Dear Women Techies, Don’t Apologise For Your Career Choices Or Gender!

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We recently saw surreal images of a woman parliamentarian breastfeeding her baby while answering a question in the Icelandic parliament. “I could choose to yank her off and leave her crying with another representative, or I could bring her with me, and I thought that would be less disruptive,” she shared candidly when to her surprise, the video went viral.

It’s hard to imagine such a scenario in India, without some sort of riot breaking out. Yet, the perks of taking your baby to work, can’t be taken lightly in this day and age, especially when we try to understand why women drop out of the workforce.

Jaya Singla is a Senior Quality Analyst with ThoughtWorks in Gurgaon
Jaya Singla has always been fascinated by technology 

Jaya Singla, a Senior Quality Analyst with ThoughtWorks India, will testify to this reality. Hers was the first “Thought Child” at the tech company’s Gurgaon office.

“When the office was being set up, suggestions were taken and mine was to have a baby room as I was not at all keen on leaving my son in a daycare,” recalls Jaya who happens to be the first employee at ThoughtWorks India’s Gurgaon office. After the birth of her son, Jaya took five months off and when she returned to work, she took him along with her, every single day for the next two years.

She recalls, “Sometimes I would feel stressed if he cried during a meeting. But my colleagues were supportive and would help out a lot. In fact, his first steps happened in the office, and it was captured on camera by a colleague who later sent the video to me.”

According to Jaya, it is this culture of supportiveness and collaborativeness, that enabled her to stick around at her job.

When it comes to women’s participation, ThoughtWorks, in general, has a stellar record:

  • The company’s Chief Technical Officer Dr Rebecca Parsons is a woman.
  • ThoughtWorks’ largest office in India, in Bangalore, is headed by a woman.
  • One of every ThoughtWorks India office’s Technology Principal is a woman, and two of the five Office Principals is a woman.
  • 34% of ThoughtWorks India’s employees are women and of the techies, 33% are women.
  • 28% of 2016’s lateral hires and 43% of graduate hires in 2016, were women.

Phew! In the tech world, this is an impressive record, one that has been cultivated through a combination of tangible factors such as maternity leave, flexible hours, work-from-home and intangible ones such as a “culture of trust”, equal opportunities and nurturing through mentorships. Yet, the niche group of senior (with 6+ years of tech experience) women is relatively low, despite their success in attracting good talent.

Top Stereotypes About Women In Tech

When the company spoke to several senior women technologists (outside ThoughtWorks India’s network) about how they perceived working in the tech world, the responses were telling. “Their observations indicated that consciously or unconsciously, there exists a subtle sexism at the workplace,” shares Divya Saravanakumar who heads Employer Branding. The exercise simply confirmed stereotypes floating around. Here are some gems…

  • If a woman gets something wrong while building a solution (example, if a build breaks), it invites statements to the effect of, “Well, why am I not surprised? Women and Technology have nothing in common.” This is not so, when a man is at fault.
  • During meetings, a relevant point or suggestion made by a woman does not get the kind of acceptance as when a man suggests the very same idea.
  • It is still believed that women cannot or will not be as devoted to a job or career as a man will. This becomes a reason for passing women up when promotion cycles come around or giving men plum projects over women.
  • A pregnant woman is not expected to get a great rating during appraisals, irrespective of how hardworking she may have been. What’s in view is that she is going to be out of the picture in the foreseeable future.
  • Congratulatory emails sent post the successful rollout of projects, tend to list men in the team before going on to list women team members, irrespective of their contribution to the project.

According to ThoughtWorks India, it is simply wrong to assume that a woman cannot achieve as much as a man, or more, given opportunities and a lack of bias. “Amazing code is gender agnostic – which means the industry is right now, losing out on diverse talent and could be producing way better software than it is now!” says Sudhir Tiwari, Managing Director of ThoughtWorks India, on the impact of great women tech professionals leaving the workforce merely due to lack of gender-inclusive policies. The loss of good resources is ultimately a loss for innovation and its impact on the world we live in.

Attracting More Senior Women In Tech

To help attract senior women technologists, specifically developers and quality analysts with over six years of experience, TW India launched #TalkTechToHer a vibrant social media recruitment campaign, in the last quarter of 2016. While hiring women was a key intention of the campaign, ThoughtWorks India stresses that #TalkTechToHer was also an attempt to ‘elevate’ the conversation around women in tech. “We want to have a dialogue about what it really takes for an organisation to be great for technologists, irrespective of gender,” shares Tiwari.

ThoughtWork India’s #TalkTechToHer campaign

Within three weeks of the campaign going live, over 750 women got in touch. Through comments posted on social media, a common narrative emerges, of women whose career paths have been disrupted when they have had no choice but to quit their job, for reasons ranging from starting a family to caring full time for a family member. Here’s one such comment: “I had a career break for a personal reason. I was always keen into database technologies. Now, I want to learn and work the latest data analysis technologies. Is there any help here?” The campaign even received inquiries from senior women looking to get back into non-technical roles like advertising and sales.

The reality is that as more women drop out of the workforce, the gender gap only widens in terms of salaries and representation across the industry. So, what is the recipe for bridging the gap? A lot, it turns out.

What Needs To Change

According to the company, everything needs to change – from mindsets to practices. “Policies need to exist within a sensitised environment where a woman’s colleagues and the leadership support her choices. Throughout her journey with the company, she is to be seen in her entirety – as a person and as an employee,” articulates Tina Vinod, Diversity & Inclusion Lead.

Vanya Seth is an Office Tech Principal With ThoughtWorks in Hyderabad
Technology “invigorates” Vanya Seth.

There’s also a need to have more women in leadership roles. In this department, Vanya Seth, an Office Tech Principal based in Hyderabad, experienced some culture shocks in the real world. “I was once a junior developer in a company with two women and 60 men! That was the typical gender ratio even at meetings and conferences,” shares Vanya, who is the tech lead on a humanitarian (aid organisation) project that provides medical care to the “remotest of places where even the governments can’t reach”.

“Here, there are no pre-conceived notions about women in technology and that’s something I felt right from my interview. Having more women in higher places also makes all the difference,” says Vanya who also shared another crucial piece of information. “Here, they trust a junior developer as much as someone senior. That’s the value proposition of working here.”

Her statement clearly indicates that for an organisation to be truly inclusive, it has to rise beyond the idea of gender-inclusiveness, in a traditional sense. In an earlier article, Nayana Udupi, a trans woman working in the marketing department at ThoughtWorks, shared that “office is the only place where she can be her true self”.

Perhaps this is also because ThoughtWorks views itself as more of a community where individuals come together to solve real-world problems. Aspects such as the equity of employees on the basis of ideas and not just experience as well as the attitude towards hiring people with disabilities and transgender candidates, all contribute to a culture of inclusivism.

As for women in technology, Vanya observes that parents, companies, and society, in general, need to acknowledge that choosing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) careers is not a matter of gender but talent and interest. “This is the kind of attitude that will help women thrive,” she says. Both Vanya and Jaya have been fascinated by technology from the get-go, and just like them, there are many women looking for opportunities to get their tech chops on.

For them, Vinod offers some stellar advice, “Challenge stereotypes. Don’t apologise for your gender or your choices. And for young women technologists in the country, stay technical!”

If you’re a woman pursuing a STEM career, or studying for one, we’d love to hear about your experiences – the good and bad, as well as how you think we can break stereotypes. Start writing here!


Image source: Prasad Gori/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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