Women, machines and money make a powerful combination
Growing up, I learnt how to change a fuse from my mother. Dad hated the sight of a screwdriver. On the other hand, he was obsessive about cleanliness and we learnt from him to make beds perfectly. Stereotyped gender roles were not something we grew up with, despite having a go-to-work father and stay-at-home mother. Mother was a talented seamstress, and would spend hours at her ancient Usha machine, but more than the image of her sewing what I remember is how adept she was at dismantling the parts, oiling, re-jigging, putting them back together. When you stitch these memories together, you get a tapestry that seems particularly relevant on the eve of Ada Lovelace Day on October 15. The day we celebrate the woman without whom we would not have the modern computer — the woman regarded as the first programmer, who worked on Charles Babbage’s famous analytical engine.
A report by International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) tells the story of Sunita, a small entrepreneur in Maharashtra who started a silkworm micro-enterprise. A few years ago, Sunita learnt about mobile phones and bought one. Today, she uses the phone to find out the market price for cocoons and to inform traders about the next batch. She also uses her phone to remotely operate a pump that sends water to her silkworm shed.
One of the findings of the ICRW survey was how readily Indian women, when given the chance, seek out and use technology to develop their business ventures. Yet, the report says, a survey found that only 28 per cent of women in India own a mobile phone compared to 40 per cent of men. Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary General of the UN, said in a speech that India’s growth rate could “make a quantum jump of 4.2 per cent” if the country’s women got equal opportunity in the economy’s core sectors. Giving women the chance to join the economy is crucially linked to giving them access to technology.
We are seeing a small but positive change. Women have benefited hugely from the vast number of jobs that the IT industry has generated over the last two decades. The effect has been tri-pronged — it has inspired several hundreds of young women to enrol in courses related to computer and software engineering. Second, the jobs have improved their earning and bargaining power at home. Finally, the move away from home, family and male relatives has increased their social mobility and ability to challenge traditional gender equations.
Interestingly, technology itself is moving to the women. Datahalli, a women-only BPO, was started in 2005 in the heart of Bellary, Karnataka. Its 300 employees work on cheque processing, xml/html coding, inbound customer services and outbound tele-sales. Datahalli is now investing in skills-building to move up the chain to knowledge services. At the top end of the spectrum we have a Nita Goyal, the first woman to graduate in computer engineering from an IIT, who co-founded Tavant Technologies in 2000. With a PhD from Stanford in Artificial Intelligence, Goyal is just one of many Indian women who break snake-oil myths about women and science.
Eileen Pollack, writing in The New York Times, says: “As so many studies have demonstrated, success in math and the hard sciences, far from being a matter of gender, is almost entirely dependent on culture.” It’s up to us to create the homes where daughters grow up to become scientists. And more.