Despite some progress made IT & technology roles are still dominated by men, with usually not more than 20% of women working in the sector. Contrary to popular belief diversity in tech has not always been as big of an issue as it is today. In 1987 about 40% of jobs in computer science were filled by women. With an extensive lack of developers in the western world, and millions of people getting laid off because of Covid19, embracing diversity might help boost economic recovery and resolve a social problem at the same time. While the Nordics have traditionally been pioneers in advocating for gender equality on a political, economic & societal level the Nordic IT sector is equally in need for diversity. A new group of startups & initiatives is looking to tackle this problem in the Nordics and beyond.
The common misbelief – we have always lacked women in IT.
Despite a common misbelief, gender inequality in programming has not always been as big of a challenge as it is today. If the tech sector was a bus with 40 seats, only 8 of these seats would be taken by women while at least 16 seats would have been filled with women in 1987
Until its peak in 1987, women have historically been well represented in information technology. Initially enrolled as so-called “human computers” in the early days of programming they conducted complicated calculations while working in groups. During and after WWII, partly due to both lack of labour and high amount of gathered experience, computer science gained popularity for women.
However the creation of associations and lobby groups, established mostly by men, led to the introduction of policies for female coworkers such as “no-overtime”. This was aimed to allow women to focus on home and family, but created disadvantages in the workplace. This shift continued, while universities like Princeton didn’t even accept female students to their computer science programs in the 1960s. Since then a number of factors have been credited with the steady decline of female participation in technical roles. This includes barriers to advancement, lack of acknowledgement, lack of promotion of skills or common stereotypes of computer scientists.
Different locations, similar challenges.
As Sweden lacks more than 30,000 developers, the 20% rate of women in the IT sector has not been better in the Swedish capital than anywhere else in the western world. Furthermore, there has been a decreasing student enrolment in computer engineering at the prestigious Royal Institute of Technology reaching just 16%.
Despite the gloomy outlook the vibrant to pragmatic Nordic ecosystem created its own solutions.
SmartCoding, offers programming courses for women of different ages who desire to become developers. With support from companies located in Stockholm, such as Fintech Unicorn Klarna, Nordea Bank and gaming company MRG Gametek, SmartCoding offers evening courses for women based on ‘ultra learning’ teaching methods. There are two different levels depending on the level of knowledge of the applicants – beginner or junior. The group of junior course participants is getting trained in 12 weeks straight to become a junior developer and join the SmartCoding’s IT career development program – the goal is to receive an internship offer which is in most cases followed by full-time employment in the local ecosystem. Ultra learning is a practice-based and solution-oriented method that focuses on intensive learning and SmartCoding implements it by teaching individuals how to resolve practical programming challenges while working on real IT projects using different resources, various educators and jumping between online and stationary.
The background of participants is as diverse as the Swedish society with participants that recently moved to Sweden, lawyers, translators or even PhD graduates. More than 80% of graduates have already found either an internship or employment.
“We are preparing for the next course, it’s already the fifth one, and have just completed the first application round with over 70 application forms. We see SmartCoding as a tool for women to overcome career challenges, currently those might be even bigger than usual as caused by Covid-19. However, we desire to be able to offer our courses and the unique learning method in other locations, as our success rate is quite high.”
– Margareta Kowalska and Despina Stamkou, SmartCoding Co-founders.
Different from SmartCoding, which focuses purely on adults, imagiLabs targets teenagers to encourage females in both programming and ICT in general. Participants are joining experienced programmers who summarise different steps on an entire programming process step by step from the idea to the execution level. What makes the product – imagiCase – unique is the creation of mobile platforms for coding education that is coupled to customisable hardware devices.
As the learning content of coding concepts is combined with visual representations, making the experience more tangible primarily for female teenagers. The prototype has been already created and is a phone case with embedded LED lights that can be programmed to display any text, design, colour through programming with the imagiCase mobile app. Such easy to execute customisation displays to participants that programming doesn’t have instant implications that can be immediately displayed.
A combination of local communities, an e-learning platform and leadership programs to support female participants to start and enhance programming skills way beyond Denmark. Coding Girls started as an initiative in April 2017 of 16 participants and grew to more than 5000 by Q1 2020. With more than 75 local partners and 40+ local communities, women participants are encouraged to form programming centred communities. The initiative grew which is formed around the e-platform has been enriched with gender diversity consulting and career platforms. Unlike SmartCoding, Coding Girls do not offer structured ultra learning coding courses and differently to imagiLabs, do not have a hardware component in their training. However, while emphasising soft networking in the form of workshops, fireside chats, meetups and hackathons like a recent session with a Head of Inclusion from Netflix
Finding a way to transform a fraction of female employees that have been laid off, to desperately needed programmers might have a stronger result than any workforce bail-out provided by the government. Those startups show easily replicable solutions into many jurisdictions, which might have a larger impact than some tech giants underpaying their male staff, which is clearly not the way forward.