An algorithm for more women in STEM

By Svetla Baeva, Comms Lead, Innovation team, UNDP Europe and Central Asia

We live in a rapidly changing world where vast technological advancements are announced almost daily – think of the AI developments in just the last couple of months. The so-called fourth industrial revolution is characterized by extraordinary technology and digital transformation. While this is a time of great opportunity and excitement for the future, we must ensure that we are moving forward in an integrated and inclusive way. Women must be at the forefront of this revolution and an emphasis on equality is necessary for its success.

This is exactly what Female Algorithm, one of our BOOST: Women Innovator awardees, is set on doing – bringing more girls and women in Slovakia into the ICT sector, helping them break through entrenched biases and hurdles. Founded in 2020 by Lenka Hlinkova, Female Algorithm, follows the success of her book with the same title, published in 2018.

Photo of Lenka Hlinkova, Founder of Female Algorithm

“I wrote it after working 10 years in tech, and seeing the lack of women. My journey to tech wasn’t direct because I chose to study economics. Even though I was very good in mathematics, at the time, informatics wasn’t that popular […] and everything technical I know now, I had to learn myself,” says Lenka. The book is a guide for women on everything tech – it provides data on the situation of women in tech in Slovakia, lays out the common barriers women face, and gives a glimpse into women’s experiences from around the world.

After receiving dozens of emails from women, thanking her for inspiring them to make a career change, start their own business or even just ask for a higher salary, Lenka decided to open a new chapter, and kickstarted Female Algorithm.

Education programmes for women

There is a risk that the fourth industrial revolution could perpetuate the gender imbalance, since women still remain a minority in digital information technology, computing, physics, mathematics and engineering. What’s more, the gender gap tends to widen as women pursue their career.

Female Algorithm’s primary goal is to educate women in technology. In Slovakia, two thirds of girls who wanted to study informatics were discouraged by their parents, and only 10% of computer science students, 15% of tech workers and 7% of startup founders are women.

“We often don’t choose technology as our subject of study or as a job because of gender stereotypes rather than qualities we have. So I have a huge desire to change this,” says Lenka.

Now over 30 people strong, Female Algorithm focuses on two main programmes: engaging more women in tech, including girls, older adults, and refugees, by equipping them with essential digital skills, and supporting women to change or accelerate their careers, by teaching advanced technical or digital skills. Overall, they have trained nearly 1500 people. 

“The women who approach us that want to change their career usually chose their field of study at a point when they didn’t have enough information or weren’t sure what they wanted to do in their lives. But once they finished their university studies, they realized they didn’t like what they studied,” explains Lenka.

When Female Algorithm first started out, they began with a Back in Business programme for training women, returning from maternity leave, to transition to careers in tech or business. Now they have expanded their trainings to include, among other things, coding camps for girls between the ages of 11 and 18 – the only ones in Slovakia. “We also want more women in management, so we’ve started programmes like Ready to Lead for women in business looking to deepen their digital skills,” explains Lenka. All cohorts continue with self-development classes for another 12 months in Lean In circles across the country, which are at the core of the organization’s work and how they started.

Photos: Female Algorithm

What is unique about their training programmes is that 90% of them are led by female digital lecturers, university students or graduates in the field, via an online educational platform or in-person events. In addition, “a big part of our team are women who have either read my book or attended one of our events,” says Lenka about organically growing the team and building a community.

One of the reasons that women choose not to pursue a career in STEM is that there are often no role models and mentors to provide guidance and support. To change this, Female Algorithm is also spotlighting emerging local heroes. In one of their recent events, they invited Michaela Valovska, a graduate from their very first coding camp in 2020, to speak about her experience and how it changed her life trajectory. “At the time she wanted to become a fashion stylist, and she attended the camp so that she could see what programming was about. One year following the bootcamp, I met her on the train and she said, ‘You know what, I’m studying tech now thanks to that camp,’” says Lenka. 

A digital night school for Ukrainian refugees

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, over one million Ukrainian and third-country nationals in need of international protection have crossed the borders into Slovakia, 78% of whom are women and children. To help people resettle and integrate, Female Algorithm kickstarted Women2Women, regular meetups and mentorship sessions to help Ukrainian refugees navigate the local job market, build a community and remove the barriers they face. The programme now continues, led entirely by the Ukrainian community in Slovakia.

Video with testimonials from Ukrainian refugees, participating in a digital night school, supported by BOOST.

Through the BOOST: Women Innovators grant, Female Algorithm was able to launch a follow up to Women2Women – a digital night school for Ukrainian women refugees, which ran until the beginning of 2023. Led by Ukrainian lecturers, the night classes focused on digital technologies, project management, data analysis, programming and more. 

Female Algorithm also secured an additional partnership with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to promote the programme among Ukrainian refugees beyond Slovakia’s borders, expanding their reach. The training consisted of two onsite rounds in Slovakia and an online one, gathering a total of nearly 400 registered participants from 10 countries, including Poland, Croatia, and the Czech Republic.

Photos: Female Algorithm

From the 192 women who completed their pre-entry questionnaire, 88% stated that they had no previous experience in IT, 10% had previously worked in a junior IT role and 2% had worked or were still working in a senior IT position. Over 60% wanted to be employed in the tech sector within six months of completing the programme, and almost 75% wished to increase their knowledge and learn new digital skills.

Through these programmes, Female Algorithm has managed to help Ukrainian refugees resettle and tap into the “IT Valley”, the second largest tech community, as the Central European region is known, boasting more than 12,000 tech jobs.

A booster for new horizons

As Female Algorithm is nurturing the ecosystem, it is also growing itself. “The BOOST: Women Innovators programme helped me structure our vision and put together a strategy. We created an idea for a business spinoff for our nonprofit, which will start operations in 2024,” Lenka explains about the impact of BOOST’s acceleration sessions. Their work with different vulnerable groups will remain under the umbrella of their nonprofit, but their capacity-building programmes for companies and women leaders will become the core of their new business operation to scale their work.

When it comes to achieving your dreams, Lenka says: ’Don’t let yourself be influenced by what’s happening around you and where the hype is, but reflect and ask yourself: What do I really want? Who am I and Why do I want it?” 

A real algorithm for success.

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