I had the pleasure of meeting some incredible women at this year’s European Conference for Women’s Leadership in the Digital Economy – SHEleader@digital – on 12 April. More than 200 representatives from the business, non-profit and public sector from fifteen countries attended the conference, which focused on women in the digital world, female entrepreneurship and work-life balance of the modern women. Organised by the Bulgarian Center of Women in Technology (BCWT), the event was part of the official calendar of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and was held under the patronage of the Bulgarian Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel.

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), represented by researcher Lina Salanauskaite at the conference, only around 17% of the almost 8 million ICT specialists in the EU are females. Turns out that there are twice as many women in tech in Bulgaria compared to the European average as we stand at 31% and our country ranks first for female ICT specialists in Europe. However, the situation is not so promising in the other EU countries. Also, women still need higher qualifications to be in ICT jobs. Attracting more women to the sector is crucial as the EU has been facing difficulties in responding to the increasing shortages of ICT professionals for years now. Furthermore, having more females on board would lead to economic growth with more jobs and increased GDP in the long term, explained Lina.

So we know what is the solution to the problem, but do we know how to get there? What do women need in order to be motivated and fill that ICT demand and be game changers in general? Let’s go even further – how can a girl desire to become a football player, for instance, if there are no such role models in her environment?

Bringing gender balance and awareness on the matter is old news, but it is what will ensure the so needed female role models in our society – in ICT and everywhere. There were some great personal experience stories and examples at SHEleader@digital.

The Bulgarian Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel has recently initiated the No Women No Panel campaign – she committed to ensuring at least one other woman speaker at the panels and public events she is invited to speak at, otherwise she refuses to attend. She also believes women need to have more trust in their own abilities as we often doubt ourselves.

Mina Dimitrova, Head of Central Go to Market EMEA Google, said that she did not consider herself a digital person as a young woman, and yet here she is now, with 10 years of experience at Google being as digital as it gets. Mina, as well as Rumyana Trencheva, Managing Director for SAP SEE, talked about balancing their demanding careers and personal life. For Mina the flexibility at work is among the main reasons to stay there. Rumyana shared with us a very simple rule – she leaves her work place at 5:00PM and follows her daily routine in order to spend enough time with her husband and three children.

Women need to stand out and help and support each other, as founder and Vice President of Women in Cyber Security Foundation Mary-Jo de Leeuw pointed out at her session. Mary-Jo does an amazing thing every week – she has coffee with someone she does not know in order to meet them and help in any way she can.

I was really impressed with the young female entrepreneurs that presented their startups at one of the sessions. Lubomila Yordanova got the idea for planA.earth on a trip abroad where she noticed the pollution problem. Nutritionist Magdalena Pashova shared the successful story of Food Revolution in Bulgaria. In the fall of 2017 Iva Gumnishka founded Human in the Loop, a social enterprise that employs and trains refugees to provide data curation services to the machine learning industry. Iva expects her company to have 50 employees by the fall of this year. Sisters Ina Abadjieva and Rosy Paunova started Rosey’s Mark with investing EUR 5000 of their own savings. The company has recently won a European grant of EUR 100 000, which will be invested in the digital presence of the brand. Olga Mineva is the author and coordinator of the EMPROVE project, which uses gamification to help and support the domestic violence survivors in a long-term journey of empowerment through online and live missions, among other activities.

Let me finish quoting what Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, said at the opening of the conference:

Bulgaria has among the highest number of women in tech in Europe. But women are still underrepresented in the digital world, as they are everywhere. The pace of change in technology is so fast, we can’t afford to leave talent on the sidelines. The future of this field needs a leadership and professional contributions of everyone”.