When speaking about gender diversity in tech we are constantly reminded of reports that state that 30% of engineers in India are female, compared to 20% in the US. Similarly, we find in the the UK that 30% of India’s tech workforce is female, compared with one in five. However, perceptions of India’s tech industry as more attractive and hospitable to women, don’t always meet reality.
In fact, the latest report illustrates that India has slipped 21 places, from 87 to 108, in this years World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap index, falling behind neighbouring China and Bangladesh.
According to the report, India’s poor performance can be pinned on low wages, and less participation of women in the economy. It also emphasises the fact that there are far fewer women in middle-level managerial, technical, political or professional positions in India.
Team this with a survey published last month that looked at all tech companies in the country and found just 26% of women in engineering roles, and it seems India does indeed have a worrying gender divide in this industry.
Shradha Sharma, founder and CEO of YourStory, one of India’s leading online media ventures for Entrepreneurs and Startups, said that “where I come from, it’s almost a crime to be born a female. It’s routine for society to treat women as an inferior species.” However, this did not stop her from studying and working hard to get to where she is now.
Education enrolment, especially in STEM education, does not appear to be the root of the problem. Many girls, like Sharma, are interested in careers in tech and IT. The WEF index supports this as India succeeded in fully closing its primary and secondary education enrolment gender gaps, and made significant progress in its tertiary education.
In addition to this, the negative “computer geek” stigma surrounding tech opportunities felt in the Western world, is much less prevalent in India. Women in India are opting for career driven paths including medicine, engineering, and technology.
“Sweetie, you don’t have to become a doctor. You can just marry a doctor”
This seemingly old fashioned view still stands in many Indian households. The tech world is often no different. A lack of females in India’s technology and IT roles, in fact in most work fields, can be traced back to similar issues faced by women across the world – stereotyping, unconscious bias and starting a family. Furthermore, deeply ingrained cultural factors remain rooted in India making it particularly difficult for Indian women to thrive, and remain, in the technology industry.
The societal and family pressures in India’s male dominated society often force women to put their family before work. Women are less likely to continue with demanding jobs such as engineering, technology and management because of the guilt of spending too much time away from their family. The chances of coming home late from work, or covering back to back shifts, can lead to gossip and objections from neighbours and relatives–the question often being raised ‘will she ever find a husband?’
Even women who refuse to conform to societal norms, their tech career can only go so far because their income is considered non-essential. The husband is the breadwinner of the family, and many households have an unspoken rule that women cannot earn more than their husbands. This is reinforced by a WEF report that found 65.6% of work done by women in India is unpaid, in contrast to just 11.7% for men.
The bigger issue
If there are high-performing Indian women graduates entering into tech careers then why do nearly 50 percent of women in technology leave the employment pipeline at junior level? One answer lies in Tech Sexism – a problem appearing left right and center in the technology industry all over the world.
Entrepreneurial women, or women in high CEO/founder roles, are often not taken seriously because the industry prefers to deal with men in charge. Radhika Aggarwal, founder of e-commerce marketplace Shopclues, was “constantly bypassed by a bunch of investors who insisted on only talking to the male co-founder”, she told The Times of India.
Even when using digital technology Indian women are faced with sexist restrictions. Only 29% of internet users are women, mobile ownership is only 28% compared to 43% of men, and only 65% of women are literate, compared to 80% men. In May this year a village in Mathura banned the use of mobile phones for girls outside their homes.
India has also faced its fair share of ‘Uber’s Dave McCLure moments’ in its own tech industry. Arunabh Kumar, CEO of The Viral Fever (TVF), a popular online digital entertainment company, stepped down earlier this year after facing charges of sexual harassment of his women colleagues. In 2015, the Economic Times released a study of annual reports from 46 Nifty companies, including Tech Mahindra Ltd, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, and Wipro Ltd, that indicated that “almost 38 out of 50 Nifty companies have 415 sexual harassment cases against them.”
Bridging the gap
Despite the apparent absence of women in the tech world, many companies and organisations are focusing on efforts to close the gender gap.
AnitaB.org, a non-profit working with women, tech companies and engineering colleges “to create a business case for women to be given an inclusive role in the sector.” The organisation runs in India under Managing Director Geetha Kannan, and recently severed ties with Uber as a stance against the sexist work culture of the company.