Rise, and rise, of the women who code

After Jyoti Singh finished school, she wanted to work in the field of Physics. Her parents and teachers encouraged her to enrol in the computer science stream, though she was not interested in it initially. But when she was introduced to fields such as artificial intelligence, the simulation of human intelligence processes by computer systems and machine learning, which gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed, it fired up her imagination and interest.

Since then the 20-year-old final-year Bachelor of Technology student at IIT-Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, has been competing in many hackathons and writes computer code for several hours at a stretch. Hackathon is a social coding event that brings together people who write computer programs to improve upon or make a new software program.

“It fascinates me how you can make the machines do the work that you want to do,” said Ms. Singh who has developed an application that can help online retailers predict, whether a potential customer that visits their website would buy a product or not, by analysing data.

There is lot of noise and angst about the small percentage of women who work in computer science. However, Ms. Singh is among an increasing number of women who are joining this field and writing better code than men, according to tech experts.

Diversity groups Anuradha Biswas, cofounder of tech firm Prakat Solutions, said there is a significant increase in women students in engineering colleges for information technology courses. She said many top corporates have formed diversity groups to ensure more women participate in the industry. There are also tech communities such as Django Girls, Google's Women Techmakers and WoMoz to improve the visibility and involvement of women.

“Many women who code are very efficient and their productivity is high as they are very focused and result oriented,” said Ms. Biswas, who, along with the leadership team, grew the software testing arm from start-up stage to $300 million in revenues, while at Infosys.

For instance, in an office tucked away in Koramangala, an upmarket in Bengaluru, Aishwarya Reddy, coded continuously for about 18 hours in an internal hackathon conducted by her company this month. The result was a video game called 'Bubble Popper'. “We developed it mainly to relieve the stress among our colleagues,” said Ms.Reddy, a senior engineer at tech company HackerEarth.

But the main contribution for the 27-year-old developer has been improving HackerEarth's technology hiring platform 'Recruit'. The platform is helping multinational companies such as Amazon and Target hire computer programmers in a more efficient manner.

Women code better Computer code written by women receive higher approval rating than the code written by men - but only if their gender was not disclosed, according to the researchers at California Polytechnic State University and North Carolina State University in the US. The researchers analysed the behaviour of software developers on GitHub, one of the largest open-source software communities in the world. But the giant repository of code, with a community of more than 14 million people, does not request gender information. The researchers were able to obtain the gender by tracking the social network of the users.

Vivek Prakash, cofounder of HackerEarth said women programmers tend to be very calculative and methodical in nature, and are good at analysing and breaking down a large problem into small parts.

“Women engineers are sensitive to design, interaction and the user experience,” said Mr. Prakash, an alumnus of IIT-Roorkee.

Powerhouse He said India is a powerhouse of programmers with about three million of them, out of which about 25 per cent are now women programmers. He said by next year, India will have more programmers than the US.

“Somewhere our biological inclinations as a home maker and nurturer manifests themselves as well in the industry,” said Ms. Biswas of Prakat.

This month HackerEarth hosted the finale of IndiaHacks 2016, one of the world’s largest developer events. Over 50,000 developers participated in the two-month long event. HackerEarth said the event witnessed an increase of 30 percent in terms of participation from women compared to the hackathons conducted in the past.

From helping online retailers know the emotions of their customers to developing applications for safety and healthcare, women coded innovations that have traditionally been led by men.

Among them is Deepika Anand, 24, an alumna of Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology in Delhi. She developed an application which stores the personal impressions of online shoppers on aspects like colour and price of the products. This way, online shoppers won't forget the research they had done earlier when they are actually buying items online.

“We had a large number of male students in the college and they would always talk about coding, I thought if they can code, I can also do it,” said Ms. Anand who works as a software engineer at a tech company in New Delhi.

Another participant Nisha Tiwari, 28, who works at a start-up in Hyderabad, developed an application that finds efficient and the shortest routes for delivery executives to reach their consumers.

Challenges Experts such as Rishikesha T.Krishnan, director and professor of strategic management at the Indian Institute of Management in Indore said that at the entry level the proportion of women is not bad in the technology industry. But the proportion reduces sharply while going up the ladder in IT companies.

“The proportion at entry reflects the better enrolment of women in engineering in recent years,” said Mr. Krishnan. “But women are not rising to the top.”

For instance, Megha Khattar, 29, a top engineer, said despite spending almost a decade in the tech industry, she had to struggle every time to prove herself.

“Solutions developed by females wouldn't get accepted,” said Ms. Khattar, who is now a technical lead at a multinational company in Pune and mentors many men in her team.

At the IndiaHacks hackathon she developed a safety application that continuously tracks users if they are travelling through a crime prone area. It also stores essential documents to help users, if they get lost in any foreign place or lose their belongings.

“There is a preconceived notion among men that women are not technically strong,” said Ms.Khattar.

Equal-playing field Ashwini Asokan, cofounder of Mad Street Den, an artificial intelligence and computer vision start-up, said that there needs to be an equal playing field for women.

“We need to go above 'bros hiring bros',” said Ms.Asokan, an alumna of Carnegie Mellon University. “You need to remove prejudice. You cannot create women only events and hackathons, you need to bring women into the mainstream,” said Ms.Asokan, who previously led mobile innovation at Intel Labs.

About half of the employees at Mad Street Den, which is based out of Chennai and San Francisco, are women.

They deal with areas such as computer vision, artificial intelligence and data science. The firm provides the applications of these technologies to retailers across the globe.

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Printable version | May 25, 2022 12:44:03 am |