She Speaks is an original Shenomics’ series of dialogues between leading women from various disciplines on relevant issues pertaining to professional women in India. Disclaimer: All views contained in this article represent the individual’s personal views, and not those of any organization with which they might be affiliated.
Women are still underrepresented in the IT sector compared to male counterparts. There are few women in senior leadership positions in the IT industry today. According to a study by The Anita Borg Institute, of over 1000 women, 30% cited leaving engineering jobs because of poor working conditions- low salary, long hours and no opportunities for advancement. Madhura Purnaprajna, Associate Professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, and Rajitha Shenoy, Lead Database Application Developer at Oracle share their experiences as female technologists in a male dominated industry, moderated by Shonali Advani.
Shonali: Why did you choose this field?
Rajitha Shenoy: Initially, I never thought of this field as either male or female-dominated; it was an interest that drove me to choose this field. You get real happiness when you develop something.
Madhura Purnaprajna: I started off with something that I liked – Computer Science – for the joy of learning. I wanted to do it and I did it in phases. Each step has been a pleasure.
Are female technologists taken seriously at the workplace?
Rajitha: I have been working for six years. I feel this industry is completely male dominated and women need to do a lot to reach the level of their male counterparts. I haven’t faced major biases yet because it’s still the start of my career. However, I remember an incident when I needed maternity leave. It was appraisal time and my manager told me I couldn’t get a promotion because they weren’t sure if I was going to come back. That’s when I realized women do face many biases. Right now, I have a female boss, and things are smoother.
Madhura: Firstly, if you are a woman, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a Techie, especially if you are passionate about it. I chose to pursue it and I pursued it passionately. My actions speak for themselves. When you do something worthwhile, your work will speak for itself. If that’s the focus, there are no hurdles. Anything that comes as a hurdle is actually a challenge. If you have a bigger goal and tell yourself you have to go there, then you put aside things like discrimination.
Rajitha: True. If it’s a passion, and if you are trying to build something, I don’t think we should think about what others are doing or thinking.
Madhura: If we are confident enough and don’t have negative thoughts, nothing that can stop us as women.
How do you hold your own as a woman techie?
Rajitha: You need a good support system. My husband is my cheerleader. Despite being a man he understands what we women go through. This is the kind of appreciation and push we require.
Madhura: Your partner and family needs to be supportive. Nothing can replace that. My husband sees me more as a Techie peer, so there is never anything that comes up saying you can’t do it. That really helps. We have time restrictions, which in a way help us become more productive, and we learn to manage those seven-eight hours at the office so we don’t bring any work home. A lot of women need to prioritize work and family. It’s a juggling game we need to play.
Do women need to go the extra mile to prove themselves?
Madhura: Yes, especially in a new environment where people don’t know your work, you need to prove yourself. But I think that’s true for any employee. I was the only girl in my PhD research group and there were 30 of us. Initially, people wondered if I was serious and could do this. Those are the moments when as a woman you must take this up as a challenge and tell yourself that you can do it.
Rajitha: I second that. Once you prove yourself then people think twice before challenging you. It’s the same in my case. I tried to accept as many challenges as possible. Proving yourself makes a difference, irrespective of gender.
How do your male colleagues perceive your expertise? Are they comfortable taking direction from you?
Rajitha: They are hesitant to take any suggestion or advice. But if we explain things in a warm way, then they are comfortable. I’ve had no major hiccups.
Madhura: If it’s a Techie to Techie situation, and if the person approaching you has a technical problem and recognizes your competence, then he won’t have an issue. Male colleagues have to be open enough to recognize your competence and that they will lose out if they don’t approach you. That’s also if they don’t have insecurities. In the initial days people wouldn’t hear or recognize me. But let’s say, when I go to a conference, I’m seen as an expert in an area; then, it doesn’t matter if you are man or woman.
Rajitha: Some women are hesitant to ask for help from male colleagues. Men often react with statements like, “Oh, you don’t know this.” So, we end up googling it instead.
Madhura: Yes, even I see that. Those kind of questions come up easily with male colleagues. They stump you with their questions. In class, I’ve seen male students will ask many questions while the female students will write many questions down, go home and think about them and then ask, and only if it’s a sensible question to ask.
How do we grow this community of female techies?
Rajitha: There are a lot of women in this field up until college. Then, they drop out as they start working, get married, and have kids. That’s a point where we need to support them. If women are supported at this level by getting the right facilities, it will help a lot.
Madhura: When you see the number of women entering college, the numbers are almost equal; in fact, sometimes girls outnumber boys. These numbers change later when they have families. Maybe because the long working hours, work pressure, and deadlines coincide with children’s exams, sick parents etc.
Rajitha: In my experience, when it comes to five-six years of experience till Developer and Senior Developer level, the numbers are good. When you go higher up the ladder – Managerial level – that’s when the numbers fall off drastically. Though, when it comes to technical skills, I feel men and women stand shoulder to shoulder.
What are the solutions then?
Rajitha: Work hours need to be balanced. Also, one needs to set realistic expectations with clients.
Madhura: I spent some time in the industry before getting into academia. I also spent some time in academia abroad before coming to India. All these numbers are extremely confusing to me. In India, girls are mostly at par in the beginning, but these numbers fall off later. We have Indian techies all over the place, yet it is a concern encouraging women to get to higher-level positions?
Rajitha: I recall another incident that happened in my office. I was talking to two male colleagues and one of them said someone had been promoted to a Director. They assumed it was a particular male in the organization. When I told him it’s a woman, they remarked, “Oh it’s a she?” With that kind of attitude, it will take some time for things to change. And even though men may be good to their wives, they are not always good to female colleagues. The upbringing of men needs to change.
How often do you see women being coached? Are there seniors you can approach?
Rajitha: Very few. When you approach a man, the dynamics change. You need to be able to handle this. With women, what I’ve also seen is that sometimes women become competitors to women.
I personally need a push. When you talk to people who have achieved something, that gives you the energy to do something. But, there isn’t enough mentorship for women. In IT, very few mentor/ mentee relationships are maintained. Some companies have back-to-work policies and mandatory mentor/ mentee relationships. That helps in discussing concerns and getting some direction.
Do you see a difference in the management styles of male and female managers?
Rajitha: I remember an incident once when I had a male manager. While negotiating for a salary hike he said, “I don’t think you need a salary hike because your husband works!” Now I have a female manager and for her what’s most important is the work. As long as a given task is completed she doesn’t care if you’re at home or in the office. Her major focus is productivity. We have a flexible work place too and that helps. She understands, and balances late night calls too because of the different time zones we work in.
Madhura: This is independent of gender, I think, and relevant for both men and women. Why don’t we have more women who are people-friendly. Why is it that we don’t have more of them who bring in that flexibility into the system?
Rajitha: We women keep saying we need equality but I think it will take another 5-10 years to reach there.
What does equality at the workplace mean for you?
Madhura: Pay parity and respect. Judging men and women at par is not equality, because men do not have to go through maternity breaks, stay up late when the child is sick or the child asks for the mother. If you want to bring in equality you need to factor all this into the work environment. That’s a bit skewed, this whole meaning of equality. What does the work environment do to support such working mothers? We can’t ignore that.
About the Authors
Bhavna Toor is the Founder and CEO of Shenomics, a Mindful Leadership platform for aspiring women. She helps women realize their highest professional aspirations, and believes in daring greatly, leading boldly and living mindfully.
Shonali Advani is a trained journalist, having worked previously with leading publications such as the Economic Times and the Entrepreneur magazine. She is now a freelance writer and startup consultant. When not working, she is dreaming up her next travel destination.