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Tech helped more Indian women join the workforce, but they’re still fighting to be treated equally.

Illustration Credit: Chuan Ming Ong for Rest of World.

In 2017, on her first day of work at a tech firm based in Pune, India, a female tech worker recalled that she wore high heels.

“A male colleague told me ‘your heels are clacking,’” she told Rest of World. “He later told a senior woman colleague, ‘Ask her not to walk like that.’”

The woman, who requested anonymity as she was concerned about the response from others, has found that her clothing and appearance have frequently drawn reactions from co-workers since she started in tech 12 years ago. “I don’t know if a man’s clothing draws so much attention,” she said.

At her previous tech job in India, recalled Prerna Goradia, now founder of an environmental technology startup, the company introduced rules that a female employee working after 8 p.m. needed to be escorted home by a security guard in a car, paid for by the company.

“The reason was to ensure the safety of women,” she told Rest of World. But such a policy resulted in women being selected for fewer projects that required employees to stay after hours, as the company didn’t have to bear the extra costs of a chaperone or car for a male employee.

Dyuti Sen, a data scientist, worked in one of India’s top IT firms in downtown Bengaluru — often referred to as India’s Silicon Valley. Her company celebrated employees’ birthdays with a cake and singing. But, no matter whose birthday it was, it was on the women to organize the parties.

“The responsibility of cutting up the cake and distributing it to dozens of colleagues always fell on women too,” Sen told Rest of World.

These incidents are just a few examples of everyday sexism in the workplace that women working in tech in India shared with Rest of World. While minor on their own, they combine to create a culture that, despite progress in the sector, still treats women differently from men, and reflects a pervasive gender bias in the tech industry.

India’s tech sector employs significantly more women than any other private sector in the country: Around 36% of the five million employees in the tech industry are women, according to the latest available figures from Nasscom, the industry’s trade association. Yet, gender-based discrimination remains rife. According to a 2021 report, women are increasingly entering tech roles. However, while many women are employed in the sector as a whole, they are less represented in senior roles: Only 7% of them hold executive-level positions, according to a 2022 report.

In general, men get better opportunities, better salaries, and occupy the highest positions in tech organizations.

This male dominance has helped forge a pervasive sexist culture, according to women in the tech sector. Rest of World spoke to 26 women working for tech companies in India, all of whom had stories about difficulties they faced owing to their gender.

While gender bias has been well-documented in tech globally, it is often exacerbated in India by broader social expectations around women’s roles. In India, women are traditionally expected to be docile and accommodating. The household is considered their first responsibility, and they are the primary caregivers for children and elderly family members.

“The culture is such that we have to conform,” said Sen.

“In such a scenario, even small aspects like your dress or tone of your voice, etc., should be ‘acceptable.’”

Sometimes, this inequality can be measured, as with unequal pay or the “glass ceiling” that occurs as women fail to progress into leadership roles. But it also manifests in the everyday culture of work life, with women reporting that they are treated differently in the office. “Such everyday sexism is often invisible; therefore, it often is ignored by those who can take action against it,” Cheshta Arora, a researcher at the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society, told Rest of World. However, she added, it creates an adverse impact on women’s careers and well-being.

Gender-based discrimination in India is certainly not limited to the tech sector, but Prashant Tambe, a social activist who founded an IT college called Modern College in the central Indian city of Nagpur, told Rest of World it is particularly disappointing due to tech’s perceived promise as a social leveler.

Moreover, the tech industry is all-pervasive in today’s world. What we read, what we see, how we get food delivered, where we buy clothes, and who drives us home is all decided by the invisible hands running the industry. Amandeep Sandhu, an author who also works as a coach in tech companies, told Rest of World, “We should ask ourselves what is tech disrupting, if it is not breaking up dogmatic social norms?”

An employee working at the Facebook offices in Hyderabad, India. 37% of India’s five million tech sector employees are women. Photo Credit: Lynsey Addario/Getty Images

In the mid-1970s, Sudha Murty, now an author and chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, was applying for her first job. She came across a call for applications for the post of a technical officer at Tata Motors, formerly known as Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (Telco). The advertisement, however, said that women need not apply. She wrote a letter to J.R.D Tata, India’s top industrialist and chairman of the Tata Group, protesting the caveat, and applied anyway. She became the company’s first female technical officer.

Women like Murty set a trend in the 1980s, when India’s IT sector was just getting off the ground. At the time, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a young political scion, pushed his government to adopt technology in governance and encouraged the setting up of private tech companies, cementing the IT industry as a cornerstone of the country for decades to come.

As the country liberalized and joined the world economy in the early 1990s, the IT industry expanded dramatically, growing from $100 million in 1990 to $1 billion in 1996.

The changes in the economy brought about changes in society. More and more women began joining the workforce. “And computer science became a respectable job for women in that decade,” Arora, the tech researcher, told Rest of World. The image of a “respectable woman” in the workplace was not of someone working on the factory floor, but rather, sitting in an air-conditioned office, typing away on a computer.

Initially, women from larger cities and premier engineering colleges populated the IT firms, but, as the years rolled on, more women from smaller cities and towns, and less well-known engineering schools, joined the workforce, too.

Despite the cultural shift, many women interested in a tech career still faced battles at home. Sandhya Guntreddy, a manager at Microsoft, has been in the tech industry for over 20 years. Speaking to Rest of World in a personal capacity, she recalled defying her father to get a job. “When I got my [first] job, my dad said ‘I will pay you whatever your salary is, I don’t want you to go and work [outside].’ This was in 1999,” she said. “I just smiled, I booked my tickets, and left.” She added, however, that her family supported her in the years to come.

Despite hurdles, women continued to charge into tech: According to figures from Nasscom, women constituted 21% of the total IT workforce in 2001 and around 30% in 2012.

But they still faced entrenched expectations over how they should lead their lives. Indian society, with its emphasis on the collective over the individual, ensured there was considerable pressure on women to marry by their early or mid-20s. Once married, they were expected to be homemakers and not continue with a career.

Undergraduate students participate in a hackathon at a college in New Delhi, India. Photo Credit: Xavier Galiana/AFP/Getty Images

These ideas made it difficult for women who wanted to forge a career in tech. Two decades ago, when Manjusha, then a lead coder at a top Indian software company, was in her late 20s, she was denied promotion after promotion. “The management thought I would get married soon and get pregnant immediately after,” she told Rest of World. Now in a senior managerial post, she asked to be identified only by her first name, as she fears reprisals.

Today, women are entering tech in high numbers. “A very significant reason why gender inclusivity would be advocated in Indian IT is because it just makes business sense — there are so many engineers who are women,” Debolina Dutta, a professor of HR management at the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru, told Rest of World. This is true particularly in more junior roles, she said: “At the bottom of the pyramid, the industry needs those arms and legs and heads to come in. Male or female, it doesn’t make a difference.”

But a glass ceiling remains, with a “leaky pipeline” occurring as you go up the organizational hierarchy. “Women enter in large numbers but leave after five-odd years,” Namrata Gupta, author of Women in Science and Technology: Confronting Inequalities, told Rest of World. Only 13% of women in tech hold managerial positions.

One reason for this is the struggle of balancing a career and a family — the responsibility for which still rests largely on women — and the extra discrimination faced by mothers in the workforce.

“I was denied promotion only twice in my career, when I was pregnant with my two kids,” one software professional from Chandigarh, who requested anonymity as she is between jobs, told Rest of World.

Pay is another issue that can contribute to women cutting their careers short. According to a 2016 report, the gender pay gap — or the average difference between a man and woman’s remuneration for the same job — in Indian IT was 38%. There is a gender pay gap at all levels — it’s the smallest at the 3–5 years’ experience level, and largest for 6–10 years of experience, as reported by Monster Salary Index, which captures salary benchmarks across industries.

So, how is it the case that men get more pay as they move up the ladder? asked Sen, the data scientist. She said her husband works in the same industry, but since he is more upfront about asking for a pay rise, there has always been a 10–15% gap in their salaries. “I am under-confident and uncomfortable asking for a hike,” she said. If women do not negotiate hard enough at the initial stages of their career, they are perpetually behind the curve, she added.

This discrepancy in pay may also contribute to the trend of women leaving the workforce to look after children. If they earn less than a male partner, their job may be more dispensable.

During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many women said they would rather be the ones to take a break to look after their families and let their husbands carry on with their careers, a Human Resources lead at the India office of a major U.S. tech company told Rest of World. This happened despite the organization being flexible to their needs, she added.

Shalini, a Noida-based tech worker, told Rest of World that although her organization asked if she wanted to work remotely, she refused. “My husband was earning enough for the family. And my two children needed me during the lockdowns,” she said. She requested to use her first name only, out of fears that her views could affect her future job prospects.

Even for those who work full-time, the reality of Indian society is that women have two careers: After leaving the office, they have to go back home and start their second jobs as mothers, wives, and daughters, said Dutta, underscoring the unpaid labor that falls so disproportionately on women’s shoulders. A 2019 survey concluded that 92% of Indian women spent an average of over five hours a day on unpaid domestic services, whereas only about 29% of men took on domestic work, for an average of just 1.5 hours a day.

Shalini, who has been a career woman for a decade and a half, told Rest of World she was exhausted finishing all the household chores during the lockdowns: “I was the only one cooking, cleaning, managing supplies, and caring for the children back then.”

A year after the Covid-19 lockdowns were completely lifted, nothing has changed for her, except that she now also has a part-time job with a tech firm. “Now I am exhausted both at work and at home,” she said.

Other women shared similar stories. When Janani began working in a software firm in Gurugram, she was unmarried. Then, two years ago, at the age of 27, she was married to a man her family chose for her. “I was so grateful my husband’s family let me keep my tech job, I was willing to do anything for them,” she told Rest of World.

Janani, who asked to use only her first name as her company has policies against employees speaking to the media, said she would wake up at 5 a.m. to finish cooking breakfast for five people, and also make and pack lunch boxes for her husband and brother-in-law. She then took the metro to work and returned home at 5 p.m. Evenings were for grocery shopping, cleaning the house, and cooking dinner. “I did not realize I was doing a double shift until one day [when] I almost fainted with exhaustion,” she said. Her doctor told her to take some time off to rest.

Illustration Credit: Chuan Ming Ong for Rest of World.

Indian social expectations regarding gender roles also impact how women are viewed and treated at work. As many see women’s primary role as domestic, they have to make extra efforts to prove their worth in the workplace. “For men, trust comes by default; for women, you have to prove yourself every time,” said Guntreddy.

This is especially true when it comes to technical work like software development or coding, one HR representative told Rest of World.

A 39-year-old software engineer from Pune, who requested anonymity because she was fearful of retribution from her company, told Rest of World her seniors request that she deliver her reports to them several days before the deadline. “That is not because I am incapable; they have not found a single fault in my reports in the past seven years,” she said.

She believes they ask this because they want to look over her work before sending it to the client, but they do not have the same system for male project managers, she added.

Manjusha, the former coder who is now a director at a software company, told Rest of World her male colleagues often unfairly found fault in her work. “My work was scrutinized more than a male counterpart’s,” she said. She would be asked to recheck numerical figures again and again, or to rewrite reports even if there were no factual errors in them. “These things pull you down, make you believe you are less capable.”

Over a period of time, such regular scrutiny is a drain on mental energy, Manjusha said. “And then we blame it on other things such as ‘I have a family, I have kids to take care of.’ You start building so many reasons for your stress,” she said. That, in turn, affected her family life, as she began having more fights with her husband.

Manjusha said she has had to struggle a lot to get to where she is today. “But I should have been in a higher position, given my career trajectory.”

The female tech workers who spoke to Rest of World also complained about a double standard in behavioral norms in the workplace. Arora pointed to a paradox women can find themselves in, where they have to be assertive to be heard, yet can be judged negatively if they are seen as too confident. “As a woman, you have to be aggressive [in seeking what you want], but if you are aggressive, people point fingers at you because being aggressive is not considered to come naturally to a woman,” she said.

Guntreddy said she has gone through the entire spectrum of how she presents herself, through her 20-year career to date, in an attempt to strike the right balance. “I was a very aggressive person and people thought I was not very approachable,” she said. Determined to change her image, she toned down her personality but believes she then became too “soft.”

“That hit me hard in my career,” she recalled, and she says she did not advance as fast as she should have. After a few years of introspection, she realized that she was not performing to her optimal abilities because she was not being herself. “I changed. Now, I am more assertive, not aggressive,” she said.

In recent years, sexism in Indian tech companies has come under greater scrutiny, particularly following the global #MeToo movement, which called out sexist harassment. The movement brought discussions of sexism into the mainstream, and increased awareness about sexual discrimination and abuse. “Men think before making an off-hand comment about women being hysterical or some such stereotype,” said Arora.

People’s understanding of workplace harassment has also developed beyond sexual harassment to include things like microaggressions — small behaviors that show a derogatory attitude or bias. “I need not be felt up in order to raise my voice these days,” said Shalini.

But voicing an opinion can go against a woman, too. Two years ago, when the Pune-based tech worker who faced complaints about her high heels was working in an Indian software firm, she had disagreements with her boss over the execution of a project. When she felt that her voice was not being heard, she said she had no choice but to take the matter to their superiors. “When I did that, most people who had similar opinions like mine would ping me on the internal office communication chat system,” she said. “Initially, they were appreciative messages.”

But gradually, some of her colleagues began to deride her outspoken behavior. They did not want to be on the wrong side of the management, she said.

“We were on the fourth floor of the building, and people from the third floor would be talking about me. It was like a town square. Where everyone discusses women[‘s actions].”

The behavior was enough for her to raise the issue with HR while exiting the project. She said that her time at the workplace got so stressful that it reflected on her physical health and she began missing periods.

“Most ‘bros’ are scared of women who hold strong opinions,” said the software coder from Chandigarh. When she spoke about a particular algorithm being biased towards men, for instance, people wouldn’t believe her, she said.

People walk through an information technology sector of Hyderabad, India. According to a 2016 report, the country’s gender pay gap for people working in information technology was 38%. Photo Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

While Rest of World spoke to a range of women who have faced bias in the workplace, the burden is greater for those who come from otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds, such as women from oppressed castes or rural communities.

Preeti, 22, is the only computer science graduate from her small village in central India, and the first person in her family to work in tech. She is also a first-generation English speaker. To her list of many firsts, she adds that she is also the first in her family to be struggling with a different culture.

Preeti, who asked for her name to be changed out of fear of greater discrimination at work, started work last year at a startup in Bengaluru. “The tech world is a whole different world,” she told Rest of World. Adding to her battles, she explained, is the fact that she is a Dalit, a historically oppressed caste in India. Not only did she have to adjust to a large city, she had to learn the culture of eating out and stepping into spaces like pubs, which she had never been in before. “There is a whole different world we are living in and we cannot compare our lives with women of privilege at all,” she said.

Preeti was invited to an office party where she felt she was judged for her English-language skills. While doing Zoom calls, she used to keep her video off so her colleagues wouldn’t see her modest living conditions. “These bring down confidence levels,” she said.

Preeti believes that intersectionality — a consideration of the different factors that may contribute to advantage and discrimination — needs to be given more attention when it comes to outreach programmes for Indian women in tech. Women from less privileged backgrounds need more support, she said.

Rural backgrounds, lack of language skills, caste, and economic backgrounds are currently not considerations for most diversity and inclusion efforts in tech companies, an HR representative at a major software firm in Bengaluru told Rest of World. Mostly, these efforts currently focus on women, people with physical disabilities, and those identifying as LGBTQIA. While these are extremely necessary, Preeti says caste privilege should be considered as well. “Problem is, many in leadership positions are either ‘caste blind’ [they believe they judge people solely based on merit] or they are uncomfortable talking about their caste privilege,” she said.

These complexities mean that simple solutions aren’t enough to solve the problem of sexism in Indian tech. “You cannot just populate [the field] with more women. You need to change the fundamental thinking,” said Arora. “Government policies are not mature enough to do that. They are only interested in bringing bodies to the workplace.”

One way to help level the playing field for women, she suggested, would be to support caregivers, particularly given the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. With the previous generation, people became carers much later in life, but now, many already have caring responsibilities in their 30s. “Organizations should support employees more in these times,” Arora said. One way to do this could be by offering remote work opportunities or keeping deadlines and hours flexible.

Regulation can also have unintended consequences. Tech entrepreneur Goradia said that paid maternity leave provisions are one such example. In 2017, paid maternity leave was increased to 26 weeks. “This can work [both] for and against a woman,” she said. Employers do not want an employee to be on their payroll and go on paid leave for six-and-a-half months, so they may hire fewer women in their 30s, Goradia said. She had heard talk of this in corporate circles around the time the law was passed. Instead of increasing maternity leave, she suggests, the government should have added three months of paternity leave. “That would have balanced things out,” she said.

Goradia was in a senior managerial position at a tech firm when she quit to start her own company in 2020. As such, she has seen both sides of this issue. She said she hired a woman in her previous company who went on maternity leave 15 days after she joined work. This meant the company had to pay her for six months while she was not working. But Goradia believed in the woman — and it paid off. Today, the woman she had hired is a huge asset to the company. “She is much celebrated on LinkedIn by the larger community as well,” Goradia added.

Guntreddy also advocates for women to speak up about their needs. When she joined Microsoft in 2005, there were very few women working there, and the office had no “mother’s room” for women to nurse in, she said. “But, we asked them and it immediately happened. By the time I was pregnant in 2006, we had one.”

“Men don’t know what you need most of the time,” she said. “I think it is important to coach men, to sensitize men. That is what we need to change in our ecosystem. Coach men on the needs versus telling women ‘Hey you go fight for your rights.’ You have to do both. 80% of the men are neutral and they want to support but they don’t know how to.”

Guntreddy suggested that men speak more to women, too. In some cases, she said, men may make assumptions about women that hamper their growth. “A classic example is that if you are a woman, they assume you might not want to travel,” she said. By traveling or by handling a crisis situation themselves, some men think they are helping women, when, in fact, they could be taking away an opportunity. “You think you are doing [women a favor], but you are actually doing a disservice to them,” Guntreddy said.

It only takes believing in a woman, she said.

Published in Rest of World
Published on November 1, 2022
Link: The enduring sexism of India’s tech industry – Rest of World