My Experience in Tech and its reflection on Women in Tech in India

2015-05-21 » python, women in tech

The post was initially conceived as a response to a discussion on women participation initiated by Shreyas in the ChennaiPy group inspired by Jacob Kaplan-Moss’s keynote at PyCon 2015. But it grew into a huge report, with a lot of my personal stories weaved in. It was too much for a mailing list and I wrote a shorter version (only comparatively ;) ) as response. I decided to give this rambling a new life as a post in my blog.

This is an issue I wanted to write about a long time. I am a frequent lurker on Hacker News. When a thread regarding gender imbalance and workplace problems crops up, I usually follow it. I have been able to note a remarkable difference between the culture there and over here. Before I start rambling, caveat emptor: It is almost 10 years since I finished college. It is also nearly 4 years since I worked a full time job. Thats a long time and limits my perspective. Maybe things are different now. But I am not going to let that stop me :) This has been long coming. I also apologize to any woman/girl out there if they feel this is not the reality. The picture I am painting is highly tinted by my own experience. It would be great if someone adds their views too. I have heard very little of women in India talk about their experience in Tech. Maybe, I am not looking in the right places. I would be grateful for some right directions.

A brief idea of where I am coming from:

My initial schooling was at a little school in Madurai. In III Std, we were introduced to computers. At V std, we were allowed to program in BASIC. I remember doing simple programs like generating multiplication tables and fibonacci numbers. Now it seems quite simple, but at that age, to construct your own logic and see that executed seemed so powerful and I fell in love with programming. Later I had to move to a different school which did not have a computer course. Our 11th and 12th was mostly html and windows (the horror!). (As an aside, those two years had me convinced that windows was the best OS ;) ). I did my IT in a tier I college. I still had not come out of the windows mindset :) . I did not utilize the technological resources as well as I could have. I still question myself regarding that. It might be out of ignorance about the resources I could have utilized, and my first dose of Imposter Syndrome. I did sharpen my communication skills and managerial skills well. Why not technical but managerial? I will come back to that in the end. After college I realized management was not for me and delved a little more into tech. I have since worked in a few startups. Thanks to my family, I took a break from work. Without that I would not have tried contributing to open source in my own little way or dip my feet into working on my own ideas.

My view on the tech culture

First out, I would like to point out is that the situation in India is not the same as in US. This has mainly to do with the case of how the field evolved over the years in US . Initially programmers was synonymous with women (I think all the programmers who worked on ENIAC where women). This was before the time when computers are more common (let alone ubiquitous). Slowly, the percentage shifted, and (I think) when STEM was considered a base for programming, it became a bastion of men. All these, I gather from what I read online. I have never worked in the US to really know if this is the situation or it is reporting bias.

These are some considerable differences I noted between our culture and theirs.

  1. Plenty of women choose technology over here as an option in higher education. I bet it is higher than it is in the US.
  2. Women are not told that they will not do well in STEM (which I feel is kinda subtly fed to girls in US, atleast from what I read). No one ever told me so. Nor have I ever got such an impression from any other girl that I know in India that she believes she will do worse in Science or Math than a guy.
  3. I have had very positive and supportive coworkers 99% of the time. The 1%, probably more, I suppose happens in all industries.

With that said, the motivation why women in India choose tech is much different from why women in US choose tech. Here, it is the most assured way to a comfortable job with a good salary and various other perks. Very few other fields can beat that. This is very important, considering that, till the previous generation, what a woman can do was heavily constrained by many social factors. Only few apply for their passion in tech. For them, the job was a goal achieved. Me, ten years ago, would consider that a sacrilege, an opportunity squandered, as some of you might feel. But, the present me, understands that it is ok. A person might choose to educate in tech but not work or contribute and that is just as fine as someone who contributes. If I look up and turn around, I see very slight possibility of convincing anyone in my batch to contribute beyond their job as they are head deep in their responsibilities.

There is also another component to this. I did my undergraduate at one of the better colleges. It was quite common to see a few guys (not all) in each class being involved in programming competitions and tech outside curriculum. The proportion of girls involved were much, much less, verging nil. I think there are two reasons for this. First, as a society, the preference for marks in ingrained in most of us. Any extra work did not count, unless, it impacted the grades. It was rather frowned upon. This effect seemed more pronounced in women. Clubbed with that, we did not have any female geek role models in college for us to emulate or look up to. So probably, we were all just infected with the Impostor Syndrome and never even tried (I am equally guilty of that in college, something I regret to this day.).

In terms of work culture, I had relatively few issues. I have worked in 5 companies, all startups or small offices (<100 people). I only ever had issues in the first one. The was enormous pressure to conform to their company culture (which was very not female-friendly, and at some level, it was quite not human-friendly too). There was plenty of politics too. Thankfully, I moved out pretty fast. Every company I have worked since has been quite cool. Lesson learned? “The culture of a company is like a fingerprint. Quite unique and may not be just because of tech per se. If something does not work out, move out and move out fast. There are 10 better ones for each mismatched one.”
At this juncture, I would be remiss if I did not mention my experience at another startup. It was a very employee friendly workplace. They supported me through a very difficult phase in my life when my close family member was very sick and I admire them for that. Yet, their policies did not take particular care for women. It was at the beginning of my pregnancy, and the project was going through a crucial phase. Since I had to work with a team in the different timezone, I had to work through the night from home. Yet, again, I was called in for meetings during the day. This went on for more than 3 weeks. This proved to be too much at my then state of health and I had to quit over medical issues. But to be fair, the startup closed down 2 months after I quit. The company was in it’s death throes and I may be just got in it’s way.

I have worked in a few startups and got more involved in tech. I have made some wonderful friends with similar interests. Apart from the first one, I have been most comfortable where I have worked. When I did have an issue, I have been able to freely express my views and everyone has been very accommodating. I have been quite happy with my choice in tech. But I believe working in a large service based companies is different. I have come across very few women in startups. Most of the girls in my year in college joined Service based companies. During my college years, there was very less awareness about startups and people were enamored by of the huge numbers recruited by Services and the large pay packages handed out by the likes of Microsoft. Hopefully the situation has changed after these years.

So coming back to the question, why did I choose to improve my managerial skills than my technical skills? Simple. In my first year, one of my seniors approached me to join their team focused on management. He was giving a list of reasons how that would benefit me. But the benefits did not matter much. I was excited that I was invited to contribute and I jumped on the opportunity. Had he not asked, I might have not really known I could do that. I would have remained a mere spectator. Of course, the onus is on me to find what opportunities are available and to improve myself is solely my responsibility. Yet that little direction made a huge difference.

Key Challenges

There was so much story in those few paragraphs! So what I consider are the challenges in encouraging women participation in tech?

  1. Lack of knowledge about the opportunities available Most girls are not aware of the opportunities available in the tech arena. We need to create more awareness about the avenues available. ILUGC conducts introductory classes for college students. Maybe we can partner with them? We could do a small session regarding python. We could also identify girls who are interested in tech and invite them. Hopefully, they will inspire and guide others to follow.
  2. Lack of female role models
  3. A cultural preference for mark oriented education rather than exploratory
  4. Time limited by the responsibilities that arise in our lives. This is unfortunately unavoidable. When you have a more responsibilities(family/demanding job/startup), the number of hours you can spend outside the spectrum of responsibility is very less. Again, this is true for men and women, but more pronounced in women, maybe because of the social structure. One has to have much stronger motivation/desire to be able to stretch themselves. Options of getting someone in this stage is quite difficult. The solution is to catch them young. If the seed of curiosity is sowed when they are in college/school, there is a good chance that they will keep participating.
  5. Less Women in startups
  6. Other Interests Some are simply going to find all this unimportant or not pertaining to their goal. After all the work at office, involving oneself in tech outside work might not be the most appealing option for some. They just have prioritized something else and that should be accepted.

So the conclusion?

  1. You have just read an n=1 anecdotal statistic of a female tech in India.
  2. If you know any girl/woman who has some/any interest in tech, do educate them of the possibilities available. If possible, dare them to try some piece of tech outside their comfort zone. It might make a difference for someone.
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