Copenhagen, Denmark – Developer, coder, programmer, co-founder and CTO of two different start-ups, volunteer of WonterTech Summit in Copenhagen; this is all part of Irina Kostina’s Curriculum Vitae even though she is only 27 – and a woman. That is at least what she would probably hear in Russia, her home country. “Overall it’s hard because people don’t always expect things from you. […] They always have doubts ‘okay can you do that?’. […] I know that you have to really prove what you can do unless people believe you,” explains Kostina, a good-looking blonde Russian in her late twenties. Her hair is perfectly braided down her back and underneath the sleeves of her grey jersey dress, a bird tattoo is revealed on her arm.
She is among the 16 % of women in Denmark who have decided to study and work in STEM (science, engineering, technology, maths). While other countries, mainly ex-Soviet, have around 20 % of women, the western European countries only come to an average of 17 %. These numbers are stated in the WISE report from 2012 and reveal that women are highly under-represented in the STEM field in Europe. According to the European Commission (2013) only 29 out of 1,000 women have a Bachelors or other first degree graduate in ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) but only 4 out of 1000 women might work in that sector later on.
As a child Kostina was amazed by technologies whenever she saw hackers in movies. So she went to college in Russia to study electronics. Though, she always wanted to become a developer: “You can create things yourself and not just support something which already is done”. Slowly while she was still studying she managed to learn by herself how to code. Two years ago she came to Copenhagen to a business incubator, together with her start up that she had founded back the day in Russia when they decided to stay. That is also how she found the second start up that she is now working in. Now she is sharing the office with another woman of the company with a white desk for each of them. Kostina can watch out the window while working on her macbook. In front of her desk she has put a poster in a frame with a rugby woman saying “It takes balls to play – technically only one”. She used to play rugby for years until she had to quit forever because of an injury.
Not all the women are as ambitious as Kostina and a lot of them lack motivation throughout their studies. She criticizes the high amount of drop outs from STEM-subjects: “Especially girls, they get education but then they don’t go to work”. She knows teams who would love to have women but they are just not applying. There could be different reasons behind this, such as because they don’t get enough encouragement from society and feel like a minority. Also there is a lack of role models simply because the technical field is mostly dominated by men.
Those who stay in the field often have to face discrimination because of being a woman, Kostina says. “Some women are in IT but that’s not that popular. I feel like when you say you are a developer here in Copenhagen people are like ‘oh, that’s cool’ but in Moscow they are like ‘I didn’t know that women can do that’ ” She assumes that there is a difference in how women and men position themselves. While men often seem to be so self-confident that nobody has any doubt that they are able to do something, women often seem more insecure and accept a lot instead of speaking out loud. “I see that happening alot. Women don’t negotiate and they sacrifice, like if a company says we need more effort or we need to cut some salary, women will mostly act like it’s okay.”
It often already starts within their own family. Kostina sometimes wished she recieved more sustainment and motivation from her family. They saw that it was hard for her in that field and instead of encouraging they always advised her to quit. “I think it’s not that they wanted a different life for me, but I couldn’t see that they were proud of me because it is a hard job, especially for women. And I wanted them to be proud but I just didn’t find that support.” Back home in Russia she also can feel a lot of pressure from society when it comes to children. Most women get married and have kids right after university which was not the case for her.
Still, she is dreaming of having children one day when she grows older, although she is not sure if she has enough time for kids with regard to her busy working schedule. The start-up takes a lot of time and she invests a lot of energy and extra hours on that. It pays off because together with her start-up she made it from conservative Russia to Silicon Valley – at least for two weeks in her life. They have got into an exchange program by the government to help them with networking and have received a sponsored stay in one of the most important spots of the IT industry. Kostina stands 100 percent behind her start-up and would probably stay in the company until its very end because she is so much involved in the development process. During her free time she doesn’t follow any hobbies connected to technology because she prefers to invest that time into her start up.
Kostina is one of the few who dared to get out of their comfort zone and she is proud of that. Now together with other women she has just organized the WonderTech Summit in Copenhagen, a technology conference especially addressed to women which is one of the first of its kind in Copenhagen. “They are happening everywhere but not in Denmark. […] This year is the first time it’s happening but we want to make it bigger next time so that we can encourage more and more women.” Women like Kostina function as the much needed role models for young women and show the world that women are able to do more than society often expects from them.
Plamena Cherneva, 30, web developer and entrepreneur
She usually works in Copenhagen as an IT consultant but she also founded WonderCoders which is a non-profit organization dedicated to support, empowerment and inspires women in technology. In January 2018 she came up with the idea to organize the WonderTech conference where Irina Kostina also helps. With the help of other groups that support women in ICT’s the conference was organized in less than 4 months and involved 30 volunteers.
“I’ve been into tech my whole life and always minority wherever I go, whether conference, meetup or any tech event. […] We wanted to feature role models and show the world that Technology is the future and each and everyone of us should be involved in it.” She believes in the impact of the conference and wants to create a place where everyone can participate.
The goal is to build a community, share knowledge and inspire women. Cherneva points out the importance of events like this and the need of role models. “Every second female student is dropping out of computer science programs, due to the lack of support and the fact that they are the minority in the class and they feel they don’t fit in there. We can change that if we all work together. “ This was the first conference of this kind in Denmark and Cherneva is already looking forward to 2019.
Mia Meldgaard, 40, consultant
Mia Meldgaard is not only a design and technology consultant but also a mother which sometimes is not easy to combine. “I changed my mindset to think that it is okay what I do as a mother and I don’t have to be perfect […] I have a realistic view when it comes to putting family first.”
At the first company that she worked in, she was the first woman working with software. She made it anyway due to her qualification and the approach to look for new challenges. Meldgaard still notices that men have a more elaborate network and according to her in ICTs it is still the “boys club” somehow. It was harder for her to get a job compared to male competitors, she partly got paid less and uncomfortable questions about more children were sometimes the case.
Ioana Grozav, 24, developer
Grozav came from Romania to Copenhagen for university and now works as a full-stack developer in a web consulting company. She mostly decided to move because of the higher quality of life and better education: “There’s a fundamental difference in the values Romanians and Danish people have, which overall translates in high social inequality in one and the opposite in the other. “ She explains that education in Romania is more rigid and students can’t make a lot of choices.
Though, once they get into the math/computer science track the preparation for any STEM studies is pretty good. On top of that, working in Romanian IT has privileges such as tax breaks or higher salary. But then public education is sub-financed and the teaching quality can be quite low: “Some schools have inspiring, curiosity-awakening teachers, who encourage you to think about problems and solve them – and other schools get those who are only interested in raising their salaries while trying to convince themselves and the ones around them that they’re doing a good job”, says Grozav.
A big struggle for her was self-confidence and seeking confirmation from others on what she was doing. And she discovered that it is actually a common issue that she saw in women who started in the field and then quit. Grozav also criticizes the lack of role models for young women like her. In this case she is pretty lucky though: “My mom is my role model. She’s not in IT but she’s taught me that working hard pays off.”
European Commission: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-905_en.htm
WISE Report 2012: https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/resources/2012/12/uk-statistics-2012