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Should female tech students get 'free' loans?

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Should female tech students get 'free' loans?
A Swedish woman using a computer. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT
16:21 CET+01:00
A suggestion that female IT students should have their debts written off to encourage more young women to enter Sweden's tech sector is causing a storm in the famously 'gender equal' nation.

The idea was mooted in an annual report handed to the government on Tuesday by the Digitalisation Commission, a publicly-funded body set up in 2012 with the goal of making the Nordic nation the "best in the world at exploiting the opportunities of digitalisation".

The commission's report argues that the growth of Sweden's IT sector is threatened by a shortage of women, with an already small proportion of females working in the industry decreasing in recent years.

It states that just 15 percent of students taking IT courses in the Scandinavian country are women and suggests that one way of persuading more girls to sign up to technology-based degrees could be to write off their debts after graduation. University courses are free in Sweden, but many students still need to take out loans in order to pay for their accommodation and other living expenses. 

The commission also suggests that young women who decide against a career in IT despite studying the subject, could have their government grants "reset" so that they can afford to take alternative courses in future.

"This would give girls an opportunity to try out a study programme without taking a risk," Jan Gulliksen, Chairman of the Digitalization Commission told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

"They would be able to start a new training programmes and make a career shift," he explained.

The commission argues that funding should initially be made available for up to 5000 women to participate in the scheme, designed to run until at least 30 percent of IT students are female.

But the idea has caused a stir on social media in Sweden, famous for promoting equality between the sexes, with the story among the most shared of the day according to social media site Socialanyheter.

"Writing off student loans on the basis of gender is NOT OK," wrote one female engineer Josefin Utas on Twitter.

"Discrimination - not gender equality," she continued.

"Oh well now the Digitalisation Commission suggests that women should get to study with their debts written off if they study IT. Very gender equal #not," tweeted another angry reader Tobias Gillberg.

But others welcomed the proposal including Left Party politician Mathias Sundin, who said the report had included some "great suggestions", but questioned the amount of paper needed to print it out.

The Digitalization Commission continued to defend its ideas when questioned by Swedish media later in the day.

"The IT sector is characterised by gender segregation (…) If only men develop technologies that everyone should use then we get a skewed picture," Gulliksson told tech site Ny Teknik.

The commission's report will be read and analysed by the Swedish government, although it is under no obligation to follow the authors' suggestions.

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