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Finding CTO – Notes from Grace Hopper

Posted: January 8, 2013

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Sairee Chahal is Co-Founder, Fleximoms. Fleximoms works towards creating, enhancing and co-creating workflex opportunities for women professionals. Co-founder, SAITA Consulting Pvt. Ltd, a management consulting firm focused on SMBs, member of the CII Committee on MSMEs, a visiting faculty at IIFT, New Delhi and mother of a 4-year-old, Sairee is your regular Fleximom. Follow her on twitter @sairee

A few weeks ago I got a frantic call from a friend in one of the top executive search firms. Her firm had been mandated to fill a CTO position for a technology major. The board wanted that position to be filled by a woman candidate, as a measure to enhance gender balance in the company’s leadership team.

Turns out, the firm mandated with the search had done long lists and short lists of qualified, senior women in technology in India and their match was still nowhere in sight. The person needed to fulfill three criteria – having managed scale in business, having worked at cutting edge of technology and having been in leadership roles for more than 5 years. And there seemed very few who would clear the three conditions and be a fit. Puzzling indeed.

This is exactly what took me to the Grace Hopper Women in Computing conference in Bangalore held recently. This is the second edition of the conference in India, which is focused on Women in technology industries and run by the Anita Borg Institute. Some of the key themes that the event focused on were career tracks for women in computing, work-life balance, women entrepreneurs, creating sustainable communities, experience sharing and recognition of achievers.

The truth is India has a fair percentage of women who choose the technology track. Although the relative number of women in engineering colleges, architecture, medical colleges is still low, most companies are accomplishing almost equal hiring manadates, at least at the junior levels.

The IT industry has a pretty neat uptake record for women – almost 40 percent at entry levels, which averages out of less than 5 percent by the time it reaches the CXO track.

Every startup or growth phase company I have met in recent months has categorically asked us if they can find a fleximom CTO, a product manager, a UI expert, a big data expert or even a technology sales professional. Most of these are vast professional tracks with sparse female talent.

This is more than a head hunter’s dilemma. And one Grace Hopper is not enough. What is a recognition of the issue, can’t be deemed as redressal.

Land up at any start up event, land up at a technology conference, land up at a leadership summit and the proof will be there for you to see. Stuff that is driving business growth in technology – UI/UX, product management, product management, technology sales, artifical intelligence has fewer women who will lead the way.  Hands on deck, yes! Front runners – no. The three things missing the Women in Technology puzzle – scale, cutting edge and leadership.

An article in Forbes spoke about copying the Silicon Valley model of success in India. The truth is, Silicon Valley has a great model in place but is it flawless? Do we want to build the same model that favours the ’24 year white male stereotype’ ? No!

India has a chance to lead the way in women in technology story. Here is why.

We have a chance to do and we have tons of talent, we can’t ignore. We need not replicate the stiff corridor culture of the valley.

How will we do it?

Well there are no easy answers. To begin with I would say, wider horizons, day hackathons, flexibility with formats, easier career transitions, more online channels, more broadband connectivity, more role models, more ease with failures, more startup support and less sexism.


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