When Bulgarian Tatyana Mitkova co-founded her business — ClaimCompass, which helps dissatisfied airline passengers get compensation — she found exactly what you’d expect from the startup sector: Most of the industry’s other founders and investors were male. As the tech industry worldwide attempts to shake off its hoodie-wearing White man image, Bulgaria has become one of the world’s bright spots.
According to Eurostat, the statistics agency of the European Union:
Despite being the poorest country in the 28-member bloc, Bulgaria has the highest percentage of women in information and communication technology (ICT) positions at 26.5 percent.
Bulgaria’s number has actually slipped slightly, even as the nation works to establish itself as a rising tech and software hub in Eastern Europe, but is doing very well compared to the 17.2 percent average across the EU as a whole. American women, in comparison, hold about 26 percent of math- and computer-related jobs, which is lower than in 1960. And Bulgaria is also one of just three countries in the EU that has a higher percentage of female scientists and engineers than male: 54 percent, second only to Lithuania, compared with a regional average of 40 percent.
“If you look back in history, first during the communist times, there were no separations between men and women, and everyone had to work,” says Anna Radulovski, a 26-year-old Bulgarian entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Coding Girls, an award-winning platform dedicated to closing the tech gender gap. Bulgaria is also first in the EU when it comes to the number of female students enrolled in ICT-related courses, at 33 percent, more than double the bloc’s average.
“In Bulgaria there are many female role models that are encouraging the next generation of women to choose careers in the computer industries — in a way, the prejudices that exist in the majority of countries are less in Bulgaria,” says Sasha Bezuhanova, a 20-year industry veteran who worked at Hewlett-Packard’s Bulgarian operation before leaving to set up Move.bg, a platform for social innovation, in 2013.
As of last year, only 2 percent of venture capital funds worldwide went to female-led businesses — even though female-led firms saw a higher return on equity and better results. “Obviously we need to mobilize the leadership, both men and women,” Bezuhanova says, “To present good examples and also set the stage for equal and neutral treatment of business initiatives led by men or women.”
But even in Bulgaria, there are three men in the industry for every woman, and many feel the disparity is worse in the more powerful, better-paying jobs.
“While I’m happy to see the statistics when it comes to the percentage of women in the sector, female founders and leaders are still rare,” says Mitkova. “I didn’t have many female role models to look up to when starting up.” She says investors are also mostly male, and that inspiring examples of women in startups aren’t necessarily well-known or promoted to encourage new talent.
Still, it could be worse. “After spending some time in Silicon Valley, I definitely see a difference,” she says. “Bro culture is not that common [in Bulgaria].”
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