Women in Ukraine’s IT Industry: Sustaining Teams Amidst Adversity – Insights from HR Professionals

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The IT industry in Ukraine has demonstrated remarkable resilience and fortitude during times of crisis, adapting to challenging circumstances while upholding high levels of productivity and global competitiveness. This underscores the effective collaboration within teams and the professional commitment of all employees, even in complex situations.

HR professionals play a pivotal role in preserving team effectiveness and morale during periods of conflict and uncertainty. They actively develop strategies to retain and motivate personnel, fostering initiatives that promote unity and mutual support. The adaptability and resourcefulness of HR professionals significantly contribute to maintaining strong team cohesion and productivity amidst instability.

Behind every innovative solution, there are individuals and teams. In times of war and partial relocations, preserving teams has become a genuine challenge. How can remote work be sustained while keeping teams motivated? How can issues like burnout and anxiety be addressed to ensure teams continue to function effectively?

Kharkiv IT Cluster exemplifies the idea that communities can thrive through collective efforts, knowledge sharing, and best practices. To support and safeguard the interests of small and medium-sized companies that have partially and involuntarily relocated their teams, the “IT Cluster in the Cloud” project was launched in the summer of 2023 with the backing of the USAID Competitive Economy of Ukraine Program.

Today, we will delve into the experiences of women who have persevered, supported, and inspired their teams under challenging circumstances. These women are HR professionals from IT companies that are members of the Kharkiv IT Cluster.

  • Julia Shaladanova – Head of HR Operations at INSART, a company that assists financial technology firms in creating software products.
  • Oksana Iordatieva – HR/Recruiting Lead at ITRDev, a company specializing in solutions and development for sports niche products.
  • Hanna Biletska – HR Generalist at Forma Pro, a company that develops specialized web programs aligned with the latest technological standards and business objectives.

Team Preservation in Testing Times

The capacity of HR professionals to retain teams in the most challenging circumstances is an outstanding strength. Wartime conditions necessitate relocations, alterations to the work environment, and adaptation to extraordinary situations. Women in HR have demonstrated exceptional adeptness in navigating these changes, thereby helping to maintain cohesive and motivated teams.

According to Oksana Iordatiieva, HR Lead at ITRDev, women in the company saw almost no change in their work routine starting from February 24th. While some decided to relocate, the majority remained committed to their roles. Out of a team of 30, nine were women, with only one opting to move abroad, while the rest either relocated within Ukraine or stayed home.

In terms of psychological well-being, the women at ITRDev have shown resilience. They have not simply endured; they have found the resources to pursue hobbies, travel, and live life to the fullest.

An interesting revelation during blackouts was how well-prepared the team was. As electricity problems began, nearly everyone in the company was equipped with charging stations, flashlights, and stocked supplies of food and water.

“I’ll say this: our women are stronger than anyone. Not only do they motivate themselves and find the resources for learning, sports, hobbies, and family, but they also inspire those around them with their example and support their colleagues,” Oksana shares her impressions.

Julia Shaladanova from INSART stated that the company’s primary objective post-February 24th was to retain all positions and roles. The team unanimously decided against downsizing, recognizing that it was not the appropriate time, despite the challenging circumstances.

Their first step was to assist with relocations. With the company’s support, INSART consultants were able to move to safer regions within Ukraine. Preparations had even been made for relocation to Poland before the war started, with comprehensive plans outlining the cost of living, accommodation, required documentation, and available support channels.

“Unfortunately, we were unable to implement this plan because the borders closed, and about 80% of our company’s consultants are still men. This scenario has become irrelevant for them,” Julia shares.

As the initial relocations commenced, INSART provided financial assistance to ensure individuals could cover their unforeseen expenses.

Additionally, colleagues situated in safer regions of Ukraine or abroad right from the outset of the conflict have been actively involved in coordinating with their counterparts in Eastern Ukraine. In the early days of the war, the company proactively arranged hotel accommodations in western Ukraine, where consultants, along with their families and pets, found refuge.

“The first week proved to be incredibly tough for everyone, with only 10-15% of our consultants able to participate in work. The second week showed some improvement, and by the third week, around 70% of our consultants were back in action. Towards the end of March, the company had resumed its regular operations.”

During the war’s initial month, a new practice was introduced – daily calls from INSART’s CEO. Even though he had relocated abroad prior to the war’s outbreak, he remained acutely aware of the team’s situation and made every effort to provide unwavering support. Vasyl stayed in constant communication with the team, available around the clock.

“Regardless of the challenging times we’ve endured, I firmly believe that our mutual support has been pivotal. It’s what allowed us to get back on track after the initial upheaval. Thanks to this unity, our team has not only endured but continues to function,” asserts a dedicated professional.

Remarkably, the war has acted as a catalyst, accelerating INSART’s expansion into the international market. Before the conflict, the company had already established a presence in Poland. Currently, they are actively exploring additional global locations beyond Europe.

Hanna Biletska, HR at Forma Pro, reflects on how clients promptly expressed empathy for Ukraine’s ordeal. They continually inquire about the team’s safety and readily extend assistance whenever required.

1 Women in Ukraine's IT Industry: Sustaining Teams Amidst Adversity - Insights from HR Professionals

During the initial weeks of the conflict, the teams provided a grace period for all employees to relocate. However, there was no compulsion; those who expressed a desire to leave were offered assistance.

“I remember anxiously tracking arrivals and reaching out to everyone who might have been in that location during the first few months. This happens less now. I have more confidence in my colleagues. They are better prepared and know what to do in such situations,” shared Hanna.

For instance, there were instances where team members collaborated, traveling together by car or staying with relatives. Hanna recalls challenges related to finding accommodation and dealing with transportation:

“The first week (or even two) you’re immersed in news and group chats. Who, where, how, who needs help. You share routes, offer advice on the best way to navigate through traffic jams and delays.”

Gradually, everyone resumed work. However, not without difficulties. Hanna, for example, had to cope with noisy neighbors and inadequate sound insulation in her building. The solution was fairly conventional – patience and managing her environment during calls. Some calls were scheduled when children were asleep, while others were conducted outdoors.

Forma Pro also provided essential support to its team, encompassing technical and non-technical needs. This included routers, laptops, chairs, and desks. As many employees relocated with their children, Forma Pro ensured their educational requirements were met, providing laptops or tablets where necessary.

Furthermore, the company allowed relocated employees to retrieve their personal belongings from the office. This was crucial for maintaining a sense of comfort and familiarity during such challenging times. Additionally, the company donated a significant amount of equipment that was no longer needed to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

“A significant advantage is that I didn’t lose my job,” Hanna humorously remarked. “Moreover, I can’t even fathom how I would have emotionally coped without the support of my colleagues. I’m aware of numerous companies that had to lay off staff or cease operations altogether due to the full-scale invasion.”

Stories of Transformation Within Teams

Forma Pro hires individuals based on their compatibility with the team, their soft skills, and, of course, their technical competence, without regard to gender, age, or other characteristics.

“It wouldn’t be accurate to claim that there’s been a shift towards hiring more women due to mobilization. Maybe I’m just in my own bubble,” Hanna noted.

A noteworthy observation by Hanna is that some female acquaintances in the IT sector were explicitly told last spring/summer that they should leave the country because clients demanded it. Occasionally, the nature of the product itself dictates that if you’re a woman, you should leave, or they’ll find someone else who has already left.\

Forma Pro carefully maintains gender balance, but it extends beyond gender to inclusivity in terms of age, religion, and other characteristics. Currently, the company has 11 female employees and 18 male employees, roughly a 40/60 ratio. Job roles vary across the board, with women holding positions in sales, from lead generation to HBD|CBO, and in development roles such as software engineers, tech leads, team leads, and architects.

Taking a broader view, there is representation from women in roles from the entry level to C-level positions in each department. Importantly, C-level is not considered a final destination.

2 Women in Ukraine's IT Industry: Sustaining Teams Amidst Adversity - Insights from HR Professionals

“In our current era, women have the incredible opportunity to not only occupy leadership roles but also establish their own businesses and bring their ideas to life. What’s particularly noteworthy is that Ukraine boasts numerous women’s communities. This year, on March 8th, we curated a list showcasing women-centric publications and communities,” shared Hanna.

At INSART, the company is acutely aware of potential risks tied to hiring men during times of conflict. However, their hiring strategy is firmly rooted in meritocracy:

“Our foremost consideration lies in evaluating skills, qualifications, and the relevant experience of an individual. If a male candidate is better suited for a particular role, we do not factor in any associated risks and proceed with hiring him.”

When it comes to gender diversity within the company, women are most prominently represented in HR and recruitment teams. The marketing team, too, includes a significant number of women, spanning roles from content writers and marketers to designers. Many women also hold positions in the finance department. Within service delivery teams, women primarily occupy roles in QA and frontend development.

ITRDev has recently witnessed a surge in its hiring activities owing to heightened task complexity, communication needs, and employee engagement. In the span of just a month and a half, the company successfully filled seven vacancies, a substantial achievement for a smaller firm.

Typically, the company maintains one or two open positions that do not necessitate immediate attention. However, a pressing need arose to promptly address the talent shortage.

In the wake of the conflict, many companies began prioritizing the recruitment of women, partly due to mobilization efforts. Commencing from spring 2022, the company welcomed women into positions such as Project Manager, Business Analyst, Tester, two Designers, and a Data Analyst. Some of these individuals were born and reside abroad, but among them are Ukrainian women.

“I believe that our current gender balance is quite commendable, considering that in the broader IT field, women account for only about one-third of the workforce,” remarked Oksana.

Lately, the number of women in QA roles has seen an uptick, and according to Oksana, the current gender distribution is either 50/50 or 60/40 in favor of women. The company also boasts a significant presence of women in various roles, including Designers, HR Specialists, Recruiters, and Accountants. Among the C-level positions, women hold key positions such as CEOs, CFOs, Branch Managers, heads of Legal Departments, and leaders within the Sales Department.

Remarkable Qualities That Rescue a Team

Oksana Iordatiieva firmly believes that support is the most significant force capable of preserving a team.

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“I consider myself very lucky, really. From the very beginning, we introduced meetings with psychologists, held lectures, shared our volunteer opportunities, and stayed in touch with colleagues,” recalls Oksana, HR manager at ITRDev, about the early months of the conflict.

Naturally, there are colleagues who find it challenging to cope with the ongoing situation, but their numbers are few. The company supports every team member, remains in constant communication, and is ready to assist. Individualized approaches are taken, which might include specific schedules, time for learning, coaching, self-care, and more.
According to Oksana, anyone can be rescued from such a state, but it’s best not to let it reach extremes:

“I always say that it’s essential to take vacations on time. Resources have a tendency to deplete sooner or later, and replenishing them isn’t always easy. So, we make sure everyone goes on vacation on time and monitor this process.”

In particular, if they notice that a woman is feeling uncomfortable, they try to help:

“Of course, there are those who try to persistently work, rejecting rest, and denying their fatigue. Sometimes it seems like if they had the opportunity to recharge from an outlet, they would do that. But there are moments when your productivity isn’t okay for the business. When we see that a person is becoming less productive, we insist on resource recovery.”

The company aims to be as helpful as possible. Currently, they want to resume online meetings and team-building activities where the team can engage in casual conversations unrelated to work, helping them get to know their colleagues better and boost their positive emotions and motivation.

At Forma Pro, they have their perspective on the superpowers of women who care for their teams. In the past, women were often described as weak, indecisive, and overly emotional. However, this perception is changing rapidly. An era has arrived where we constantly hear about emotional intelligence, and everyone agrees that women excel in this regard. Women seem to have it naturally, more so than men, simply because they are women.

“They always said that the first person to invent programming was a woman. I believe it’s because we are more attentive to details and pay more attention to them. In analytics, programming, or anything related to handling a large amount of data, being meticulous and attentive plays a crucial role,” says Hanna.

Yulia Shaladanova is confident that empathy allows her to support people effectively.

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“I think women are more empathetic, which is why there are so many of them in HR and recruitment. I believe it’s because women tend to see and understand the emotions of others a bit more. Perhaps women are also more adaptable. We usually combine several roles: we’re mothers, wives, friends, career-driven, and many other things. We are definitely multitasking,” shares Yulia.

Nurturing Talent and the Collective Expertise of IT Guardians

For several years now, the Kharkiv IT Cluster has been focusing its efforts on building expert communities and bolstering their knowledge and skills. The HR CommunITy, a specialized platform where HR experts exchange insights, enhance employer branding, and collaborate on strategies to retain teams and their exceptional talents, serves as a valuable space for sharing experiences and expertise related to talent retention within IT companies.

The Kharkiv IT Cluster recognizes that during challenging times, HR professionals, recruiters, and all those responsible for retaining teams play a pivotal role in safeguarding the future of the IT industry. They are not only preserving the potential for groundbreaking solutions but also nurturing the image of the tech sector and securing its prospects. In the realm of IT, human capital stands as the most valuable asset.

Hence, the ability to excel under exceedingly stressful conditions, combat burnout, and navigate through unpredictable situations within the country is a remarkable skill that holds immense significance for the Ukrainian tech industry, particularly during times of adversity.

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