Romanian office: 49 percent of their employees are women and 51 percent men.
"The diversity of the people we work with creates an amazing experience, insight and culture," Ioana Cicu, global HR business partner, R&D, says. "Each member of the team brings their own uniqueness and their own strengths."
The almost 50:50 men-to-women ratio is found not only in entry-level positions, but also in management. "From developers and quality engineers, to technical consultants or development directors, we tend to have female colleagues across most of our roles," Cicu says. She adds that women have solid tech skills and a strong desire to develop.
She believes that the number of women studying in tech-related fields keeps increasing, year after year. And the Eurostat data backs that view. Women make up 29.3 percent of the computer-science students, in Romania. Yet, the country seems to be falling behind. Greece has over 31.2 percent, and Belgium 32.5. Not to mention Bulgaria, which once again leads the EU with 34.4 percent.
Sofia-based developer Kaneva says the number of women in technology is high in Bulgaria compared with western countries but, "We still have a lot to do to encourage more girls and women to get involved and stay in tech."
She plans to step in and offer tech training for future Rails Girls events in Sofia. In addition to Python and Java, she wants to teach them not to give up when they face difficulties, but to try again and explore different approaches instead.
"In essence, that's what programming is all about," Kaneva says. "When you're stuck, you explore deeper and from different angles. When you fail or break something, you start over, with lessons learned."
But tech skills alone aren't enough. "We should also teach women to be more vocal about their opinions and views," she argues.
Kaneva also wants to help women already in technology find better jobs, through the platform she works for, PowerToFly. Most opportunities listed on it come from US companies, which promise flexible hours, a friendly environment and family benefits. "I work fully remotely with colleagues, most of them women, from all over the world, in US, Ukraine, Russia, Jordan, India, Argentina," she says.
Looking back at her career in technology, Kaneva thinks she did pretty well for a child born in a small communist town, with little resources. The harsh realities of the 1980s and 1990s might have helped women move into tech, but are hardly worth being nostalgic about.
Her native Gabrovo has a joke that pretty much sums up what it was like back then: "Why do Gabrovians switch the lamp on and off every now and then when they're reading a book? To save energy while turning pages."
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