Celebrating women in science and technology on International Women's Day

8 марта 2016 г.

Ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, the U.K.'s main telecom companies joined forces to launch a mentoring programme aimed at encouraging women to pursue STEM careers, as professions based around science, technology, engineering and mathematics are known. Sk.ru talked to some of the most successful women working in tech startups fostered by the Skolkovo Foundation about why – as in countries across the globe – there are more men than women working in technology in Russia, and what is being done here to encourage more women to devote themselves to a STEM career.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev meeting with women working in science and technology, including Skolkovo Foundation representatives, ahead of International Women's Day on Friday. Photo: Government.ru.

In the U.K., the average proportion of women in tech teams is 14 percent, according to the Women in Technology 2015 report compiled by Mortimer Spinks technology recruitment consultants together with ComputerWeekly.com. While no comparable figures are available for Russia, a look at the makeup of most tech startups pitching their ideas at events such as the Startup Tour shows that this sphere is similarly dominated by men.

“As far as high-tech entrepreneurs are concerned, I don’t think Russian statistics differ much from Western countries,” says Dr. Anna Nikina, head of international projects at the Skolkovo Foundation.

“There is indeed a low percentage of high-tech female entrepreneurs, but that is the case pretty much anywhere, including at the Slush startup conference in Helsinki, where the majority of entrepreneurs and startups pitching there come from Europe, Scandinavia, the U.S. If you look at those who are pitching, there are not that many women in the crowd,” says Nikina, who wrote a doctoral thesis on the subject of female entrepreneurs.

The cause of the unbalanced gender ratio cannot be found in external factors, as the benefits and resources are the same for everybody, says Nikina.

“The main obstacles are internal and emotional, and are connected to self identity and what we perceive entrepreneurship to be, what skill set and mindset it requires, as opposed to how women want to shape their lives or how they are educated to do so,” says Nikina.

“Women can do anything – as can men. It’s a matter of choice more than anything else, a question of the decisions women make in terms of their life-work balance. It’s no secret that any startup is a baby, it’s just as demanding as raising a child,” she said.

Across the world, initiatives have been launched to encourage more women to pursue a career in science and technology. Mentoring schemes are common in the U.S. and U.K., such as Women in Wireless and Women 2.0. In December last year, the UN General Assembly established an annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science – February 11 – to support and recognise women in science in the hope that others will follow their example.

The number of women in STEM across the world falls continuously from secondary school to university, in laboratories, teaching, policy making and decision-making, wrote Lakshmi Puri, UN assistant-secretary-general and UN women deputy executive director, in an op-ed published by the Inter Press Service News Agency last month.

“The reasons for this disconnect are many, ranging from access to technology, to education and investment gaps, to unsupportive work environments, to cultural beliefs and stereotypes,” wrote Puri. “Globally, girls start to self-select out of STEM courses in early secondary school. Societal attitudes and bias hinder girls’ participation, with science and technology often considered male domains.”

In Russia, mentoring schemes and other initiatives aimed at women are not yet well established. Sk.ru interviewed several women successfully forging STEM careers in tech startups that are residents of the Skolkovo Foundation to ask them what obstacles women face in these fields, and what should be done in Russia to encourage more women to join them.

The Robotics Queen

Bereziy demonstrating the exoskeletons her company makes. Photo: Sk.ru.

Ekaterina Bereziy is the founder and CEO of ExoAtlet, which builds exoskeletons - wearable mobile machines - that help disabled people to walk. The company, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation's IT cluster, is currently at the clinical research stage and hopes to get certification from state authorities by this summer to start selling their product for use in hospitals across the country.

Bereziy, who has headed ExoAtlet since 2013, graduated from the faculty of mechanics and mathematics of Moscow State University (MSU). The company is about 20-25 percent women.

“In my faculty at MSU, of 16 students, four were girls, and they were tomboys.

I suspect that girls are brought up to believe they should be princesses, and the image of a princess doesn't necessarily include the development of intellect. And that you might also be able to be clever and enjoy life through your own self-development – that's for those who got lucky with their parents.

People scare girls by telling them if they're not feminine enough, they won't have a family, men won’t like them if they are cleverer than them. It's a stereotype in our society. It only comes from parents, not schools, in my opinion – girls usually study better than boys at schools. There's a stereotype that girls don't need to develop beyond a certain point because they can get married and tag onto the man's success.

It's important to teach girls about maths and physics in a way they find interesting. Fathers play an important role.

Conflicts with men at work are in my opinion not usually a question of gender but a question of interests. Scientists are a peculiar breed, they are very envious, in my opinion. If a woman has an idea, they can be resentful. Some women play on their gender, they play the fool, and use it to their advantage, as less is then expected of them. But this isn’t good for the overall perception of women.

Fathers should stop bringing up their daughters as fools. Women should have a free choice between arts and humanities or going into science and technology. But they should be taught that they can remain women [in a STEM career] – it's not just for those who feel they can't be a princess. They don’t have to become like men.”

The woman in a men's business

Levina saw a way to commercialise the cleaning technology. Photo: Elena Levina.

Elena Levina set up NanoServ, an innovative system for cleaning heating systems and industrial equipment, together with her female business partner Lidia Levchenko.

NanoServ, a resident company of Skolkovo's energy cluster, uses an ecologically friendly bio-liquid, B3-1, based on modified fermented bacteria to remove deposits and buildups from heating systems and industrial equipment.

Levina studied economics at the Moscow Academy of Computer Science and Instrumentation Technology. She also has an MBA.

The technology invented by a team of people including Levchenko's father had been in use for 20 years, but its developers were unable to commercialise it as a business before Levina stepped in.

“Having consulted with acquaintances from various fields, including the housing and communal services sector, I realised that the market was enormous, and that there must be demand for a domestic ecologically friendly technology. We began making calculations, writing business plans, looking for clients and so on.

Of course, at the start it was hard: as an economist, I wasn’t always instantly able to get into all the technical nuances. I had to do a lot of things for myself – go out to visit sites, talk to technical specialists and microbiologists, immerse myself in a completely different world. But I believed it would not be in vain and that we were doing something that needed to be done. And sure enough, in two years we recovered our costs and made a name for ourselves on the market.

Our team is about 50/50 women and men, and in my view, that’s the ideal ratio. A mixed team creates a healthy spirit of competition.

We work in a 'men’s' business: the heads of heating and energy enterprises in our country are exclusively male; factories, the housing and communal services sector – everywhere as a rule it’s men who are making the decisions, so at first I did feel some kind of gender confrontation, and sometimes surprise. But that was only at the beginning: once a man sees that a woman talks their language, everything else becomes less important.

There were more women on my [economics] course [than men], while on the technical courses, there were always more men.

[To attract more women to careers in science and technology], I think we need to popularise it, starting with children’s upbringing. There shouldn’t be differentiation between genders: 'You’re a boy so you’ll put together this constructor kit, you’re a girl so go and play with dolls.' Children should have freedom of choice from a very early age so that everyone does what they like doing without facing any prejudice.

Based on relations with our foreign partners, I think the situation abroad isn’t very different from that here: senior positions are also primarily occupied by men. I don’t think there’s a big difference.”

The egalitarian scientist

'The only obstacle is competition, and that's the same for men and women,' says Rovenskaya. Photo: Tatiana Rovenskaya.

Tatiana Rovenskaya is business development director of Wellink, a resident of Skolkovo's space cluster. Wellink is a producer of telecoms solutions that allows both mobile and fixed line operators to monitor the quality of their services and reduce costs. Wellink’s services have been used by Russia's leading long-distance telephony provider Rostelecom, as well as by the Moscow government and the operator SovTelCom.

Rovenskaya obtained an engineering degree from the physics and technology faculty of the Novosibirsk Electro-Technical Institute, before studying economics and management at the Moscow Technical University of Communications and Computer Science. She also has an MBA. She has worked at Wellink, where only 10 percent of staff are women, since 2011.

“Contemporary women aren’t scared. It’s a personal choice, not a trend – there are lots of girls going to technical universities, even for fundamental physics.

The only obstacle I have encountered as a woman was competition – and that is same for men and women. In our country a clever woman doesn’t feel undermined: if there is any kind of discrimination from the teachers, for example, it’s not a serious obstacle.

If anything is putting people off careers in science, it's the everyday conditions, especially for young scientists – there needs to be better housing and pay, then young people will want to work in science.

Before, there were science cities, in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, there was accommodation, infrastructure being built, that attracted people to science. Then for 25 years there was only destruction. Now it’s getting better, a process of restoration has been underway for about the last five years or so.

If we develop and improve conditions in science in general – for women and men – if there are better resources, more modern labs, better equipment, better access to conferences and research, then that will give the impetus to science to develop. Gender is not important.”