PLAMENA CHERNEVA ON WOMEN IN TECH: IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND IT, DON’T REJECT IT
Author: Gabriella Anesio
Webamp spoke with Plamena Cherneva, founder of both WonderCoders and Nordic Women in Tech Awards. Plamena stressed the importance of including women in the world of technology, elaborating on her own journey in the industry and the struggles she has faced (and overcome with good mentorship, confidence, and a willpower to actually go out and change the way things are done).
WonderCoders, founded in 2017, is an NGO with a mission of empowering women: women who want to get into tech, women who are already in tech, and women who have no previous experience but just want to learn. Though the main struggle faced today is a lack of women in tech, WonderCoders is, nonetheless, a safe space for both women and men. As an inclusive environment premised on the need to make the technology industry accessible for everyone, Plamena and her team provide inspiring mentors for the entire community on this one platform.
One of the most common questions anyone is ever asked is who their role model is – whether in school in the form of an inspirational essay, at university during a motivational letter, or in a professional interview (yes, I did ask Plamena. Spoiler alert: her role model is her grandmother…and the rest of her fierce and badass family). WonderCoders takes this concept of role models to new heights by making sure women who want to get into tech have the ability to look up to not only men in the industry, but also an array of strong and educated women – women who are there to give guidance, support, and the confidence boost many need to propel themselves into the world of technology.
Women in Tech Awards, founded just in the beginning of this year, follows on perfectly from this focus on role models by actively featuring those women in the tech industry who have made it and proved themselves to be tenacious and persevering, and can, thus, inspire thousands who want the same for themselves. As Plamena says:
“The two different directions we take: WonderCoders is about inspiring people who are taking their first steps in the tech industry, whereas Nordic Women in Tech Awards is about celebrating people who are already accomplished and doing amazing things – more about celebrating these role models.”
Don’t misconstrue empowering women for excluding men
Discussing empowerment of women across difference industries can, unfortunately, be considered controversial, but why is that? It’s because of individuals who decide to equate female empowerment with excluding men or diminishing their worthiness. This kind of misconception is the most toxic thing standing in the way of completely fair and legitimate missions to balance the playing field between men and women across an array of industries and jobs within those industries. The tech industry is a really important example of this. Plamena mentioned that, when creating WonderCoders, it was of utmost importance that it becomes a safe space for everyone:
“We didn’t want to build an organisation where it was ‘women only’, because if we want to make a difference, absolutely everyone has to be involved. You cannot say you’re going to make a difference when you exclude half of the population on earth. For sure we’re all about empowering women, but in no way should that ever be associated with excluding men. I always want to make sure that everyone is welcome to attend, any age, sex, ethnicity…anyone and everyone is welcome.”
The best way to break this down is by acknowledging the following: the two routes of WonderCoders and Nordic Women in Tech Awards exist for two different reasons. WonderCoders is about actively helping people with their personal journeys of getting more involved or more educated in the tech sector – that’s why it’s only logical that men and women are both included and given a chance to participate in this platform.
However, when we think about idols in the tech industry, the big superstars that we associate most with technology, what’s the gender of >90% of them? Most likely male. A quick google search of “top figures in the tech industry” will prove this in seconds, with long lists of inspirational and influential people in the industry coming up. After going through the first five lists to show up in the search, the most women mentioned in one list were two (out of 16).
And it’s because of this that Plamena decided to dedicate the entire Tech Awards platform to women. Women simply need more recognition. Again, this additional recognition for women doesn’t mean taking anything away from men, it’s simply about adding a vital piece to the equation: women. This isn’t synonymous with exclusion of men, however; volunteering, watching, participating in the celebrations – that’s for everyone, as it should be.
“Two and half years later, and our community is more than 2000 people, we’ve organised over 40 events, big summits, coding intros, meet-ups etc. But what I realised is that when you build a safe environment, where people feel they fit in, magical things happen. It’s not because women don’t want to get into tech, it’s because they don’t feel supported enough. The whole point of the course is that you go to the course AND LEARN THERE.”
From Bulgaria to Denmark: From 50/100 to 1/120
What does 50/100 and 1/120 mean? It means that when Plamena studied her Bachelor’s in Computer Science in Bulgaria (where she was born), her course, due to university quotas, had an even number of men and women. When she came to Denmark for her Master’s (also in Computer Science), she was the only woman out of 120 people.
“It was not only that I had the cultural shock of moving to another country, but I also had the shock that I was the only woman. This filled me with doubt that I would make it and I already wanted to drop out in the first semester. I did end up dropping out (only in the first semester, thereafter I completed my studies) because I didn’t feel supported enough and I knew it simply wasn’t an environment I could thrive in.”
This brings attention to an absolutely essential point: introducing tech to students too late in their life is an omission of the fact that the many education systems are designed in such a way to, essentially, force teenagers (who want to go to university) to decide on their university studies years before they even apply. For example, in the UK, you have to choose your A-level subjects (equivalent to choosing study paths at upper secondary education in Denmark) around the age of 16. This, in practicality, limits the paths you can pursue for higher education. The basic tech lessons that you do get in school should be more than learning how to use Word and Excel.
“Students at school are not introduced to tech at an early enough age. If you start showing them what tech is at the age of 19/20, it’s too late. At this point, they already know which direction they want to go. Most likely their minds have already been made up. It’s not that I think everyone should become a software developer, but what our goal is, is to introduce people to HOW technology is built, and then they make decisions for themselves about what interests them most and where they could potentially contribute.”
To return back to Plamena’s experience of studying in Denmark: dropping out of her Master’s clearly wasn’t the end for her. As the expression goes, when one door closes, another opens. The door that opened was the opportunity to make a change that no one in Denmark had, thus far, tried to make before: supporting women in tech:
“Thanks to networking shortly after, I met my mentor and he helped me more than I could ever imagine. He came up to me one day and told me: “You are better than you think you are”. This was all I needed to start pushing myself and motivating myself. I realised that if one person could do this for me, what’s stopping me from establishing an organisation where we have plenty of mentors so people can find that one person, or more, to give them that push that I got from my mentor.”
A mentor that Plamena has had from a very young age has been her grandmother (but also her mother, and father…her whole family).
“I was born into a family where my father was the cook in the house, and my mother has her own business. My grandmother is also a freaking fighter and my role model. She never gave up on anything – she even bungee jumped at the age of 65. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by kickass women in my family. So coming from a very small town, I had a very different vision of what it would be like coming to Denmark.”
Coming to Denmark was the turning point for Plamena, and it was here that she realised just how much of a need there is for organisations to support women in the tech industry. One of the biggest challenges, however, is working out where to focus the energy on making a change. As we discussed, it doesn’t matter how much support, energy, or time you give to women in technology; if this energy isn’t matched by the organisations they end up working for, the support will be able to effectuate little change. And that’s why WonderCoders’ goal for 2021 is the following: shifting some of the focus from women to the organisations that women actually end up working for – kind of like hitting two birds with one stone.
By helping organisations better themselves and become more open, accepting, and inclusive, the great side effect is not only that women feel more empowered in the workspace, but also that girls and women aspiring to work in the technology sector have something great to look up to. It’s like a self-reinforcing mechanism: the better the tech industry becomes at giving women a platform, the more women will feel inspired and determined to join the industry – this then results in an even more inclusive environment, inspiring more people and so on.
“We are supposed to help and empower each other. If you don’t understand it, you should not reject it. Women make 85% of the buying decisions in technology, so I will never believe that tech is a ‘man thing’. It’s not enough to only be consumers.”
A special thank you to Plamena Cherneva for taking the time to discuss the great work of WonderCoders and Nordic Women in Tech Awards. You can reach out to Plamena and read more about her journey on LinkedIn.
If you want to read more about entrepreneurship, company culture, leadership, or marketing, continue reading Nicolai Vittrup’s blog or reach out to Nicolai Vittrup himself on LinkedIn. For everything SEO-, PPC-, and web-related, see Webamp.