In her embedded telecom software development team at a leading multi-national, she's one among three women in a team of 24. When Nandini Mukherji looks back at her electronics engineering classroom in college, where girls accounted for at least a third of the class strength, she often asks herself, “Where did all the good girls go?”

Six years on, classrooms across engineering domains are far less gender-skewed, what with girls accounting for at least 40 per cent of many engineering branches, computer science courses in particular. Yet, when it comes to high-end technology jobs, women are awfully under-represented.

The numbers don't necessarily reflect this. A 2009 gender inclusivity report by industry body NASSCOM estimates that women account for 34 per cent of the IT and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) workforce. While this average slips down to circa 24 per cent if BPO jobs are excluded, the rosy picture of increasing gender parity gets somewhat smudged when it comes to the more techno-scientific job profiles.

While much has been said of the “leaky pipeline” — emphasised has been on how women are fewer at the mid-levels and under 4 per cent at director levels — little attention has been paid to the fact that women are largely clustered in jobs that require lesser technical skills. It would appear that despite mounting numbers, conventional ideas of what jobs fit women and what don't, has not changed much.

Women workers remain more or less at the bottom or middle rungs of the computing hierarchy. Say the job at hand is data handling or repetitive, like software testing, women make up nearly half the team. But when it comes to high-level programming, it is mostly male, says Anusha Pathak, senior software programmer in an ERP solutions firm.

Old boys' club

“It's still an old boys' club. As fresh entrants, we all do what we're given. But down the line, when it's time to for “hard core” tech, the boys are picked, while the girls are actively encouraged to do the other stuff. It's subtle, but the underlying attitude is that men feel they are better at analytical tech than women,” she explains. Even code, you see, is “very male” in its lingo, she adds, on a lighter note.

So even as gender inclusivity programmes in tech firms strive to hire and retain more women — by providing crèches or flexible work hours — women feel that the basic disparity in job profiles results in their deskilling. A senior executive in a networking firm, on condition of anonymity, concedes that team leads often prefer to leave the women out. “But it's not just about prejudice or simplistic notions that women may not work late hours,” he emphasises.

IT, by its very nature, is a fast-evolving field that requires constant updating through certifications and training. “Often women with families are not able to invest extra time for this. Continuity is an issue: women often end up taking a break, which costs them. This is why many settle for the lesser-tech jobs.” The problem here is twofold. First, is the “case of the disappearing women”, as Priya Kurien puts it. Having worked in IT for over a decade, she points out that the 30 per cent-strong women workforce drops to single digits as you go up the ladder. Night shifts and crazy travel schedules force women to often opt out in their 30s. Second, is the inherent “geek bias”. Ms. Kurien, among the early JAVA developers, feels that geeks often believe that men code better. “Women are as good but lose out because of superficial factors such as not networking enough or not being part of the ‘boys' gang'. Women do just as well as men in R&D or software design/programming jobs.”

However, she is optimistic, and believes that this too will pass. She says: “The IT industry is fairly young, and things are in transition. There is certainly a willingness among IT managements to drive that change.”