When someone says ‘techie’, the image that most likely comes to mind is a Sheldon Cooper-ish male with glasses and a hoodie. We often associate women with domains like HR, PR, etc. and seldom with technology. This is one of the biggest stereotypes not only held by HR practitioners but society at large. This gets reflected in the statistics relating to women in tech as well.
Less than 30% (average) of the tech workforce consists of women engaged in ‘core’ tech jobs. For example, Netflix has 47% women employees but only 30% are in tech jobs. Overall less than 20% women hold leadership roles in the technology space.
Impact of the stereotype
“It leads HR professionals, society and women themselves to question their ability to thrive amidst the challenges of the high-octane work environments of the tech industry”, says techie and Syntellect CEO Sumedha Salunkhe Naik. These stereotypes manifest as biases in pay, perks and promotions leading to fewer women in tech leadership roles and pay gaps. In terms of HR policies and hiring practices it is important to remember that women are not a homogenous group and intersectionality of discrimination and biases does come into play. We find that a large number of successful and practicing women techies are from privileged sections of society in India.
Women researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs are often refused grants/ funding to pursue their ideas or they are given the least priority. To this Naik says, “Male entrepreneurs are the beneficiaries of the majority of private equity capital. They are perceived to have self-esteem, risk taking, aggression, resilience in more quantities than women. As a woman fintech entrepreneur, I have had to constantly work harder to prove that I possess all that is necessary and the ambition to scale up.”
Whether they are fresh graduates, mid-level managers or top-leaders or tech entrepreneurs, women often get questioned about how they balance or hope to balance their career and family/ life/ personal commitments. These are not questions that men face in their interviews or appraisal meetings or press conferences!
From her experience of working in tech and ultimately foraying into tech entrepreneurship Naik says, “Societal pressure and expectations often pressure women to take a call on their career. The continuous stereotyping also takes a toll on us. I have seen enough women including myself on occasions underestimating our experiences, skills and attributes. This lack of confidence ultimately limits our career aspirations.”
How successful women techies broke and continue to break these stereotypes and biases?
Sumedha Naik and globally-renowned techies like YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, Facebook COO Sherly Sandberg, Oracle Co-CEO Safra Catz, etc. are breaking the glass and steel ceilings and smashing stereotypes to sustain in the tech field and reach the top. Though far from equitable and inclusive, it is a sign that something is going right.
Naik says, “From experience, there is nothing that sheer resilience and grit can’t overcome. And these traits are found in every successful woman in tech. They consciously work towards strengthening their foundation in the initial years of their careers and deepened their expertise in different areas of operation. They constantly and consciously scouted for opportunities and grabbed everything that came their way. When opportunities were limited or not available, they made them.”
What role can HR play?
Revolutions start from somewhere. If organizations hired more women techies and nurtured the ones who work with them, then we can start to shatter some of these stereotypes and maybe even spark off a societal revolution.
HR and the tech companies need to walk the talk rather than sticking to tokenism and verbal assurances on Women’s Day to nurture women in tech. They must revamp the organizational policies, culture and work environment that stands up against sexism, negative stereotypes, harassment and discrimination.
According to Naik, “To begin with, let’s not window dress the core issue with sops and frilly schemes, let’s address the concern systemically and start early. If one looks at data, the biggest drop-off in numbers for women is after the first five years. One obvious reason for this could be that women often take a break to start a family around this time in their lives and many do not return to the workforce. This is when organizations need to lean in and get women back to the work force, foster strong career identities at the onset and have mentors in place.”
The interventions need to start in the early stages of socialization of girls who need to be exposed to STEM- Science, Tech, Engineering and Mathematics. Such early exposure to these fields and awareness about the career scope in these fields will help sustain the confidence of young girls to pursue science and tech-related careers. We also believe that CSR initiatives could revolve around taking STEM to girls in rural and underprivileged areas in order to make the tech industry more diverse and inclusive.