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Women In IT – Why Are There So Few Of Us, And When Will We Be The Norm?

Posted: February 22, 2017
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While women in IT are not exactly a minority, they are also not quite at the top levels. What accounts for this? An in-depth take worth your reading time.

I was watching this program on Youtube – the Roundtable of Bollywood actresses where Anushka Sharma, Alia Bhatt, Kalki Koechlin, Radhika Apte, and Deepika Padukone were talking about their movies and other issues related to Bollywood. The first thought that struck me was how intelligent and articulate these young actresses are – strong, opinionated and feminist.

What also struck me was how we undervalue their intelligence because of the stereotypes (held by women as well), that beautiful women are supposed to be dumb!

However, one very interesting topic discussed was gender inequality in the industry – how women are paid lesser than men. On hearing this I started thinking – but isn’t that true of all industries? I have been a Banker for 4 years and in the IT industry for more than 8 years; I am not just aware of but have been a victim of this inequality myself. I don’t know whether it was the feminist in me or the wronged woman which enraged me more. But it got me thinking.

The IT industry today has become one of the hallmarks of India, something for which Indians have been acknowledged internationally. Many Indians are heading tech giants like Microsoft, Google, Adobe. India is one of the largest beneficiaries of the H1 program for highly skilled labour. In this great industry which is knowledge and skill based, women comprise 25 to 30% of the workforce in India, almost at par with the USA. The numbers definitely sound encouraging.

However, scratch below the surface and you will realize that things are not all great. Picture this: while there are a lot of women in IT at the entry level, the overall percentage of women in the workforce has remained stagnant. The ratio of women at the board level is almost nil for almost all Indian IT giants. At a token level, women exist as Non-executive Directors and most of them are not Indians.

There is also a huge disparity in the proportion of women in Tech roles. So, while there are a lot of women in IT industry, many are in support roles like HR, Finance, Project Management or as Business Analysts. Women comprise only 15-17% of the technical workforce even in USA. I have been in the IT industry for more than 8 years and most of my female colleagues are in these roles only, including myself. Also, the ratio of women keeps on getting lesser as we go up the hierarchy. There have been innumerable times when I have been the only woman in a room full of men.

This disparity starts at the education level itself – while 45% of all enrolled undergraduate students and 40% of all PhD students are women, the female ratio in the Engineering stream is less than 20%.

But even when women enter this industry in various roles – technical or non-technical, why have none reached the leadership level in this 100 billion dollar industry? Perhaps Nasscom or some other research organization can give a better explanation of this phenomenon but as an insider, I have my own analysis which I felt compelled to share with everyone.

Here is my list of challenges women in IT face

We are out of the networking circle

While we may like to believe that it is all meritocratic in this highly skilled workforce, the fact remains that networking remains a very potent instrument for career progression in the industry. Men bond over sutta, daaru and after work parties, where they get to hobnob and get pally with the boss, come to know of all upcoming opportunities,  and iron out their differences over an informal chat. We women are never part of these informal networking opportunities.

If you do get a rare chance to be in that group – trust me, it’s not a very liberating experience listening to the sexist jokes of your inebriated colleagues. Family parties from office are even more sexist, for all women sit in one group running after and taking care of their kids while all men are drinking and discussing office politics. As a single woman, I just can’t figure out which group I should lean towards – I am not interested in kids and cooking and homely stuff – so I can’t bond with the women and not interested in discussing office outside office, so I can’t bond with the men. So, I just stand between the two groups talking to everyone, connecting with no one. Not just this, if you do get to be part of the Boys’ Club, you have to do the tightrope walk of not being labelled as a slut or bitchy.

Travel requirements 

A major chunk of Indian IT industry projects in the West – a good 50% or more. If you want to rise in your career, you should ideally be on client location. This also means you have to be ready to travel any time to any location. This results in a lot of relocation. However, relocation for a woman and that too a married woman can be pretty challenging. If you are married to a person outside the IT industry, getting a visa and job for both to the same location can be a challenge. Even when both people in a marriage are in IT, it’s not necessary that both get a visa. Therefore, there is a huge population of highly educated women on dependent visas in foreign countries who are forced to give up career and rear kids. If both people in a marriage are in the IT industry, the situation is worse – the toll on family life is heavy; a long distance relation after marriage is socially unacceptable but if you have kids – then at least one person needs to sacrifice mobility which in most cases is the woman. And once you have put constraints on yourself, you will have to make compromises.

Project based lifestyle 

In the IT industry, the only asset which is sold to the client are people. So, all employees generally have to be on projects and in billable roles. However, these projects are not always long-term; rather they are mostly short term and being in one project for about a year or so is considered a lot of stability. Therefore, there is a lot of instability in the picture; you can be in one project today and then get to another one tomorrow. Add to this the instability related to location. Women in general have to deal with a lot, more so after kids and this instability just adds to the stress factor. Therefore, after marriage, a lot of women’s career choices are governed by family requirements and women end up taking it slow, if not taking a break from hectic and unstable scenarios. This can include choices such as working from home facility over promotion or pay hike, or an offshore long term project rather than taking up challenging roles onsite.

The fast changing & evolving technology

In all fairness, this factor causes burn out amongst all IT people, not just women. IT industry keeps you constantly on your toes – the pace of technology change is so fast and rampant that with every new project, you have to keep on reinventing yourself. It was Traditional Data warehousing yesterday, Big Data today, Waterfall project management earlier, then Agile and now, DevOps. We often joke amongst friends that learning new technology on one project is not going to be of any use because in the next project you will be doing something completely new.

This is a good thing for technology users but an extremely high stress factor for technology implementers. This means we have to constantly keep on upgrading and reinventing ourselves. This means long hours at work because till you learn it, you have to put in double time. After a point of time, you either become a genius or robot or give up. Women in IT with family responsibilities many a times choose the last option or settle for support roles because when you are also raising a family, if you don’t have peace of mind, you are a heart attack waiting to happen.

Becoming a mother

Motherhood often changes women’s priorities and may also bring with it a need to take a break. The Indian corporate world with so many men hungry for jobs is not exactly a place which welcomes women after their pregnancy breaks. Add to it that the tech world changes almost entirely while you were bringing up the kid. I have seen many women in the US becoming victims of ramp downs because they have decided to go on maternity leave. This is a world of here and now rather than waiting for you to come back.

Battling the stereotypes 

Picture this – a group of men and women are heading towards the conference room for a meeting and an American lady who is the Administrative Assistant – asks the three of us who are women, if  we are not baking anything for the next day’s office Bake Sale. All three of us look at each other and in unison say, “How sexist! Why are we women only being asked this and we don’t even bake…”

I have observed more such stereotypical behaviour among men in the US than in India. In the US IT industry, a majority of people are Indians. Many of them have studied here, stayed here for a decade or so and yet, when you interact with them you get the feeling that they want you to behave like their wives would behave at home – not raising your voice, not disagreeing with their opinions, taking the blame for everything that went wrong. Those of us who refuse to do that end up fighting with them. However, what infuriates me the most is that these same brown men will behave differently and as very modern men with white women – in short, they are hypocrites of the first order. Therefore, one thing which I have observed about many of us strong, career women is that fighting or rather saying ‘No’ becomes a reflex action with us. Since we do not want men walking all over us, we make it a point to make our opinions clear at the very outset. While this in some measure ensures that we avoid getting bullied, we also become somewhat unpopular or rather not ‘ladylike’ to men. Being not so popular is not exactly a very good thing for career progression.

Different time zones

A fallout of the global work environment is that someone on your project is working when it is your sleep time. This means if there is an issue, you can be called up in the middle of the night to work. I myself have been in such projects where I have woken up my offshore colleagues at 3.00 in the morning and asked them to troubleshoot and similarly I have been woken up and had many sleepless nights and then gone to office also the next morning. The result of that was that I not just quit that project, I even quit my organization and came back to India. So, it is a challenge and not all of us want that type of challenge from life.

Different perspectives 

Figure this – At Google, women make up 30 percent of the company’s overall workforce, but hold only 17 percent of the company’s tech jobs. At Facebook, 15 percent of tech roles are staffed by women. At Twitter, it’s a laughable 10 percent. For non-technical jobs at Twitter (think marketing, HR, sales), the gender split is 50-50.

This split also leads to another problem – many women are in client interfacing or business oriented roles rather than technical while maximum men are in technical roles. Do you know what it translates into in real work life – what men speak, we women don’t get it because it’s all tech and what we women speak is all gibberish to men.

A very simple example – when we talk about organization and business we talk of People, Process & Technology. When men talk people, they look at them as bodies to be sold to client – when women talk of people ,we talk skill sets, fitment to role, traits etc. – remember women are in HR roles and men in account management. I have myself been asked to learn technology which is not my core strength and I ask – why should I learn it – I do not have any aspiration to be in tech role, why am I being asked to do this?

So our perspectives towards our work are different. But wait, our perspectives on work-life balance are also different. The other day I was reading an article in the Economic Times supplement by the HR head of some organization on Millennials, which will be my topic for some other day. He was bashing the younger kids for wanting work life balance so soon in their life! So that is the type of patriarchal mindset we battle every day.

As women, we do find ourselves battling lot many biases and fighting all the time has its side effects – you can’t keep fighting all the time for everything. Sometimes fighting these biases becomes a much tougher battle than simply grinning and bearing it. Nowadays organizations have cells for sexual harassment but there is no institution for being able to talk about issues like pay parity and gender biases. There are not many women in leadership positions you can reach out to – those who have reached some level, we are not even sure that they are not facing such problems themselves.

No, Women in IT don’t have it all bad

Does it mean that the Tech industry is not good for women, that we should not be there or should the next generation of women not aspire to be here? Not at all. Therefore, I also feel compelled to put in what as an IT professional we enjoy. Here is what keeps us going.

International exposure

I will rate this as the No. 1 benefit of the IT industry. We belong to the first generation of techies in the Liberalization era. Our parents’ generation belonged to the era of government jobs with fixed salaries and numerous responsibilities. Travel was never high on their radar, international travel even less or non-existent. Therefore, just think of the high for a single woman to travel alone and set foot on foreign soil, and that too company sponsored. Being hosted in upscale hotels, travelling overseas lounging at airports, buying international brands you don’t even get back home…Coming to a foreign land is just the start of a journey in evolution of your outlook on life and work. Your perspectives become global. Partying, enjoying a drink, having relationships are no longer looked upon unfavourably by us and we fight for our rights to do these things which are so normal for men.

Money

I have to admit that money in the IT industry is far better at least at entry level than most other industries. Add to this the opportunity to earn in dollars or pounds which makes your Indian income many times more. In a world where we do not have either government provided social security schemes or pensionable jobs of the earlier generation, this means we have an opportunity to make our retirement corpus much faster, buy property for ourselves, and support our families. Yes, we are paid lesser than men but at least we are paid more than people in other industries.

Work-Life balance

Have you ever heard of work from home or flexi timing? I never did when I was in Banking. Have you heard of being on bench which means you are not doing any work but being paid? I remember when I switched from banking to IT and heard about being on bench – I went – seriously, you are paid for doing nothing? Since the Economic recession, bench strengths have continuously been reduced but still there is frictional unemployment between 2 projects which is a paid break time. IT has also picked up work from home due to global exposure. There is more focus on results rather than the protocol of coming to office. When you expect your workforce to work according to other time zones, then you need to give them flexibility. Often, we have left office at 4.00 pm and decided to work on the rest of the items from home. For married women, it’s a big plus as you can balance work with your other family requirements. Therefore, one common phenomenon you find is that in organizations famous for this type of culture like IBM, HCL, TCS – you will find that women tend to stay much longer in the organization then men, preferring work-life balance over money.

Open Culture

IT industry has a much more open culture and informal environment specially if you are on offshore. But even in client locations, unless it is a Banking client, clients are generally easy going and open. This goes much beyond being able to talk to anyone at any level easily, calling them on first name basis, coming to office in jeans and floaters. Also, as part of our jobs we are expected to interact with senior client executives and ask questions. This makes us more confident and open to questioning norms. Thus, we have to be convinced rather than ordered.

Initiatives to make workplace more employee friendly

The IT industry really tries to make the workplace friendly for its work force. This can range from multiple cafeterias and eating options, gyms in office, creches in office where female employees can bring their kids, transportation facilities. At client locations and some multinational IT organizations, you even have open pantries, you can order food if you are working late, and get it reimbursed. These small things go a long way in making you feel valued.

Learning opportunities

If you are ready to learn, then in the IT industry, the sky is the limit. You learn about technology, even about foreign countries – you have orientation sessions before your travel abroad. You interact with brilliant minds, constantly pushing their limits, you learn by force due to constantly evolving technologies and environments. This percolates to your personal life, so you are already digital – you hardly go to banks for any investments or banking since you manage everything online, and you become a pro at social media or any apps you need.

So as you see, I have listed out almost as many pros as challenges about being a woman in IT. We have a long way to go to make it an equal workplace – but that is the challenge that our entire generation of women is fighting in our own, small, global work islands. The challenge for our mothers was to fight for their right to get out of the house and earn livelihoods. For our generation – it is fighting for equality.

Hopefully, we will do enough groundwork so that the next generation of women can do groundbreaking work. Till then, let’s fight our battles…

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Prerna Nanda

Prerna Nanda

I have been a corporate for 13 years working in industries like Banking, IT, insurance. Travelling is a passion with me & my work has always taken me places, literally. I am a wanderer at heart & nomad by lifestyle. I love writing, no - blurting my heart out.. I live life on my own terms, I am not perfect, I am work in progress...


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5 Comments


  1. This is such a fantastic eye-opener of a post Prerna!!! Thank you for letting us in on your world. I find it absolutely fascinating to get such deep insight into so many socio-economic aspects of IT work for women. I have women friends in their 40s who are in IT and living the very same social and working life that you have described so clearly for us. The concerns you have expressed (about not enough women in IT) and the plus and minus of being a woman in IT have been voiced by all of them as well. A couple of these friends have rightly chosen to stay single and perhaps that has contributed to their rise in their fields. In my observation, while traditional marriage (with its set role expectations, including kids) can be compatible with the demands of IT work for many men in a patriarchal society, the same is not the case for women in a patriarchal set up. This is because the role expectations in patriarchy are heavily imbalanced to facilitate for men only greater enjoyment of freedom from chores/expectations the higher up they climb the career ladder. Whereas for women, the burdens get only heavier -leading to compromises on ascending the ladder or burn out due to exhaustion. And like you rightly point out it would be even harder for the woman – if both spouses are moving up the ladder in the IT field ! Almost always the married woman would have to step back and lose out -regardless of who is more likely among the two, to get higher quicker!! We have to encourage our girl students to choose IT for its potential to bring a sense of intellectual challenge, career fulfilment and economic power but we have to follow up by also encouraging and assigning them the control over decision making related to their life choices about marriage and family (before and after marriage) Simultaneously men should be encouraged to willingly collaborate with daughters and spouses, to participate in promoting equal opportunities for career growth and job fulfilment. Educated men should have the sense and wisdom to realise that the entitlement to privileges/advantages enjoyed so far was based on many unfair assumptions and notions of a flawed patriarchal system, whose time has passed… The time has come to embrace what is only fair and sensible to set the balance right.

    • Prerna Nanda

      I totally agree Sonia. Do you know companies like Yahoo pay for women to freeze their eggs so that they can continue to work longer without worrying about their biological clock ticking. But I find that too very sexist – why do we women have to choose between either work or life? Why can’t we have both..

  2. Geeta Kashyap

    Dear Prerna Nanda, what a fantastic article and what clarity, that too without any prejudice! Hats off for such a straight write up! I have some working experience but I am a homemaker now. I could really get a glimpse of the new work ethics and environment. Keep up the good work!

  3. We women have to choose between work and life only because our family and social set up is structured to force that choice on us. Men go about enjoying work and life in a far more balanced way, because there is a social set up structured to meet this need. There is an almost automatic compensation of the work that men will do or won’t do, both at home and work. (for eg the point you make about baking cake for office bake day- men are automatically excused from such nonsense expectations, why?) This is why balance is maintained for the married working male and they get to have it all!! Traditionally, we see too, that as married men rise up the career ladder, wives and families pitch in more at home to free him from some home tasks/chores. The expectations of his time and efforts automatically and willingly are adjusted to afford him better balance. While this is only fair, the same should be extended to women too- whether they work or not. for eg women who have just delivered a baby or taking care of an aged or ill family member should not be expected to be doing the same chores/work as before; spouses and family of working women who work outside the home should pitch in to compensate her energy spent outside and expectations must reduce on how much she can do within the home for family. Besides that we must ask why does a married man continue to live in a familiar set up with the emotional back up of his parents whereas a married woman uproots herself and enjoys none of the above support systems? instead she is expected to serve and support not only the man but his family of complete strangers too! Why is society thus structured to molly coddle, support and enable males so much as if they were developmentally or in some other way challenged(thus being allowed greater compensations and relaxed expectations) whereas a woman is supposed to be super woman but with none of the due respect and awe that should rightly go with it? This is all just basic common sense but the problem has been the unwillingness of the majority of our educated adults to ponder and get to the bottom of systemic inequalities (even when they affect us ourselves! ) and make an effort to set things right. We prefer to crib and continue, rather than question and change the status quo!! But change we must and as Ashima Jain said on womensweb recently, “we will get there even if its a struggle and it takes one home at a time!!”

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