Russia’s secret

Technology 30 Apr 2017
Russia’s secret

Why is Russia so good at encouraging women into tech? By Caroline Bullock Technology of Business reporter

Image copyright Oleg Yakovlev
Image caption Irina Khoroshko says maths "always felt magical" to her

Irina Khoroshko, from Zelenograd near Moscow, had learned her times tables by the age of five.

Her precocious talent, encouraged by a maths-mad family and a favourite female teacher who transformed every lesson into one giant problem-solving game, led to a degree in mathematical economics at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.

"My lecturer instilled in me the power of numbers and calculation, how it gives you the ability to predict things; in that sense the subject always felt magical," she says.

Now Irina, 26, is a data scientist at Russian online lender, ID Finance, enjoying a lucrative career devising analytical models to determine loan eligibility.

And this isn't an unusual story in Russia. But it is in many other countries around the world.

Several studies confirm that all too often girls' early interest in Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – fizzles out and never recovers.

So relatively few women go on to choose engineering or technology as a career. Why?

A new study from Microsoft sheds some light.

Based on interviews with 11,500 girls and young women across Europe, it finds their interest in these subjects drops dramatically at 15, with gender stereotypes, few female role models, peer pressure and a lack of encouragement from parents and teachers largely to blame.

Not so in Russia.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In Russia, it's not unusual for girls to be interested in science and technology

According to Unesco, 29% of people in scientific research worldwide are women, compared with 41% in Russia. In the UK, about 4% of inventors are women, whereas the figure is 15% in Russia.

Russian girls view Stem far more positively, with their interest starting earlier and lasting longer, says Julian Lambertin, managing director at KRC Research, the firm that oversaw the Microsoft interviews.

"Most of the girls we talked to from other countries had a slightly playful approach to Stem, whereas in Russia, even the very youngest were extremely focused on the fact that their future employment opportunities were more likely to be rooted in Stem subjects."

These girls cite parental encouragement and female role models as key, as well as female teachers who outnumber their male colleagues presiding over a curriculum viewed as gender neutral.

The differences don't stop there.

When the Department for Education asked a cross-section of British teenagers for their views on maths and physics, five words summed up the subjects' image problem: male, equations, boring, formulaic, irrelevant.

But no such stigma exists in Russia, says Mr Lambertin.

"They've really gone beyond that," he says. "People are expected to perform well in these subjects regardless of gender."

Image copyright Alina Bezuglova
Image caption Advancement in science was a national priority in the Soviet era, says Alina Bezuglova

Alina Bezuglova is head of the Russia chapter of Tech London Advocates, an organisation that connects Russian talent with job opportunities in the UK.

She regularly hosts women-only tech events in the UK, but not so in Russia. Why?

"You could say it's because we are neglecting the problem or that there is no problem at all, and I'm far more inclined to think the latter," she says.

"Compared to the rest of Europe, we just don't stress about 'women's issues'."

According to Ms Bezuglova, Russian women's foothold in science and technology can in part be traced back to the Soviet era, when the advancement of science was made a national priority.

Along with the growth in specialist research institutes, technical education was made available to everyone and women were encouraged to pursue careers in this field.

"It never occurred to me at school that because I'm a girl I shouldn't be choosing Stem, and in the workplace I don't see much sexism, only that you're judged on your abilities," she says.

But could the national psyche also play a part?

With their characteristically forthright nature, do Russian women simply find it easier to speak up for themselves in male-dominated environments?

Emeli Dral, assistant professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, thinks so.

Image copyright Emeli Dral
Image caption Emeli Dral thinks Russian women are "more determined to prove ourselves"

She recalls how it was precisely this spirit that spurred her on to success as one of only two girls in her advanced maths group at school.

"It actually made both of us even more competitive and more determined to prove ourselves and be better than the boys," she says.

"I think Russian women are pretty confident about being in a minority, mainly because of the support they have had from their parents from a young age.

"Mine never queried why I was interested in maths and engineering – it was considered to be very natural."

Olga Reznikova, whose largely self-taught approach to Stem led to her current role as a senior software engineer, is a case in point.

Growing up in a small seaside town populated by miners and fishermen, her love of computers began when she was just four, but it was a struggle to turn her passion into a career.

Turning to online tutorials, she mastered the basics of algorithm design, machine learning and programming and made money coding simple websites.

But wary of a future stuck in "IT outsourcing sweatshops", she headed to St Petersburg to study further and land a bigger role.

"For a while I was the only female programmer at my company," she says.

"I did encounter some issues with being taken seriously, but I stayed with it and am now earning a salary that's 30% higher than before."

While Russia is doing something right, it's still not there yet in terms of gender parity.

"There is no doubt that Russia is firing up girls' imaginations," says Mr Lambertin.

"Bringing creativity to the classroom with hands-on, practical application, and stressing the relevance of these subjects by focusing on the workplace, could be the way forward for those countries where girls are currently very disengaged."

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