In the 80s, Dr. Anita Borg and 12 other women founded Systers, an e-mailing list for women involved in IT; the first step towards a bigger mission – “to increase the number of women in computer science and make the environments in which women work more conducive to their continued participation in the field.” Today, Systers has more than 6,000 members from over 60 countries from all over the globe.
In 1994, Anita Borg had founded the Institute of Women in Technology which was renamed in 2013 as the Anita Borg Institute immortalizing Borg’s mission to increase the impact of women in the male dominated world of technology. In the same year, Dr. Borg, along with Dr. Telle Whitney also founded the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest technical conference for women in computing. Five years ago, in 2010, ABI decided to expand to India because of the growing technology culture in the country and the Indian branch was officially set up in 2013.
Headed by Geetha Kannan, the organization has not only successfully promoted Dr. Borg’s ideas and vision, but is also growing day by day. In addition to the four members of ABI, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing India (GHCI) is also powered by more than 300 volunteers from all over the country. These volunteers are all women with full-time jobs in IT, ranging from programmers to business leaders of reputed companies.
The organization has several initiatives to include more women in the IT industry. From inspiring young students of computer science, mainly through hackathons, to join the industry to encouraging women who had opted out of their careers in IT to rejoin the workforce through workshops, ABI has come a long way.
Talking about the challenges faced by the organization in a patriarchy riddled country like India, Kannan muses upon the social factor which often overlaps with the career of an Indian woman. “This is a phenomenon you are familiar with only if you are from India, or at least Asia. Otherwise, the fact that a career-inclined woman who is fully supported by her family is sitting idle at home because of what the society will think of her is unthinkable,” she said.
Getting more women to join the IT industry is a two-step process; one to influence women to join the workforce and the other is to influence the masses. Kannan said that attracting women to IT companies isn’t that difficult a task but retaining them is and a lack of women friendly policies has a lot to do with it. However, researchers also support that many women are unwilling to raise their voices when it comes to anything related to their career. She narrates, “A woman in our workshop once revealed how she was reluctant to ask her husband to help her around the house because she was unable to juggle both her career and her household, while another wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask her boss for a promotion.”
There lies the problem: women don’t ask. And sexism just adds to the problem. And stereotypes have ruined both men and women. “In India, society is the creamy layer added to sexism and stereotyping,” said Kannan. “When IBM first introduced their work from home policy here about a decade ago, several employees applied. However, 50 percent of the male applicants later came back and refused to work from home solely because their neighbours started assuming that they had lost their jobs and began speculating about their careers.”
Also read: Do Indian tech companies really care about maternity?
So, where do the roots of the problem lie? “The Indian IT sector has an added pressure of lesser women because there are very few families who will rave about their daughter excelling in science,” Kannan said. “The challenge of being a minority becomes one of the biggest challenges for women in science, especially IT, right from high school.”
Not all Indian IT companies, and there a lot of them, are bad. Kannan stressed upon the commitment from the management and how that frames the ideologies of the company and lists the three things a company needs to be ahead of its peers – a dedication to including diversity, champions within the organization, and success stories within the organization. “You can talk and inspire all you want but if you don’t have an example to pull up and show how you have fared, it is very difficult to incorporate your values into the organization,” she said.
Possibly the biggest problem of all is how the diversity topic hasn’t budged. Kannan explains how the points of discussion when it comes to women in IT is exactly the same as it was over a decade ago during her time as the vice president of HR at Infosys. “The numbers have increased, yes. But that is because our population has increased. But the percentage of women in IT, or in the general workforce remains the same. And that is the biggest challenge of all,” she added.
Recent cases of sexual harassment and other incidents of crimes against women in India have just made it worse. A lack of trust between female employees and their male colleagues has added the necessity of a special safety blanket affecting not only long-term relationships between employees but also short-term interactions with auto rickshaw drivers, cab drivers and even security guards.
Is there hope? Yes, there is. Kannan shares the story of Jyothy Laboratories, the company which manufactures Ujala. The company’s factories recruit only women from 20 nearby villages and has empowered over 200 women. And if they can do it, so can others.
Kannan believes that the present generation, the millennials, are coming to take over this gender-biased workforce. “They are being brought up with ideas of equality and that is going to shake the industry,” she said. Indian companies, she said, have a tendency to compete. So, if one company brings about a change, others will follow. “It is the ‘if they can do it, we can too’ attitude that will become a movement,” she added, “Hopefully.”
This year, the organization is expecting over 2,000 delegates at GHCI India and has awarded scholarships to 175 women students so that they can attend the conference. The conference also rewards young female entrepreneurs on the basis of their business plans and has received 140 entries this year. It will be held from December 2 to December 4 in Bangalore.
More women in IT, pretty please? Why should boys have all the fun?