“I will never say that women are smarter than men”: Gender discrimination in the Russian tech industry
For entrepreneurs, investors and journalists in Silicon Valley, gender equality in IT companies is one of the most hot-button issues of today. As a tech reporter, I was deeply impressed by the recent survey “Elephant in the Valley” dedicated to gender inequality in the U.S. tech industry, so I tried to figure out what women’s roles are in Russian technology companies, and how to achieve gender equality in our own IT industry.
“In my opinion, all women are idiots. It may strike you as ironic, but I’m absolutely sure that women are stupider than men. Period, end of story. This can’t be disputed: I will never say that women are smarter than men,” Maria Podlesnova, the founder of an online publication called Rusbase (it also has an annual prize for investors) tells me in an interview.
But it is actually pretty easy to dispute Podlesnova’s theory: multiple studies have proved that the intellectual abilities of women are equal to those of men. One of the most important works on the subject was written by the American Psychological Association in 1994 — since then, studies have occasionally discovered differences in the intellect of the genders, but it doesn’t exceed three to five points on an IQ test. And those results change: sometimes they end up in favor of men, sometimes in favor of women. The New Zealand-based scientist James Flynn has been doing research on the connection between gender and intelligence since the 80s. His recent research shows that women score on average five points higher on an IQ test than men. Science does not question the analytical abilities of women. But why are so few of them in IT?
The first step towards a career in IT is a specialized university. In Russia, most students in technology-related universities are male: in the Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics Department at Moscow State University, for example, only quarter of all students are female. In the Bauman Moscow State Technical University only 20% are female, and in Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology—only 12%.
The Moscow Coding School is doing only slightly better — according to Vadim Rezviy, the founder of the school, 30% of students are girls. But there is only one female teacher: an Artec 3D front-end developer Vasilika Klimova.
“Once I was called in for an interview simply because the men had never seen a girl who codes, and they wanted to see one,” Vasilika says. As a female programmer (by the way, Russian spell check corrects the word “программистка” (female programmer) to “программист” (male programmer) every time I try to type it), Vasilika believes that the problem of gender ineqaulity in IT should needs to become a public issue if it is ever to be resolved: “Women who are already working in this sphere need to show that they do exist.” Klimova herself is a regular speaker at MoscowJS conferences, a community which holds events for professional programmers.
Investment in IT appears to be a field that’s totally closed off to women. Women do work in investment funds but rarely get key positions. To show that there are actually women in this field, Rusbase has released a calendar called “Venture Legs”, although it is primarily filled with secretaries and other employees who aren’t responsible for making key decisions. The company also organizes the annual Venture Awards Russia event. Maria Podlesnova admits that it’s hard to choose a winner for the Venture Lady category because there are just not enough nominees. Podlesnova believes that the key problem is female nature: “Venture capital investment is about big risks. Women symbolize order, realiability, and planning.”
But the problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough female investors, but that very few women are on the receiving end of investment. In Silicon Valley this is put down to basic psychology: investors are more likely to invest in projects run by people similar to themselves (i.e. a white, middle-aged man). People of other races or women are often out of work.
Of course this hardly explains the difficulties women face in attracting funding. “It is as difficult to attract investments both for female and male entrepreneurs. The issue isn’t about gender, it’s about the quality of the project and the team,” says Andrei Zyuzin, the managing director for the VEB-Innovations fund.
The number of women who are startup founders is very small. For example, of 374 projects chosen for the Internet Development Fund initiatives (IIDF), only 30 (or 8%) are headed by women. In one of the best-known accelerators of Silicon Valley, the Y Combinator, 23% of startups have a female leader, while back in 2012 the number was only 9%.
According to Artem Azevich, the head of startup tracking at IIDF, the fund was planning to launch a separate accelerator for women. However, this isn’t in order to tackle discrimination in the workplace but rather because it’s “more pleasant to work” that way, he says. “First of all, men are likely to want to be wherever the girls are; secondly, it’s always pleasant to work when there are women on the team; and thirdly, female teams are always a great motivator for men,” says Azevich, though he says the fund has not yet started implementing the idea.
The Startup Women community is one of the few Russian companies that works with only female entrepreneurs. But according to CEO Maria Kosenkova, there aren’t many IT-based projects in Startup Women: most participants are engaged in the fashion business, beauty, food or child-raising.
Channelkit, a tool for organizing information online, was founded by three women. CFO and information architect Lara Simonova says that this has its advantages: Channelkit is often highlighted at events and contests because a startup made entirely by girls is such a rarity.
In order to overcome the gender imbalance, many major Western companies have launched programs to support women in the industry: Salesforce has a support program called Women Surge, Airbnb has a team of female developers who call themselves The Nerdettes and teach at a school for women at Hackbright Academy, and Palantir annually gives out grants to female developers.
Of the large Russian companies I reached out to (Parallels, Kaspersky, Yandex), none had any special programs to support women. Moreover, there are no rules in company charters to regulate incidents involving harassment or psychological pressure on employees. The only exception is the US-based subsidiary of Kaspersky. But even in the United States things are not perfect.
Technology companies (Netflix, Adobe, Microsoft) only recently introduced paid maternity leave (for both mothers and fathers). Terms vary from state to state, but typically it lasts 12 weeks (in Russia it lasts 18 weeks). In September, the CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer angered many of her colleagues when she declared that she would take only two weeks’ maternity leave to give birth to twins. Critics felt that she had set a bad example for other women at Yahoo!
How to comply a balance
One of the major arguments in the fight against gender discrimination is the need for diverse points of view. This is especially important for technology companies, because it helps produce more sophisticated products that could be used by more people. “Products benefit when both men and women work on them. It’s one thing to look at a problem from one angle, and it’s another to then look at it from the left, the right, the top, the bottom, from the inside out. The more diversity of viewpoints, the more flexible a solution you can come up with,” says Nastya Larkina, head of commercial product design for Yandex, the largest search engine in Russia.
Almost all the people interviewed were confident that many women can have successful careers in IT, but how to change the current situation is a different question. Many agree that from a young age boys and girls are divided: boys study technology, girls study the humanities, and so any changes have to take place at this level. “In my opinion, people who work in IT have to be able to think systematically and consistently, to effectively convey their ideas to others,” says Channelkit CFO Lara Simonova. “This should be taught from an early age, but the average family believes that girls don’t have to have their own opinion. Obedience, beauty, and other ‘girlish’ traits are more valuable.”
The success stories of IT managers and entrepreneurs can attract more women into the industry. Their number can be increased with the help of special programs both inside and outside companies, as well as startup accelerators. We just need to wait for the moment when society and business are ready for it.
Illustration: Denis Sharypin
The original version of this article was published in the Moscow-based online publication Secretmag.ru.