Entrenched sexism means women are missing from hardcore, techno-scientific jobs

Take a stroll through any of the many tech conferences that Bangalore hosts and it’s hard to miss the gender skew: women are simply absent, or few enough to count on your fingers. While industry/trade tech conferences, where companies nominate women employees, have better representation, women just go missing when it comes to geek conferences, tech or hacking activity groups, open source/community projects or even Linux User Groups.

Yes, despite heartening industry estimates — women reportedly make up around 33 per cent of the Indian IT/BPO sector — technology continues to be male-dominated, and things only get worse in the more ‘hardcore’ techno-scientific profiles. Women account for just 24 per cent of 'pure IT’ jobs, which excludes the BPO sector, a statistic that slips further as you go higher up the tech ladder. These figures are disturbing when viewed against the backdrop of classroom profiles in engineering colleges, where the gender ratio has improved dramatically over the past decade for computer science, IT and electronics. At the entry level in companies too, as industry sources point out, the average gender ratio between girls and boys is 45:55. So, what happens along the way?

In an attempt to flesh out the contours of this leaky pipeline, The Hindu spoke to men and women working in the tech industry, ranging from freshers and senior executives in leading tech multi-nationals to the 'hard core' geek groups in the city.

Dose of misogyny

Among men it's a common refrain that women are less inclined towards coding, and do well in the ‘softer tech jobs’ such as building web interfaces. “They just seem to have a better hang of those things; they aren’t as good at logic or problem-solving,” said an Android programmer, whose coding club of 20 has no women. Many others echoed his 'observations' completely oblivious to the fact that even in its early days computational sciences had women such as Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace making pioneering contributions. This notion is all too common among men, many women in tech will tell you.

But what stops women from taking this head on? "Nothing", says Zainab Bawa, who runs Bangalore-based tech event management firm HasGeek. Yet, it baffles her that the number of women attending the technological conferences they host is “very negligible”. In these all-male environments, Ms. Bawa feels that there is a substantial dose of misogyny, which actively deters women from attending. For instance, she says, she was shocked to find men tweeting at a BarCamp on ‘Tech and design’ that the women attendees had perhaps landed up there thinking it was an event on fashion designing. Or at a conference in Chennai, a male presenter decided to make jokes that were clearly sexist, and then remained unapologetic.

“I think women do feel intimidated in these all-male situations. In fact, the language and construction of geeks is male to the extent that women geeks eventually internalise their maleness,” says Ms. Bawa. Purnima Shah, an embedded telecom engineer in Bangalore, agrees that the "all-male, old boys’ club” can be intimidating. “Add to that the fact that one has to constantly defeat their notion that women can’t code, or that women aren’t as good as computation. This women-unfriendly work culture ultimately impacts confidence level of women, who ultimately stop trying and settle for the softer roles.”

Some of this stems from “outright sexism”, says Anahita Ghose, who has worked in five leading IT companies. She recalls how even while attending interviews, well into her mid-30s, HR reps would ask her, ‘When are you getting married?’, or ‘Do you plan to start a family?’ “While I used to let it pass by telling myself that there is a social context to these irrelevant questions, the fact is that men will never be subjected to this,” she says. This, she says, is internalised by “very smart young women” who enter the industry bright and enthusiastic but are led to believe that their commitment to tech can only be “half-baked or short-term”. "This rattles their confidence fairly early on in their careers."

Tulsi Dharmarajan, who has worked 18 years in the tech industry and recently started her own software venture, Zuri Labs, says she has failed to understand why women are missing in certain job profiles. “Women are definitely a minority in tech jobs and this is globally so. Things are a bit better in start-ups off-late, but largely the scene is

dismal.” Though she herself hasn’t faced gender discrimination, she feels that there is a certain bias at play that eventually drains women of their confidence. “Women start downplaying their own role because it’s already so downplayed. And then there are instances of harassment, where women speakers at conferences are harassed on Twitter,” she says.

Bias starts early

Reflecting on what contributes to these stereotypes, she points out that the bias starts early. Take video games, where the stereotypes are obvious. “Most of what is made is made for boys, and when it comes to girls they have pink butterflies and funny unicorns. It’s definitely a cultural thing, and a lot can be changed if parents get their game right.” Nikita S. Belavate, a bioinformatics student from Mumbai and an executive committee member of the Wikipedia India Chapter, agrees. Somehow the ‘geeky’ space is projected as a male one, and that prevents girls from entering, she says. "It’s just a mind block, and it’s reinforced by everything you’re taught at home and [what] you hear through childhood,” she tells The Hindu, on the sidelines of a ‘girls only’ Wikipedia session held here.

Cultural stereotypes apart, the young Wikipedian has some advice to offer to her male counterparts. “Be conscious.” When at the workshop, the girls began to create articles on Wiki, male editors were quick to pull them down. “This can be intimidating for anyone, and more so for girls.” Instead of spending the time creating a template to delete, she wishes her male friends would just “be more supportive” and encourage those who step in to what is surely a male-dominated world of code.

Room for some optimism

As far as companies go, in recent years, gender inclusivity programmes have focussed on trying to hiring and retaining more women. Largely limited to providing flexible work hours, transport for safe commute or creches for working mothers, very few have examined the disparity in job profiles that leads to deskilling of women. Company HR representatives The Hindu spoke with said that it was fairly early in the day given the focus today is still on keeping women from dropping out mid-career.

Sunita Cherian, Vice-President, HR, Wipro Technologies, says that the more important challenge today is to find ways to retain the talented women workforce. Having worked for nearly two decades in the technology sector, she finds it "most frustrating" when young women come and say that they want to quit simply because they're married or want to plan a family. But there's plenty of room for optimism, she adds quickly, pointing out that even compared to five years ago, the number of women in mid-level management has increased. At Wipro, she claims, the number of women in mid-level management has gone up from less than 10 per cent to around 22 per cent, which is "clearly a good sign". "Compared to the roughly 45:55 ratio at the entry level, this is still not a big enough percentage, but it will improve with time," says Ms. Cherian.