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A century ago, Russia pushed for equal rights to education and work for men and women. The effects are still being felt in tech today.
A stubborn brother and 3,000 Russian rubles were all it took to convince Elena Tverdokhlebova to go into science and technology. “I was 10 years old when my brother, who was studying for the university admissions exams, gave me a math problem to solve,” she says.
He was jumping around the living room offering her 100 rubles, then 1,000, and finally 3,000 if she could do it. “To his surprise, I was able to solve it, and he gave me 3,000 rubles, about $100 at that time,” she says.
This small incentive and the support she received from her family convinced Tverdokhlebova to study math and later computer science. “I became addicted,” she says.
Tverdokhlebova, who is now a data scientist, was part of an all-women Russian team who won the International Quant Championship, a fintech competition organized by computer-powered hedge fund WorldQuant.
She was representing the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, together with Tatiana Shpakova and Karina Ashurbekova. “We’re all working in machine learning and data science. We have a good harmony inside our team,” Tverdokhlebova says.
According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 40 percent of Russian researchers are women. Local technology companies such as Yandex, dubbed the Russian Google, say that women make up about a third of their employees.
Other countries in the region, such as Bulgaria and Romania, are also above average when it comes to diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“Eastern Europe consistently produces remarkable women in tech or cybersecurity,” says Jane Frankland, managing director at Cyber Security Capital in the UK and author of the book InSecurity.
SEE: The state of women in computer science: An investigative report (cover story PDF)
She believes there are several reasons for that: girls are expected to take up computer science from an early age and perform well, and there’s no stigma associated with studying technology.
But there’s something more: “Culturally, women in Eastern Europe are characterized as having a forthright nature and this means they’re more inclined to speak up for themselves, and be hardy to rejection, which is typically needed in a male-dominated environment,” Frankland says.
A century of women in tech
Elena Tverdokhlebova says after the 3,000-ruble bet, her mother noticed her interest in math, and pushed her to study harder. Her teammate Tatiana Shpakova also has her mother to thank for the career she has today.
Parental encouragement and having women as role models prompted her to choose a career in tech. “I think it usually comes from the family,” Shpakova says.
As a child, Shpakova lent her parents her savings when they ran out of money, but she kept books, calculating interest rates. “I had a special notebook where I wrote down how much more I needed to buy myself an apartment,” she says.
A study carried out by Microsoft in 2017 showed that more than 60 percent of Russian parents encourage their daughters to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“Over half (55 percent) of Russian girls feel there are encouraging role models out there for them, compared with, for example, just 35 percent of Dutch respondents,” the report reads. It also points out that Russian girls become interested in science, tech, engineering, and math at the age of 10, a year before the rest of Europe.
The history of Russian women in tech dates back almost a hundred years. In the 1920s, it was one of the first countries to issue legislation that established equal rights to education and work for men and women. The percentage of women researchers soared after that, from 10 percent in 1917 to 42 percent in 1938, according to the Russian Ministry of Education.
Russia’s current generation of science and technology professionals capitalizes on the past, says Olga Uskova, president of Cognitive Technologies Group. She leads a team of engineers who develop autonomous-driving solutions for ground transportation, both agricultural and civil. The team has developed, for instance, a 4D Imaging Radar tailored for harsh weather.
Uskova was born in the mid-1960s, into a family that nurtured her love of science and math. Her parents both majored in math and computer science, and her father was one of the creators of the Kaissa chess program, which became the first world computer chess champion.
When she was a teenager in the 1970s, scientists in Russia were rock stars. Uskova had plenty of science journals for children to dive into, and several math clubs to join. “Back in the 1970s, there was a real cult of the technical specialist. Plus, it was almost the only area not related to politics,” she says.
The Soviet regime, which needed the workforce, encouraged women to have a job and defined them as both mothers and workers. Many had to work in factories and take positions such as welder or bricklayer. To avoid that, some studied hard in school to be able to choose, based on grades, occupations such as engineer or researcher.
Uskova decided to go into the tech because it was the field she was best at. Her driving force was poverty. In the 1980s, when the economy stagnated, people lived on food rations, and mundane things — such as chocolate, soda, or fruits — seemed opulent.
“I was selling OCR [optical character recognition] software and in the stores there was no bread,” Uskova says. “The strongest motivation is the threat to existence. If you want to survive, you will be able to sell snow to the Eskimo in winter.”
SEE: Hacking the Nazis: The secret story of the women who broke Hitler’s codes (cover story PDF)
Looking back on those times, Uskova remembers how much she and other women have worked and believes they’ve raised their daughters in the same spirit. “All the babysitting and raising of artificial brains with deep learning suits female hands. Men lack patience,” she says.
Uskova advises Russian women interested in tech today to pay attention to the field of deep neural networks and to be interested in more than one area of science: “A good specialist must be good in fusing math, biology, psychology, physics, and more.”
Although Russia is above average when it comes to women in science and tech, in recent years the number of female scientists has decreased from 151,500 in 2014 to 148,300 in 2016, according to data provided by the Russian Ministry of Education.
While women based in Moscow or Saint Petersburg dream of having a career, those from small towns and villages are still encouraged to start a family in their early to mid-twenties, often missing out on professional opportunities. They are also expected to do most of the household chores.
Olga Uskova says more should be done to encourage women to assume not only technical positions, but also business-related ones, both in Russia and abroad.
During negotiations for projects such as self-driving tractors, she often finds herself the only woman at the table. “The international auto world is a ‘sausage’ market,” she says.
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