One Multinational Take on Gender and How to #beboldforchange

“Men and women are just different. It doesn’t mean one is bad and the other is good, but we’d truly get much further if we could use the strength that each individual has without considering gender.” — Kaarina Kvaavik, co-founder of Language I/O

The culture shock Kaarina Kvaavik’s experienced when she moved from Sweden to the US in 1992 had nothing to do with food, customs, or geography and everything to do with gender disparity in the tech industry.

“Men who came from very technical backgrounds who were in their thirties and forties at the time had this belief that women could not be in tech,” said Kvaavik, who is the co-founder of women-owned language software development company, Language I/O. “It blew my mind. I had never realized how big the gender gap was in regards to job opportunities.” 

Kvaavik moved to the US following a high-tech career with Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC). She’d been a US citizen since birth, but had never lived in the sates. 

“At that time, it wasn’t very common for women to apply for the jobs I was applying for,” Kvaavik said. “When I would apply, it was almost like the men couldn’t believe I had held similar positions in Sweden.” 

Finally, a few months after her move to the US, Kvaavik got a job-teaching an introductory DOS class to professionals in several industries including emergency services and banking. 

“I clearly remember standing there knowing how to pick apart a PC blindfolded while being asked by the men in my class, ‘what kind of knowledge do you have that qualifies you to teach us DOS?’”

Not long after, Kvaavik got a lead engineering job with Dragon Systems. She left the inane teaching questions behind, but not the gender discrimination. While discrimination was not a part of Dragon Systems, Kvaavik’s overall experience with discrimination in tech had her fighting to prove herself for years in a male-dominated industry that still feels like a good old boy’s club.

“In Sweden, I can’t remember there being any gender bias,” she said. “On the tech side of things, women were equal to men. I never had conversations with friends or colleagues about gender parity.” 

Kvaavik believes part of the issue with the gender equality gap in the US is cultural. 

“In Sweden and in corporate Scandinavia, they’ve made an extremely conscious effort to make sure that men and women play equal roles,” she said. “They are now doing that with the government as well.” 

Kvaavik says impact of the World War II had a huge influence on gender parity in many Northern European countries.

“When the men were taken to the front, the only way for the country to continue existing was for the women to hit the workforce,” she said. “When the men came back from the war, many of them were wounded and couldn’t work, the while the  women enjoyed working outside of the home and weren’t interested in giving that back. This happened in several of the smaller European countries so the change in roles happened much more quickly than it did in the US.”

Beat ‘Em, Don’t Join ‘Em

Interestingly, Kvaavik’s role as co-founder of a multilingual customer service software company plays into the future of gender parity in the US. The world of language, which Kvaavik operates within daily, greatly affects gender bias.

“We need to talk about behaviors,” Kvaavik said. “You still hear about the Southern belle, the beautiful seen but not heard ideal female but what about a Northern magnolia. Could you imagine how that would play in the boardroom? Not well.”

Consciously choosing words that are positive when describing successful, hardworking women such as strong or authoritative assertive rather than using diminishing ones such as ball buster, bitchy, or aggressive, would be a good start toward changing how we view genders. 

“The conversation needs to start at home,” Kvaavik said. “I do it with my daughter and my son. Heather, who is the other co-founder of Language I/O, does it with her daughters. We try not to stereotype and really push to get more women in STEM.” 

One place to start would be revisiting the idea of the American Dream, the white picket image of a housewife and 2.5 kids waiting on the porch for dad to return from work. Another would be treating maternity and paternity leave the same. Sweden’s already done this and it’s had a massive impact culturally.

“In downtown Stockholm during the spring and summer, the streets and parks are filled with men pushing children in strollers or playing with their kids,” she said. “That’s not something you see in the US.”  

So what does being bold mean in an era where gender discrimination is still prevalent in the US?

“Being bold means continuing to be brave and talk about this issue,” Kvaavik said. “We need to demand it. We can’t get lazy or complacent. We have to keep steady and push these issues forward.” 

For more information about International Women’s Day and the #beboldforchange campaign, click here