Gender inequality is a reality, and there is much to be done to fight it. The beginning, however, is from the basic unit of individual and family.Geetha Kannan
Of the 21.99 lakh students that enrolled for Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech) and Bachelor of Engineering (BE) in 2014-15, around 73 percent and 71.5 percent, respectively, were men, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education.
This just goes on to show that gender equality is a long way away and the crusade for it continues.
The disparity in men and women enrolling for technical courses then adds to the under-representation of women in the talent pipeline for the technology industry. The Nasscom Women and IT scorecard – India 2018 report states that the IT-BPM industry in India has 34 percent women in the workforce. The density of women technologists at the entry level, ranging between 37-42 percent, can be considered fairly acceptable. However, this number dwindles to grim single digits of 6-7 percent for women in leadership roles.
While initiatives to improve gender diversity are not completely ineffective, the progress is slow and very often not making a deeper impact. Frequently, I have colleagues and associates from the industry and outside expressing their concern over the low number of women in technology. And my response is - we need to make a shift in our unilateral efforts to bring about a real change.
It will take a more holistic approach to improve gender diversity in the technology sector, or any other, for that matter. We need to consider the social, individual and organisational drivers that directly influence the inclusion of women in the workforce.
“Women are very different from men,” – this is one of the biggest reasons cited for the gender gap.
Yes, women and men have inherently different physical, behavioral and emotional characters, which are needed for social and economic progress. For hundreds of years, the society has manipulated the difference between women and men for its own convenience, undermining the position and opportunities for women. There is an unconscious bias and stereotyping that men are better at math and sciences and humanities and arts is for women.
This perception, in turn, prevents many girls from taking up a STEM degree. Fewer women in STEM also leads to fewer women teachers in this field, and this becomes another excuse for parents to discourage their girls from joining academic institutes that have more, or all, male teachers. This is just a small example. There are several others that show how our biases keep women away from STEM. There is also the belief that men perform better than women when it comes to spatial skills, considered important for success in engineering and other scientific fields.
Fact is, men perform better than women at spatial skills because they get higher exposure and training in this area in their early educational years, whereas most women hardly get any exposure to this kind of learning.
In Indian society, cultural factors make it more challenging for women to grow and sustain their careers in technology. Most Indian women are expected to pursue their careers along with single-handedly managing household chores, the children, caring for elders in the family, and also keeping up with other social engagements. I have seen several women excel in their tech jobs, but every once in a while, when they are not the perfect mother, daughter-in-law or wife, the burden weighs them down to the extent that they quit their careers. The leaky pipeline of talent at the mid management level is a huge challenge in the Indian technology sector, which is around the time family responsibilities increase for women.
We see more girls in STEM-related fields and technical jobs in the urban region, as against in Tier-II and smaller cities. Families in smaller locations tend to be more conservative than those in larger cities. Many times, it is not the individual who makes education choices based on their interest, but the parents and the extended family. There is also a huge deficit in women having career identities as individuals. The social bias, scarce opportunities and discouragement deter women from entering technical fields which are considered to be more appropriate for men.
Corporates today have policies and employee-friendly best practices to recruit and retain women in the workforce. These include flexible working arrangements, maternity leave, back to work programmes, internal women working groups and diversity forums, and management training programmes - the list can go on. We are also seeing an increased focus on women from the government in the form of special funds/programmes, women theme events, national dialogues on women’s issues and rewards for contributions made in areas such as defense, science, technology etc. All these initiatives are extremely positive and much needed for the inclusion of women, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The gender gap, and discrimination are still very large. Any effort made will have cultural and social influences playing in the background. For example, even with back to work programmes in organisations, women find it difficult to re-enter the workforce because they do not have the right support and consent at home. Also, if they do make it back, the current manager could be insensitive or unaware of the kind of support that needs to be extended to the individual for the first few months on a work and emotional level. Eventually, many women end up quitting their careers.
We need to continue all efforts and take on even more, with a little twist! In a country where we are still dealing with high rates of female infanticide, and on the other hand, we are the world’s tech hub, we need to solve the gender diversity with a 3D lens. This includes driving action at a social, individual and organisational level. We may not be able to solve every issue, but it will surely lead to initiatives that have more substance, accountability and traction.
There is a need to make more people aware and sensitise them about the unconscious biases that exist around the role, choices and opportunities for women. The very act of identifying a bias is the first step of solving it. We need more people to join and engage in the dialogue of supporting women. Also, as a society, we need to understand that focusing on gender inclusion or empowering women is not about creating quotas, it is creating equal opportunities for women based on their free choice and capability.
On an individual level, women need to be more ambitious and confident to increase their representation in the workforce. We need to cultivate interests in sciences and math, and provide an encouraging environment at school and at home for girls, who in turn will look forward to having a career in technology. Another common character that deters women from taking on new projects for career growth is the need to be absolutely proficient at what they take up. Women need to believe in their capabilities and be more confident, and bolder to take up new and unchartered paths.
Along with policies and practices to support women in the workforce, organisations need to introduce more rigour and accountability around their actions. Leadership ownership is absolutely imperative to drive gender diversity in any organisation. Companies need to audit the salary levels among men and women employees, and ensure it is equal for all. The learning and promotions among women should be tracked to ensure there is no glaring disparity. All diversity initiatives should be regularly reviewed against smart quantitative and qualitative goals. If they are not performing well, they should be abandoned for more effective programmes.
So, while we all keep working towards innovative ways to advance gender equality and achieving goals such as planet 50:50 (the UN Women campaign), keep that 3D lens on… to get there better and faster.