In the cool world of tech, gender discrimination is so uncool that it is rarely overt. But scratch the surface, and you will soon see shades of sexism in startup hubs the world over, from the Bay Area to Bangalore and Beijing. When it comes to women in tech, it seems like there are no borders – they face the same issues whether they are American, Chinese, or Indian.
Let’s begin their story in India.
Sukriti Vadula, president and co-founder of the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Foundation (RAIF), chuckles when she recalls the day she walked into Simple Labs, a robotics company in Chennai, as an engineering student looking for part-time work. She wanted to learn all about embedded systems and automating her home. She knew the boss at Simple Labs and he knew her interest in the subject.
“But he was skeptical. He wondered if a girl would be able to come by everyday after college, work from 6pm to 9pm, and get back home close to ten,” she explains.
Vadula was the first woman to come up to him asking for a job. He thought she wouldn’t last for more than three days in an all-male, hard-tech workspace. But she did. In fact, Vadula went on to work with them – “the only woman in the team” – for a few years after graduation as well. Now, as robotics evangelizer at RAIF, she makes it a point to visit girls-only schools and colleges and hard-sell the subject.
Embroidery for girls, electronics for boys. That’s the usual norm for extra-curricular activities at Indian schools. Not many girls brave raised eyebrows, teachers’ ire, and worse to go play around with electronics. The social conditioning starts even earlier. Even educated parents nudge their girls toward medicine, humanities, and commerce over engineering. That’s partly because the archetype of an engineer is an asocial male. The gender stereotyping begins at home, continues through schools, and obviously extends to workplaces. So it is not much of a surprise that girls are a minority at engineering colleges, and a rare species in tech workplaces. This is despite the fact that girls outshine boys by a large margin in secondary school exams in every Indian state, even in less developed ones like Uttar Pradesh.
The few Indian women who do trickle into the tech job market face uncomfortable situations from the very outset – until they get so used to it that they stop noticing. During job interviews, a regular question thrown at women in tech is about her relationship status. Are you married? Do you intend to? Do you have a boyfriend? You hear versions of these even if you’re armed with degrees from top-notch universities. A radar scientist with India’s Defence Research and Development Organization recounts her experiences.
“I’m an IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] topper. I know my tech, enjoy working with technology, and can happily tackle any tech challenge. But these personal questions always got my hackles up. I had never thought of myself as a feminist, but eventually felt I must be one because I always countered questions about my relationship status with a retort or two. Now, I have grown blind to these sexisms as people respect my work,” she tells Tech in Asia. She requested we not disclose her identity because she works in a government organization.
These are stark situations, but you can argue that India isn’t a microcosm of the world. After all, the country has much catching up to do with more developed countries on a number of counts, from living standards to basic sanitation. But when it comes to gender discrimination in the tech sphere, it seems India is on par with the rest of the world – nowhere close to becoming gender-blind.
Subtle sexism at work
Ask any educated man if he believes in the need for gender equality at the workspace, he will swear by it. The ground reality tells another story.
For every Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, there are countless other women who never got their due at work. Even in the US, it has been difficult for women to make their way to positions of power and influence in tech. Why else do you see so few women entrepreneurs? And the few who do make it hate the gender prefix they are forced to carry. ZipDial founder and CEO Valerie Wagoner bristled when Tech in Asia asked her about being a woman entrepreneur. “Don’t call me a woman founder,” she said.
She, of course, has a point. Does anyone ever say “male CEO” or “male techie?” Then how can you box women who head companies as female founders?
Recently, Tech in Asia interviewed Natasha Bautista, assistant general manager of GrabTaxi Philippines. She also happens to be a runway model. The article on what it is like to be an attractive woman in tech sparked off an interesting discussion in our bloggers’ chatroom and on Twitter. Our writer had asked Bautista, “Have you ever intentionally played up your attractiveness in the business world?” And she replied:
This is embarrassing… I could say I’ve never intentionally used attractiveness to my advantage but my co-workers have ‘sold’ me multiple times to help close deals. I don’t mind as long as it’s still professional and it gets the job done.
Advertisements have always used pretty faces to sell, and I have worked in media organizations which use similar tactics. This is not the case at Tech in Asia where we have a diverse team – not just in gender, but in ethnicities and nationalities too.
The point remains, however, that a man is unlikely to face a similar question, however attractive he may be. “Attractive men and their advantages in tech” – when is the last time we encountered an article on that?
Nowadays, with stricter gender laws, more discussion about diversity, and an emphasis on political correctness, gender discrimination in startup hubs – which like to portray themselves as meritocracies – is rarely explicit. But subtle sexism is as pervasive as ever, and often the perpetrators are not even aware of it.
All boys club
A recent MIT study on entrepreneurs found that in the tech industry women founders represent less than seven percent of startups that get VC funding. It added:
Investors prefer pitches presented by a male entrepreneur compared with pitches by a female entrepreneur, even when the content of the pitch is the same. The effect is moderated by male physical attractiveness: attractive males were particularly persuasive, whereas physical attractiveness did not matter among female entrepreneurs.
In an article on LinkedIn, Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, writes:
I had considered Silicon Valley to be the perfect meritocracy – until I moved there. I was surprised to learn that there is a powerful boys’ club that provides arrogant young males with adulation, funding, and support.
He argues that Indian tech companies are at an advantage as the number of girls opting for IT education is climbing. Women constitute 38 to 40 percent of entry-level recruits. But Indian boards are as skewed as anywhere else.
“The majority of publicly traded Indian companies – 922 of 1,462 – have no women on their boards. Women hold barely five percent of board seats in India, in comparison with 17 percent in the United States. Indian IT companies have a bigger management problem. Look at the executive ranks of Infosys, Wipro, TCS, Tech Mahindra, and the others, and you will hardly find any women,” he points out.
According to an industry report released yesterday, only 30 percent of the tech workforce in India is women, and when it comes to the pay, they pocket about 29 percent less than men in similar jobs. Men earn about INR 359.25 (US$6) per hour on average while women are at INR 254.04 (US$4) per hour.
Only about 36 percent of India’s tech women get promoted to supervisory positions, while 52 percent of men climb the ladder. A study by global think-tank Center for Talent Innovation found that a shocking proportion of senior leaders in the science, engineering, and technology (SET) fields – 31 percent in the US, 51 percent in China, and 57 percent in India – felt that a woman would never get a top position at their company, no matter how able or high-performing.
But Japan is worse. The World Economic Forum ranks it 105 out of 136 countries on gender parity. On average, women earn only slightly over half of what men earn. Currently, only 9 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers are women. If you thought that was bad, take this: women make up only two percent of corporate board members and fewer than one percent of executive committee members.
Chew on this: Men outnumber women in technical jobs 3 to 1, even in companies that champion diversity. For instance, Google, which pioneered a diversity campaign in the tech space, has a workforce that’s about 30 percent women. LinkedIn, which has 5,400 employees working from Mountain View to Sao Paulo to Bangalore, is 61 percent male. Facebook is 85 percent men if you look at its tech team; overall, it’s 69 percent men. The Twitter tech team is 90 percent men, while its total workforce is 70 percent men.
Google says in a blog post about its gender numbers:
We’re the first to admit that Google is miles from where we want to be – and that being totally clear about the extent of the problem is a really important part of the solution.
The US National Center for Education Statistics says that just 18 percent of all computer science degree holders in the US are women. That is one of the reasons Google cites for its skewed workforce. It has given over US$40 million to organizations working to bring computer science education to women and girls since 2010. It kicked off a Made with Code program, and gives US$1 million to 40 startup accelerators and incubators that pledge to increase the number of women entrepreneurs in their communities through #40Forward.
LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter too are doing their bit to engage and support women in tech. LinkedIn runs an annual women’s hackday, DevelopHer, and has partnered with organizations focused on women in computing like the Anita Borg Institute. Facebook is partnering with the Anita Borg Institute as well as the National Center for Women and Information Technology. It is also supporting programs like Girls Who Code. Twitter has a number of employee-led affinity groups like WomEng (women in engineering), SWAT (super women at Twitter), TwUX (Twitter women in design), Blackbird (Tweeps of color), TwitterOpen (LGBTQ folks) and Alas (Latino and Latina employees) batting for diversity.
Other companies are now acknowledging that while they are changing the world with technology, the scene is far from rosy for women.
Even in India, startups, accelerators, and industry bodies have begun to address the issue. Nasscom runs a Girls in Tech program along with Google, Microsoft launched a program called Codess and there are hackathons for women, like the recent one organized by Venturesity in Chennai.
Girls in tech hit back
Yet, it will take much more to smash the silicon ceiling.
Last month, a group of girls working with different tech companies – Divya Manian, Sara J Chipps, Jessica Dillon, Kat Li, Sabrina Majeed, Ellen Chisa, Joanne McNeil, Jennifer Brook, and Angeline Fabbro – collectively spoke about sexism, outright and subtle, they faced at work.
We’re constantly asked ‘if you write any code’ when speaking about technical topics and giving technical presentations, despite just having given a talk on writing code. We’ve been harassed at these same conferences in person and online about our gender, looks, and technical expertise. We get asked if we’re the event planner or executive assistant on a regular basis. We regularly receive creepy, rapey e-mails where men describe what a perfect wife we would be and exactly how we should expect to be subjugated. Sometimes there are angry e-mails that threaten us to leave the industry, because ‘it doesn’t need anymore c**ts ruining it.’
They were provoked to produce a tech-age feminist manifesto by a rash of recent incidents that shone a light on machismo and sexism in the startup worlds, such as entrepreneur Gurbaksh Chahal violently attacking his former girlfriend, a Codebabes site promising to make the process of learning how to write code more fun by using “hot babes” as instructors in video tutorials, and allegations about harassment at GitHub.
The women wrote in the manifesto:
What we want most is for people to read and understand what death by a thousand cuts feels like, and then understand why we feel sad and angry at the tech industry. We also want you to understand that more still needs to be done.
They also listed a bunch of applaudable efforts towards diversity at workplaces, asking readers to volunteer their time and energy to helpful programs instead of just paying lip-service to gender issues.
According to Elaine Wherry, co-founder of Meebo which was acquired by Google a couple years ago, it is up to us to continue the hard work of the women who fought before us, and, with a bit more time and determination, write this final chapter.
(Images: Flickr user Corinnepw)