Women engineers and gender parity: Where do Indian companies stand?

A few weeks ago, trouble broke out in Google over a controversial anti-gender diversity memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”. James Damore, the senior Google engineer who wrote this memo, argued that women in the software industry were not specifically discriminated against because of their gender but lost out because they had certain inherent biological qualities like “neuroticism” which according to Google is is “a long-term tendency to be in a negative emotional state”. This, he said, made them unfit to become engineers or handle “high stress” jobs like coding.

Women, he felt, therefore should be assigned jobs which took advantage of some of their unique biological traits. These traits included “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas” which he said was why they preferred jobs in “social or artistic areas”. He explained away the wage gap (Google is actually already fighting a law suit over gender disparity in wages) by saying that women were “gregarious” rather than “assertive” and hence had “a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading”. He also went on to elaborate how women were less ambitious, satisfied with less money and so on.

How can we ensure gender parity at the workplace? Image for representation only. REUTERS

How can we ensure gender parity at the workplace? Image for representation only. REUTERS

Damore’s 10 page long memo was full of pseudo “scientific” facts and assumptions and it outraged women both inside and outside Google as well as many other supportive male professionals. Madison Malone Kircher, writing in NY magazine said, “The notion here — that women elect to work lower-paying and less-powerful jobs because they’re cool with earning less money if it means a better work/life balance — is manifestly insane. To say four in ten mothers 'choose' to take time away from the office in the name of family is true only under a very narrow definition of 'choice'.”

More importantly, it outraged Google CEO Sundar Pichai who cut short his family vacation and came back to tackle the unrest caused by James Damore’s memo. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not okay,” he wrote. “Portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Damore was dismissed from service.

Damore’s views were certainly insulting and outrageous at times. He called the work environment at Google an echo chamber where “liberal and left views” were being echoed and re-echoed leaving “conservative right wingers” like him without any support. But in a way he was guilty of echoing too… echoing the pseudo-scientific platitudes insecure male colleagues have been mouthing ever since women entered their once sacred citadels.

Is the situation any different in India? A couple of years ago, while researching for my book Unbound: Indian Women @ Work I spoke to several women engineers working for the software industry. I found then that while there were a lot of young women engineers at the entry level, the numbers thinned as they rose. Why? Did men grab the better paid jobs faster than women? Did women move back because of their biology? Social conditioning? Were well paid jobs still fundamentally reserved for people without wombs? The IT industry in particular had gone beyond gender awareness and transparency. The mantra was now inclusiveness. Women not only had to be hired in technical jobs, the companies had also to ensure they rose to occupy positions which mattered.

I attended conferences where CEOs and senior women managers spoke about the need for women to gear themselves up to survive in this male dominated world. The difference was that unlike the older more conservative industries, here the managements recognised that women had certain special needs which had to be addressed if they were to rise to their full potential. They also realised that if they ignored this, they were hurting themselves because they would lose talented and qualified peopled people whom they had selected, hired and trained at a cost to the company.

A CEO of a major IT company at one of the conferences told a large audience of women techies “We CEOs are selfish and calculating. We are not in it for helping. A CEO has to be highly motivated when hiring women for high profile projects. When a woman candidate is suggested, the first resistance comes from the management team. Even the HR department is not usually supportive. Not even if it is headed by a woman.”

The women in the IT sector were as highly talented and as committed as their male colleagues, he said, but they did not fit in with the male pattern work culture which had evolved. And managements too did not pay enough attention to their needs. They spent crores of rupees on food courts and recreation centres but not even a fraction of that on creating world class creches and baby sitting facilities.

Charu Sehgal, considered one of the top achievers in the health care segment, once said that the true potential of the female work force would be unleashed only when employers realised that any legitimate support provided to women employees in their role of bearing and rearing children was not extended as a favour to the woman. On the other hand, she said it should be considered as a responsibility to society and future generations.

Gender inclusiveness and transparency are relatively new concepts. In the older science and technology institutions the inclusion and growth of women was organic. ISRO pioneer R Aravamudan, the author of ISRO: A Personal History, recalls interviewing some of the earliest recruits for the space agency in the late 1960s.  Among them was a young woman engineer from the (then) Trivandrum engineering college. “My first question to her was a very simple one in electronics,” he said. “And she just fainted!” However, she recovered and came back to the interview and turned out to be the brightest among the candidates consisting of both men and women. Not only was she given the job, she also rose to a very senior level over the years.

ISRO without consciously touting its gender inclusive credentials has nurtured its women engineers and scientists, extending to them the same opportunities as their male colleagues. Perhaps this is partly because technically qualified women have been part of the organisation right from its inception. As a result by 2017 women have headed complex projects related to high profile Missions including ones which sent satellites to Mars and the Moon. Space centres have notoriously stressful work environments and if women as a gender group were really prone to neuroticism, as Damore said, would they have survived and flourished there?

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, one of most successful business women in India, has broken through every conceivable ceiling. Biocon, the company she had started at 25 in her garage with money scraped together from her family and friends, has grown into an empire. She said that at Biocon they did not “force gender diversity”. She told me that in her company, women and men were given equal opportunities to work on scientific projects. “The women are very smart,” she said, “The problem is, they lack self-confidence. Many women don’t even apply for senior positions.”

In India, no one says women can’t code. In fact, the computer science and electronics engineering sections in many colleges have more women than men students. Parents not only encourage their daughters to study engineering, in some cases they push them so hard that they do collapse under the stress. So, the Indian software industry has a larger pool of technically trained women to choose from. It is also pretty gender transparent when it comes to hiring and so, given the right work environment, women flourish.

Sometimes when companies have specific gender awareness programmes to showcase their commitment to gender equality, there can be a backlash which creates a greater rift between men and women colleagues. Organic growth on the other hand, may take a long time to fall into place. If women have to be on top and at a level where they can dictate company policy which is gender embracing, then fast tracking is perhaps the only solution.

Acknowledging that there is a female pattern of achievement which takes a different path from the conventional male one would go a long way in achieving gender parity.

Updated Date: Aug 27, 2017 14:04 PM

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