Proactive intervention necessary if we want to keep women in tech

16th Mar 2017
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Organisations need to go into damage control mode, for the female workforce in tech is falling.

In the past decade, have we seen more women resume work after maternity leave? Have more women joined the workforce, especially women in tech? Do we see families being more supportive?

“Earlier, women were restricted to a few sectors like nursing, teaching, banking, etc. But now we can see women working in technology/IT companies. In fact, women have started creating technology-focused companies themselves,” says Dr. Shikha Sharma, Founder, Dr. Shikha’s Nutri Health.

Sonia Sharma, Co-founder and Managing Director, GoodWorkLabs, adds, “Families are a lot more supportive and women are no longer tied down by the restrictions of family or society. This is definitely a great cultural change that we are moving towards!”

But why is it that the numbers still don’t look reassuring? Why do we have a dearth of women at the top rung in boardrooms and as leaders? Given that technology has grown by leaps and bounds, the number of women in the technical force has not kept pace. According to Geetha Kannan, Managing Director of the Anita Borg Institute, India, a recent study shows that India's IT-BPM industry employs nearly 3.9 million people, of which 34 percent are women. “With technology having been around for so long, shouldn’t the percentage of women in the workforce be at least 50 percent?” Geetha wants to know.

Downward spiral

Not only is that not the case but we are actually on a downward spiral.

A study by Accenture and GirlsWhoCode states that unless there are interventions, by 2025, the share of women in the US computing workforce will decline from 24 percent to 22 percent. According to the Women in Global Science and Technology (WISAT) report, the number of women in the science, technology, and innovation field is alarmingly low in the world’s leading economies and is on the decline in the US.

Why are women dropping out? According to data, work experiences impact women’s decisions to leave science, engineering, and technology (SET). The leave rates for women in SET peak about 10 years into their careers. Almost one-third of women in the US (32 percent) and China (30 percent) intend to leave their SET jobs within a year. The intention to leave within a year is slightly less for SET women in Brazil (22 percent) and India (20 percent).

The question, then, is how we can plug the holes before the walls break down and the women in technology disappear altogether. Before we explore the interventions, we need to be cognizant of the challenges. So what is forcing women to leave jobs?

Isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors are factors pushing women to leave SET jobs, says data.

Bias and discrimination

Dr. Shikha says, There is a misguided perception that women do not understand technology as men do. Hence, in the initial years, they are not trusted with critical projects.”

According to Geetha,

Women are very often overlooked for more innovative and strategic roles. They don’t get as many opportunities as men for high-visibility ‘stretch’ assignments. It is very common in tech companies for a female team member’s idea to be ignored until a male member makes the same suggestion later. There are many job functions that are considered to be done better by men rather than women — the decision is not based on skills but on the gender you belong to!

Sonia adds, "Women's ideas and technical abilities are questioned a lot more than their male colleagues’ and they have to go the extra mile to prove themselves."

The pipeline problem

Jaya Vaidyanathan, President-BFSI & Strategic Business Initiatives, Bahwan CyberTek points to what she calls the “revolving door” problem.

Essentially, the pipeline is getting stronger over the years in terms of availability of women as they start their careers. But as you know, the biological clock is in conflict with that of career, and therefore, there is an issue of people who leave during various phases, resulting in less than 5 percent of women on top.

The general idea that women are futile investments as they will leave after marriage is also deep-rooted and often tends to isolate women.

Lack of role models

The lack of role models is one of the key challenges for women in technology, says Geetha. According to her, there are very few female leaders other women can look up to. “When there aren't enough role models you can identify with, it reduces your confidence to do that particular job. It also lessens the attractiveness of that job,” she says.

So bias, discrimination, stereotypes, isolation, and fewer role models are challenges that stand out. Given that we have been talking about them for decades does not make them any less important. On the contrary, the fact that we have been talking about the same problems for eons highlights how deeply rooted these problems are and hence, so hard to weed out.

What do we do to change the equation? We can't change the status quo but how do we improve things or stall things from worsening?

Awareness and acknowledgment

“There needs to be a higher awareness of this stereotyping that is done by men and women and it has to be stopped,” states Geetha.

Well, that is easier said than done. The stereotyping, even if it is recognised, is not stopped. Often, women who climb the ladder of success learn to treat the stereotyping as ambient noise and ignore it. They learn to take their place at the table and ignore the challenges and step above those. It has not been easy but they have persevered.

Policies shouldn’t just be on paper

The diversity agenda needs to be taken seriously. Jaya says,

Take, for instance, when the guideline for the need to have women on the board of companies was introduced, there were a lot of companies who took it as a token clause and appointed relatives, but on the other hand, there were companies who implemented the guideline. So the ability to influence policies from the top down was a small start, but I think it was quite successful. The need for regulation and the need for policies and guidelines can go a long way, but we are not doing enough. We are developing and framing policies but the enforcement of these policies is quite bleak.

It is vital to get the buy-in of all men in the workforce and ensure they are effectively involved in addressing the gender gap, emphasises Geetha. It’s not going to be easy, but it is the only way to ensure that diversity programmes and policies in organisations are effective and truly tackling the issue.

Redressal of complaints and safety

We have all been privy to what has been happening at Uber and how a blog post by ex-employee Susan J. Fowler brought to light how the company had failed to address the complaints of not just one but multiple woman employees. Multiple cases of harassment within organisations have come to light over the years but what has actually been done?

In the case of harassment, if a complaint is lodged, it is necessary for the complaint to be taken seriously and the policy to reduce further harassment. The turnaround time for these complaints has to be quick. Any organisation that takes harassment seriously will drive change.

Women in tech have to push harder

While there is no doubt that the organisations and the male workforce need to do so much more, the onus is on women to make changes and rise to the challenges that come their way.

Aparajita Mukhopadhyay of RailYatri says, “Technology in the age of smartphones and apps is real-time and you can never put any task for the next day. This means increased availability, which often becomes a challenge as women have equal responsibilities both at home and work. Maintaining a work-life balance is very important. However, with time, one learns to prioritise and balance.”

According to Jaya, the rate of obsolescence is a big challenge in any industry. If you don’t innovate or spend time on renovating yourself, you could risk getting replaced by anything, be it a person or challenge.”

Women need to network and build support systems. Women often tend to not network and connect with other men and women in their industry. Jaya says, “I have seen it happen worldwide. In a world where networking is the key to career success, I feel women should spend more time developing this skill.”

Speak up

Most importantly, women have to be ready to speak up for themselves. Even if organisations and colleagues prove unsupportive, women have to try and call out sexism, gender bias, and harassment. Not speaking up for yourself is the worst thing you can do to yourself.

This problem is a vicious cycle where all the stakeholders have to be aware and active in dealing with the challenges before the women in the tech workforce, only then will the numbers stop falling. This is the time for damage control. If we do not act now, it may be too late.

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