History and tax incentives: Why Bulgaria and Romania lead the way on ICT gender equality

Bulgaria and Romania can boast some of Europe’s highest percentages of women working in the ICT sector. What lessons can be learnt by the rest of the emerging Europe region?

In Slovenia, 90 per cent of ICT workers are men. In Poland, it’s 88 per cent.

But in Bulgaria and Romania, nearly a third (27 per cent) of ICT workers are women. According to the European Union’s statistical department Eurostat, only Denmark, Cyprus, and Greece have a higher percentage among member states.

In Romania, women are not just employees in the sector, but are also increasingly starting own their own companies.

A recent round-up by the tech blog The Recursive listed more than 30 women founders across several verticals in the ICT sector, from medtech to agritech.

Diana Enachescu, the co-founder and managing director of IziDoc, a platform connecting patients with dental care, says that women in Romania choose tech careers because they feel wanted, and are well paid.

“Romania already has the highest European percentage of women studying IT — 13 per cent,” she tells Emerging Europe.

The high participation of women in tech and science in the two countries is often seen as one of the few benefits of their communist past. During that time, women were encouraged to enter traditionally male-dominated fields after completing their STEM-led education.

“Along with access to superior education, including technical universities, it led to a culture of non-gender related work,” explains Enachescu.

The role of outsourcing

But does this push for gender equality in the communist era fully account for the situation today?

Other countries in the region also placed an emphasis on pushing women towards previously male-dominated sectors, but today have fewer women in ICT than Bulgaria or Romania.

The evidence suggests that it is a combination of historical factors coupled with liberal tax policies and contemporary campaigns to get girls interested in tech that seems to have produced Bulgaria and Romania’s positive results.

In the 1980s, Bulgaria looked to boost its lacklustre economy by investing in its emerging computer sector. Todor Zhivkov, the communist party leader at the time, once said that Bulgaria’s future was to become “the Japan of the Balkans”.

This led to the popularisation of computers and tech, and to Bulgaria producing its own computers that were then used in classrooms around the country and also exported to other nations behind the Iron Curtain.

Following the fall of communism, Bulgaria has attracted many outsourcing companies in the ICT sector with a favourable tax rate of only 10 per cent.

“With more than 75,000 people employed in BPOs [Business Process Outsourcing] and ITOs [IT Outsourcing], the outsourcing and offshoring industry is booming and most of employees are women,” explains Ivelina Atanasova – Genchev, manager of and digital marketing consultant based in Sofia.

Moving up the value chain

In Romania, too, outsourcing has played a role, as have generous tax exemptions for the sector.

“Large IT consulting companies were attracted to Romania, organising massive recruitment campaigns and raising awareness about the benefits of IT careers. Combined with EU policies that encourage the participation of women in IT, Romania has seen a big increase in the number of women working in digital jobs,” says Laurentiu Bunescu of Women4IT, an advocacy group aiming to get more girls and women into the tech sector.

Bunescu expects to see even more women in IT in coming years.

“Non-formal education programmes such as promoting equal opportunities in the IT field have also had a significant impact in attracting more women to IT. More and more companies are introducing more inclusive recruitment policies,” he adds.

Atanasova however points to a possible issue facing the Bulgarian ICT sector in the future.

A number of women who work in outsourcing are support workers such as customer care agents. As these roles become automated, she suggests that more women need to become involved in areas of IT offering added value.

“We need more role models and more investment in female entrepreneurship,” she tells Emerging Europe. “It’s important to back female leadership in ICT, not just employment in support services, and complement women’s linguistic skills with STEM skills to prepare them for the future of work.”

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