Photo: Daniel Mihaelescu/Getty Images

In Romania, Vestiges of Communism Boost Women in Tech

Romania has the largest percentage of girls who study in IT related fields in Europe, and this is due, in part, to the communist regime.

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Apr 18 2016, 2:00pm

Photo: Daniel Mihaelescu/Getty Images

"Often, the best man for a job is a woman," Mihaela Lazar, a Romanian developer who has been coding for over 40 years, told me in her native language. Back in the 1970s, when she wrote her first lines of COBOL and FORTRAN, it never occurred to her that a man might be better suited for the job.

"At the university, where I studied computer science applied in economics, there were 20 girls in my class, and only four boys," she said.

Back then, in communist Romania, women scientists, engineers, crane operators, and welders were featured in newspapers and magazines. There was officially no distinction between men and women on the job market. Mothers were seen as catalysts of the nation's economic growth, and weren't allowed to stay at home. The country needed them, they were told.

In the year 1970, 75 percent of the employable Romanian women had a job, according to the country's Annual Statistical Bulletin. At the same time, in the US, just 52.7 of the women had work experience full-time or part-time, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.

Communism, which lasted in Romania for 43 years until 1989, is hardly a time worth longing for, with its food shortages, political prisoners, and the secret police always watching. Yet, some lessons may be drawn from it—and one of them is gender equality.

A bright future

Some of the effects of communist propaganda are felt today. Raised by their breadwinner mothers through harsh times, many girls now in their 20s and 30s have chosen a career path in technology, which pays the bills.

When compared to the rest of Europe, Romania has the highest proportion of girls studying an IT related field at high school and university level: 13 percent.

(That's still lower than the rate for Romanian men, 33 percent of whom go into IT. Only Slovak Republic, which sends 42 percent men into IT studies, has more.)

Compared to 1.12 percent of women in the UK, 0.58 percent in Germany, 0.68 in France, and 4.37 in Estonia, according to Women Active in the ICT Sector, a report published by the European Commission in 2013, Romanian women are studying tech at much higher rates.

An education in computer science meant there was virtually no chance of ending up in a remote village with no electricity or plumbing

That's reflected in the workforce as well. Women take up about a third of the tech jobs in Romania, according to Brainspotting, a recruiting agency focused on the field.

Compare that to the US, where the National Center for Women & Information Technology estimates that women make up just 25 percent of "professional computing occupations" in 2015.

That difference has its roots in communism, said Alina Hurubean, who holds a PhD in Political Sciences from Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi and wrote a book on how communism changed the life of women.

Between 1950 and 1980, Romania underwent through an accelerated process of industrialization and needed all the workers it could get, Hurubean said. It wasn't just that women could work if they wanted to—they had to.

"During communism, it was mandatory for a person to have a job," she told me in Romanian. "There were laws that punished those who didn't work."

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Things haven't changed that much since developer Mihaela Lazar graduated from the Bucharest University of Economic Studies 35 years ago, she said.

Last summer, 75 percent of the students who registered for the final exam in information technology, dubbed cybernetics at this Romanian university, were women, according to a manual review of the published list of graduates. Computer science economics had 42 percent girls on the list.

At another top school, the University of Bucharest, half of the first year students in math are women. They also take up 31 percent of the seats in the Computers and Information Technology program, and 25 percent in computer science.

Women also have a say at the University Politehnica of Bucharest, which prepares future engineers. Half of the students who joined Computers and Information Technology specialization taught in foreign languages—it's popular to study computer science in English—in 2014 were women, as well as 26 percent of those in Computer Science.

"Any woman can learn how to code, if she's motivated enough and she likes technology," Lazar said.

The Golden Age

The communist regime favored education in science and technology, in order to supply workers and engineers to factories.

Skilled professionals were needed to clone western products such as computers and cars, and, often, to make cheaper versions of them for the local market. They had to get very creative, and use very few resources.

The educational system was strict and worked full steam to provide the country with capable employees. As a byproduct of that time, math, physics, and chemistry curricula taught in Romanian schools is still strongly emphasized.

The country has ranked high in the recent years in international competitions in computer science and math, although the educational system needs improvements and updates overall, and hasn't got enough funding in the past decades.

During the communist era, dubbed "The Golden Age" by its propaganda machine, jobs were assigned to young graduates based on their performance. An education in computer science meant there was virtually no chance of ending up in a remote village with no electricity or plumbing. All the Computing Centers, where employees used computers for research purposes and data processing for the industry, were located in cities.

"Equal work, equal pay" was a catchphrase at the time. It was drawn from the 1948 Constitution, which stated that women and men should be paid equally, provided they had the same job.

"Most women put in 16 to 18 hours each day, at work, at home, and in the service of the [Communist] Party," Hurubean said.

Although some of them had occupations that demanded superior physical strength, most chose less physical professions, often paid less. There were also still very few women in high positions, she said.

"World class savant"

During the 1970s, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu called for more women in politics, administration, and industry.

Ceausescu's wife, Elena, was one of the few communist first ladies highly involved in the state—and she turned her attention to science.

Despite leaving school at 14, she managed to obtain a chemical engineer diploma thanks to the university's extramural courses tailor-made for her. She later got a questionable Ph.D in polymer chemistry.

She wanted everyone to address her as "Academician Doctor Engineer." Both her ego and her grudges exceeded those of her husband, legend has it.

Of course, everyone in the country knew at that time that her papers had been written by other scientists. The "world class savant," as the state-owned media called Elena Ceausescu, couldn't properly name the substance CO2.

"She was featured both as an important activist of the Communist Party and as a distinguished scientist, her main duty being that of coordinating the country's tech and research sectors," Hurubean said.

Although the first lady didn't have that much in common with chemistry, she did quite a job of stimulating children to get an education in science and technology.

Her daughter, Zoia, was a truly gifted mathematician, with several papers acknowledged in the West. Specialized in functional analysis, she worked at the Institute for Scientific and Technical Development in Bucharest (INCREST). She led the mathematics department, and her colleagues were fond of her.

Under her wing, they were protected by the prying eyes of the secret police, the library was better equipped, and they had more opportunities to attend math conferences in the Western Europe and the US. The institute was Zoia's retaliation against the rigid rules her family expected her to follow.

Straight ahead!

After the collapse of communism in Romania, in December 1989, when Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were charged with genocide and shot by a firing squad, the borders of the country opened and the market became free.

Several tech companies such as Oracle, IBM, HP, and Microsoft set foot in Romania. Soon, the local antivirus brand Bitdefender, created by spouses Mariuca and Florin Talpes, begun to export its products.

For Romanian girls in technology, today, things are only getting better, Mihaela Dan, Global HR Manager at Bitdefender, told me in Romanian. "We have more women in IT compared to ten years ago."

There are even tech companies who prefer hiring women, said Maria Hostiuc, senior IT recruiter at Brainspotting. "They are more meticulous, more patient, and more careful with details," she said.

Hostiuc claims there aren't many differences regarding salaries between men and women in the IT sector. However, she said, men often put a higher value on their skill sets, while women tend to ask for lower figures while negotiating.

Romania isn't totally free of the stereotype that men belong in tech, however, said Silvia Stegaru, a teaching assistant at the University Politehnica of Bucharest and the co-founder of Girls Who Code Romania, which organizes computer science workshops for women.

"Unfortunately, there are mothers who discourage their girls," Stegaru told me.

"During the communist regime, they've seen industry as a man's world. And they make the mistake of viewing the digital era in the same way. The digital revolution is different, and women are equally capable as men when it comes to computer science."

Women also often have junior level jobs or occupations that imply "a more active component of human interaction or communication," Maria Hostiuc, senior IT recruiter, told me in Romanian, rather than developer jobs.

Women prefer roles like quality assurance engineer, a job that requires to perform tests in order to ensure product quality, and project manager, overseeing the project and making sure it's done on time and within budget, Hostiuc said.

Still, the effects of the communist push for gender equality in the workforce are undeniable, and still being felt today.

Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.