Educating Women in Technology
In India, there are gender barriers that uniquely prevent women from accessing technology right from an early age. From an intersectional perspective, such gender barriers overlap with economic, cultural, and class barriers for women from marginalized backgrounds. For women to be creators of technology and decision-makers, we need to first address such barriers so as to not be closed off within the same groups of women who are privileged enough to enter the field. To understand these contexts better, I spoke with Gayatri Buragohain, founder of Feminist Access to Technology (FAT), a not-for-profit organization in India, working towards enabling women to access, use and create technology through a feminist rights‐based framework.
Gayatri: “In India, poorer families have limited resources to invest in technology, so they invest most of these resources in private education for boys as they believe this would result in some returns. Girls’ education is seen as a burden instead of an investment, and they are usually sent to government schools, which heavily lack in the quality of education and infrastructure. Even though Computer Science is part of the curriculum, a lot of these schools don’t have computer labs and skilled teachers. With such burdens, it becomes difficult for girls to even pass classes at school. Technology is kept away from girls also because it is seen as a corruptive force that provides them with opportunities to connect with different ideas and boys.”
In India, poorer families have limited resources to invest in technology, so they invest most of these resources in private education for boys as they believe this would result in some returns. Girls’ education is seen as a burden instead of an investment, and they are usually sent to government schools, which heavily lack in the quality of education and infrastructure.
In the face of such harsh realities that girls face, Gayatri believes that we need better technical education that breaks gender stereotypes.
“We are running a pilot project called Jugaad Lab where we’re working with 10-15-year-old girls from urban poor communities on innovative STEM education. Over the past one year, we’ve reached out to 45 girls, but only 10 of them have sustained through the entire duration of the project. We’ve seen cases of drop-outs ranging from families disallowing girls to visit our center to girls getting stalked, raped and sent back to their villages.”
But Gayatri says she has observed progress. “When the 10 girls that we retained joined us, they couldn’t even understand their textbooks, but now they have a vision for themselves and express ambitions to enter STEM fields. This has been possible only because they had access to STEM education in an enabling environment which understands their contexts, develops and retains their interests, and builds their understanding of these subjects.”
Hiring Women in Technology
While marginalized girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are at one end of the spectrum, women’s technical opportunities are not at par with men’s even in more developed parts of India due to different gender stereotypes that come into play and subtler conditioning that dissuades them from opting for technical jobs. An average of just 23% new recruits in technology are women across career levels. So, how can we even out the playing field while hiring in technology? ThoughtWorks, a global software company that was recently awarded by The Anita Borg Institute for being the Top Company for Women Technologists in 2016, seems to have gotten it right with 40.5% of their new hires being women. I spoke to Savita Hortikar, Head of Recruitment at ThoughtWorks India to get an insight into their hiring process and diversity policies.
Savita: “From a recruitment perspective, we have clear guidelines that help us achieve a diverse work environment. One such initiative is to have 50% of our campus hires as women. We try to achieve this through specifically targeted activities like hiring from women’s colleges, running women hiring events, and conducting training workshops for students from women’s colleges to nurture talent. We also have a special emphasis on hiring women for leadership roles. A special leadership development programme called WiLD (Women in Leadership Development) is available to groom and train second level women leaders who can take on leadership roles in the company. Additionally, for some technology events that ThoughtWorks participates in, we ensure our messaging caters to women technologists”
From a recruitment perspective, we have clear guidelines that help us achieve a diverse work environment. One such initiative is to have 50% of our campus hires as women. We try to achieve this through specifically targeted activities like hiring from women’s colleges, running women hiring events, and conducting training workshops for students from women’s colleges to nurture talent.
Retaining Women in Technology
While diversity in hiring is valuable, the task doesn’t end there. According to a McKinsey report, findings show that women face greater barriers to advancement and steeper paths to senior leadership. Many women believe that the real challenges begin once you enter the workforce. Once in through the door, we need policies and practices to ensure that women who make it till this stage remain in the field.
Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University, and a leading researcher on the gender wage gap, has conducted a study of how gender affects career trajectories.
Her first finding is that the highest-paying jobs disproportionately reward those who can work the longest, least flexible hours. These types of job penalize workers who have caregiving responsibilities outside the workplace, who tend to be women.
Her second finding is that certain hours are more important than others in some jobs, and those jobs have especially high wage gaps. These are jobs where a worker’s clients want to deal with her specifically and at particular hours. Therefore, Goldin’s research suggests that making hours more flexible, and workers more interchangeable, will help retain more women in the workforce.
Unfortunately, it’s uncertain how the above proposals can be applied to technical jobs since most of the Tech industry is currently organized around a set 9-to-5 schedule, working longer hours is incentivized through extra pay, promotions, etc., and each worker brings a specific skill-set and knowledge base to the table, making it difficult for workers to be interchangeable.
But keeping this specific nature of the industry in mind, are there ways to implement these propositions? The two most widely documented reasons for why most women find it difficult to work long hours are safety, and family or kids. There are ways organizations can enable women to get around these limitations to an extent. For example, safety can be ensured by providing free transportation accompanied by security for women back home late at night. For women who have growing kids, organizations can allow for flexible working hours and facilities to work from home, such as laptops, company-sponsored internet dongles, etc.
According to a survey that I conducted on how much gender matters at the workplace in Technology, 50% of all respondents said their organization did not offer either transportation or security for women while working late hours.
Epistemic Warning – The sample size of the survey was small due to which precaution should be observed while inferring trends.
Why do some organizations not set aside a budget to provide such crucial services? A McKinsey survey shows that gender diversity isn’t a high priority at most companies. Additionally, since women are generally underrepresented in technology-related jobs, especially at leadership levels, women’s issues become “out of sight, out of mind”, and it becomes difficult to lobby for change.
Retaining Women in Technology – Flexible Working Hours
I spoke about the challenges of managing childcare while being a woman in tech with Zainab Bawa, a primary care-giver to her almost 3-year old daughter, and Co-Founder of HasGeek, a technology start-up that creates discussion spaces for geeks, and hosts conferences.
Zainab: – One challenge is adhering to your child’s schedule in addition to your work. A child’s schedule changes very rapidly based on age, from every week or every fortnight. Even when a child is getting into a routine, there is no predictability because the child may fall sick, which happens often, and you may need to attend to it, taking you that much more away from work during that time. My child will start going to school in a few months, I am thinking I will only be able to work half-day then because my schedule will have to coincide with hers, I will need to understand her psychological needs. So, I think the biggest challenge for working primary caregivers is having flexibility, and for employers to not only provide that flexibility, but also to have faith that the person will deliver in the face of these challenges in raising children.
I think the biggest challenge for working primary caregivers is having flexibility, and for employers to not only provide that flexibility, but also to have faith that the person will deliver in the face of these challenges in raising children.
Zainab also spoke about how organizations can help women with these challenges – “I think the exclusion of children from working adult spaces often makes us forget that someone, somewhere is taking care of them. So, we provide childcare centers equipped with supervisors, books, and toys at our conferences for primary caregivers who want to bring their children along to the event. We’ve had this provision for two conferences so far, but haven’t had any takers for it. A possible reason for this could be that most of our conferences take place on weekdays when childcare is already sorted out for working parents who’ve made other arrangements. Another reason could be that people may not be culturally accustomed to having children in adult gatherings for concerns such as attention being disrupted, uncertainty about how well the child will be taken care of, or whether the child will adjust. Until we see an uptake, there’s no conclusive way for us to determine exactly what these factors are. But we still provide the facility so that people have a reminder of their choice in availing of it”
Retaining Women in Technology – Safety at Work
While making working hours more flexible is one endeavor, ensuring that those hours are spent in a safe working space is an equally important effort to retaining more women. Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 by the Union Legislature of India, it is an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment, constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), display the penal consequences of sexual harassment at a conspicuous place in the workplace, and organize orientation programmes for the members of the ICC as well as awareness programmes for employees. Most developed countries have similar provisions in place to the same effect.
Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 by the Union Legislature of India, it is an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment, constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), display the penal consequences of sexual harassment at a conspicuous place in the workplace, and organize orientation programmes for the members of the ICC as well as awareness programmes for employees.
However, enforcement of the Act, though legally mandated, is still weak. A survey conducted by FICC-EY shows that 31% of the companies surveyed were not compliant with the Act, 40% are yet to train their ICC members, 35% were unaware of the penal consequences for non-compliance, and 44% did not display the penal consequences of sexual harassment in their premises.
But there are some dynamics that these numbers do not capture – How impartial is the investigation? How sensitive is the process to a complainant’s experiences? How adequate is the degree of punishment for the harassment? How fairly is the complainant treated at work after filing the complaint? There is no data available on these fronts. So, to understand these humane aspects better, I spoke to Shivangi Prasad, Samriti Makkar Midha, and Sana Hakim, the Founding Partners of Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) at Work, an organization that provides legal updates and assistance in compliance with the law in sexual harassment at work cases.
What POSH has to say is that implementing the provisions under the Act isn’t a matter of just crossing things off a checklist in terms of what to do. “It’s also important to focus on how to do it, and why it is being done. The biggest hurdle we face is a lack of awareness and understanding of the Act. For example, we have seen companies not organize or conduct any sort of awareness and training sessions for employees, ICC and Management for a sensitive topic like sexual harassment. These training sessions are imperative for them to understand the finer nuances of the Act and the psychological impact it can have on the parties involved, along with discerning malicious complaints from genuine complaints.
From our experience, some managers don’t see the need to comply with the Act; they are in denial of the problem as they seem to believe that they are immune to complaints regarding sexual harassment since they run healthy, profitable organizations.
The second biggest hurdle is changing mindsets. From our experience, some managers don’t see the need to comply with the Act; they are in denial of the problem as they seem to believe that they are immune to complaints regarding sexual harassment since they run healthy, profitable organizations. Although the ICC is a fact-finding committee, it is the Management that is responsible for making all decisions. The values that you want to promote in your organization are usually a top-down phenomenon, and you send out messages not just verbally, but also through your behaviors. So, a lot of changes need to be implemented in mindsets and behaviors across the board on different aspects – ICC members (on how to carry out unbiased investigations), Management (on how to take the right decisions which may be pertinent to help their reputation), and employees (on how to be sensitive to each other’s differences and boundaries).”
Retaining Women – Effective Mentoring and Sponsorship
Another important step in retaining more women in technology is having effective mentoring processes in place at organizations. Some prominent women such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, have already spoken about the value of having peer-groups for women (“Lean In” circles), but such groups offer very different value from mentors. A study of 4,000 women and men who graduated from top MBA programs found that when women receive mentorship, it’s advice on how they should change and gain more self-knowledge. When men receive mentorship, it’s public endorsement of their authority and concrete steps to take charge and make career moves. I spoke to Sharada Srinivasan, Research Fellow at Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition at University of Pennsylvania Law School, about what kind of mentoring has helped her as an academic woman in technology.
Sharada: “For me, mentors have to be at least a step (and preferably more) ahead of the mentee in terms of what they know about the industry. I think it has to be a top-down learning experience of how to get better, which can’t come from peers who are situated at the same level and have the same level of information. Currently in organizations, mentoring happens as a hierarchy where it is looked at as a duty with a specific set of responsibilities and sessions. In this process of rigid mentorship, I think we’ve lost its true benefits. How many senior-level women check in on you and say, “You don’t look well today”? I think mentoring should be more open-ended conversations about the future. If at any point of time, you are struggling with a problem, you should be able to reach out to your mentor to ask for suggestions, beyond the technical aspects of that problem. For example, I’ve had valuable conversations with my mentor about the imposter perception I struggled with as a woman in a male-dominated field when I first came here.”
How many senior-level women check in on you and say, “You don’t look well today”? I think mentoring should be more open-ended conversations about the future. If at any point of time, you are struggling with a problem, you should be able to reach out to your mentor to ask for suggestions, beyond the technical aspects of that problem.
Such mentoring spaces don’t exist in women’s contexts because of structural reasons – we don’t yet have enough women at senior positions in technology to mentor other women. Therefore, it becomes even more important to ensure promotions and retentions for women through the above proposed changes. There is value to having women at higher levels of organizations speak to the issues and challenges that women face from a gendered perspective. However, the higher one goes up the ladder, the more responsibilities one has. In such a context, often the last thing on a woman’s mind is how to push other women up in a time crunch. How can senior women then additionally take upon mentoring as a personal responsibility? To shed light on this, I spoke to Cheryl Miller, Director of International Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs at Verizon, who is also a mentor to Sharada at the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition at University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Cheryl: “It’s true that being a mentor takes a lot of time, and not everyone has that much time. That’s why an important part of the mentorship relationship is sponsorship. A sponsor is someone you’re exposed to inside or outside your organization who can spend time day to day, week to week, advocating your talents and work to other people, rather than influencing you directly by providing guidance. So, I think it’s important to have more than one kind of mentor, and not all of them have to be women. I’ve had many wonderful mentors – some have been men, and some have even been at the same level as me. In any case, you have to respect each other’s time, like being aware of each other’s schedules. It’s valuable to have honest conversations with your mentor on what strategy would work best for you.”
I’ve had many wonderful mentors – some have been men, and some have even been at the same level as me. In any case, you have to respect each other’s time, like being aware of each other’s schedules. It’s valuable to have honest conversations with your mentor on what strategy would work best for you.
Cheryl also spoke about how can organizations can support such a system of mentoring. “Mentoring requires confidence; you have to be very secure of yourself to help others rise up. But organizations sometimes encourage competition because they want the best to rise to the top. Instead, they should nurture and incentivize a culture where women feel confident and secure, and support their co-workers. For example, we have a credo award at our company for team-work. We have to keep in mind that we are likely to make a lot more progress if as we rise up, we try to bring everyone around us up. We all add a different unique value to an organization, and as women, we should celebrate each other’s successes.”
Retaining Women in Technology – Sensitization of Corporate Culture
Even if all of the above proposed systems are implemented effectively, the effort may not translate into actual promotions and retentions for women unless there is an overhaul in corporate culture. Studies show that as a culturally learned behavior, women systematically undermine their own abilities, are more likely to attribute their success to others, and are less likely than men to ask for more, be it more pay, compensation, promotions, etc. Data reveals that an underlying reason for such behavior is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, but negatively correlated for women. This puts successful women more under the microscope than men in many different ways; people are more keen to comment on the way women dress at the workplace, as opposed to men; a woman who is more outgoing is considered too “bossy”, whereas a quieter one is seen as not contributing enough.
Cheryl concurred on these observations from her own personal experiences, and shared an interesting example of how as women, we can be more honest with ourselves, and warier of falling prey to such limiting behaviors.
Cheryl says, “I have a little thing that I do for myself during write-ups that we have within the company. For my own benefit, after I’ve written something, I take a look at how many times I’ve used the word “we” versus the word “I”. I tend to be a very big team-player, so I almost always use the word “we”. But if you’ve done something yourself, it’s okay to use the word “I” sometimes to take credit for it. It’s important if you’re a woman, to have confidence in yourself, understand the value that you contribute, and know how to build on that value.”
Similar to this small exercise that has helped Cheryl, there are little things that we can all do as individuals which go a long way in creating a sensitive work culture in technology. “The first thing we can do is to start a conversation. Every organization will probably be a part of some panel or conference. Encourage your organization to have a discussion on women in tech at such conferences that you’re a part of. Be supportive of other women in your company. If you’re someone who’s in a senior position, reach out to someone younger you’ve not spoken to before, take them to coffee, and talk to them. Or even better, offer someone a project to work on with you if you want to build a mentorship role. Be a mentor to someone. You can also put a sticker on your door to let women in your office know that you’re a safe space, and they can trust you and talk to you if they are facing problems. If you’re hiring, hire women and female interns. If you have money that you’re able to give as part of Corporate Social Responsibility, give to charities that are doing some good work for women. This is not just for women in leadership positions; everyone can do a little bit of something to help build a community of trust and support. Women’s issues are all of our issues.”
Encourage your organization to have a discussion on women in tech at such conferences that you’re a part of. Be supportive of other women in your company. If you’re someone who’s in a senior position, reach out to someone younger you’ve not spoken to before, take them to coffee, and talk to them.
Cheryl is right in saying that women’s issues are all of our issues. And these are complex issues plaguing Technology at multiple levels as has been discussed in this article. So, as women in Technology, let us try to be more cognizant of the nuances of these challenges, work in our capacity to build better awareness around them, and support each other in our growth.