In 2016, Hidden Figures was named one of the top 10 movies of the year. It told the story of three African American women who played a hitherto unknown but significant role in NASA’s space race in the 1960s. The film was not just a creative win, it also shone light on a much-needed subject – the often-ignored role of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). Closer home, in 2015, Ritu Karidhal, Anuradha TK and Nandini Harinath became overnight (s)heroes, when they were named as key contributors in the team that drove India’s mission to Mars.
As India moves surely on its path to becoming a trillion-dollar digital economy, the spotlight is now more than ever on the role that women are playing in this transformation. And given that they comprise nearly 50 percent of a 1.3 billion population, the potential is immense. However, while there has been improvement in the number of women in technology, the pace still leaves much to be desired.
A 2015 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) showed that only 28.4 percent of the world’s researchers are women; in India, that number was only 14 percent.
The low figures reflect the fact that many women drop out of their careers at significant stages of their lives owing to what is commonly known as the “double burden syndrome” where women feel compelled to fulfil their traditionally perceived roles as homemakers.
Tilting the balance
A recent study by Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) on women in STEM in India, showed that while women comprised 46 percent of all undergraduates in STEM, a staggering 41 percent of women in technology quit their careers within 10 years, compared with only 17 percent of men who dropped out.
Surprisingly, when it came to intent to leave their jobs within the first year of employment, the figures were slightly better in India than elsewhere in the world. Almost a third of women in the United States and China were likely to leave jobs within a year while in India, that figure stood at 20 percent.
An even more worrying statistic – 76 percent of those surveyed believed that men had a genetic aptitude for maths and science, and 66 percent felt that they would never make it to top positions, regardless of their performance and contribution being at par with the men. The question then arises: what can be done to create better opportunities for women in STEM?
Levelling the playing field
Each year IBM invests half a billion dollars globally on professional development for employees. Female IBM employees have leveraged this greatly logging more than five million hours of development annually. At IBM Transformational Leadership bootcamps, half the participants were women leaders. The company also actively cultivates talent through various measure. These include
1. Changing mindsets and overcoming biases
Right from their induction, IBM teaches all new employees and leaders how their underlying biases can influence their outward perception, judgment and decision-making. This includes whom to hire, promote, and develop. There are actionable and objective strategies to help eliminate such biases in the workplace.
2. Mentoring rising talent
According to an IBM case study on Empowering Women’s Success in Technology, 93 percent of women executives attributed a lot of their success to having access to an informal career advisory team. IBM has several talent programmes built on the foundation of mentor and sponsor relationships, and has created networks where senior women executives mentor new generations of women leaders, who in turn are ready to mentor new talent.
3. Focusing on technical women
IBM has several programmes that give precedence to women in technical leadership roles and develop many programmes to advance women in those roles. IBM's Trailblazer programme pairs women with an executive coach and sponsor, offers face-to-face workshops and learning labs, and creates a development roadmap to track progress and readiness for the next milestone in their career path.
4. Offering opportunities to scale up
IBM offers women multiple platforms to achieve their technical and management aspirations:
- The Building Relationships and Influence (BRI) programme is an award-winning, highly experiential, global leadership programme for women with executive potential. The three-day, face-to-face session helps increase the number of women in executive roles and the retention rates of high potential women. BRI alumnae who have been promoted to an executive position are often asked to return to the class as speakers.
- Pathways to Technical Leadership helps upcoming technical leaders identify career aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses and provides immediate self-paced education and learning opportunities. The programme helps senior managers identify “areas of interest” for their team, and enables them to deliver technical education locally via Education Delivery Kits, supporting those who want to learn more about technical opportunities and pursue education and networking.
5. Closing the pay gap
According to a recent Accenture research report, the gender pay gap in India is as high as 67 percent. IBM was one of the early pioneers of equal pay for both genders when in 1935, its founder T.J Watson Sr. said that men and women would do the same kind of work for equal pay. IBM policy does not allow for discrimination based on gender, and diversity is an intrinsic part of their business strategy.
IBM India is also at the forefront of bridging gender disparity at the workplace through several programmes. One of them is the Bring Her Back programme, which aims to reintegrate women who have taken mid-career breaks. Suitable candidates who have taken career breaks spanning three years or less are eligible to be a part. It has also instituted the “Tanmatra” programme in partnership with the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore. This nine-month programme prepares women to become executives, incorporates face-to-face labs, virtual experiences, networking sessions with business leaders across walks of life and industries, job shadowing, mentoring, and one-on-one consulting sessions with faculty members.
The gender disparity that exists in STEM fields isn’t going to go away on its own. And it’s only because of the efforts of companies like IBM that the narrative for the future is being rewritten where women and men will be offered the same opportunities to grow and thrive.