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BW Businessworld

'A Woman-led Bureaucratic Department Makes A Huge Difference'

In an interview with BW Businessworld, Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, discusses her journey, her challenges, and her idea of national growth and the role of women in it

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In an interview with BW Businessworld, Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, discusses her journey, her challenges, and her idea of national growth and the role of women in it.

My encounters with IAS officers in their offices have always been serious and to the point. To my pleasant surprise, the interview with Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, was filled with mirth and meaningful jottings.

In her candid chat, this role-model bureaucrat of 1982 batch recounted her journey, her challenges, her idea of national growth and the role of women in it.

IT is fundamental to our country's growth. Where do you see women contributing to this growth?
Although it is true that 30 per cent of the women are already employed in IT sectors which is way higher than any other profession, there are some very interesting areas opening up in technology for women. While it is more visible in traditional businesses, a significant number of self-employed women are taking to IT for enhancing reach in the market, managing supply chains and to delivering more value to customers.

Despite the potential being huge, the number of hi-tech women in this space is limited. There is an increasing need to have women keep up to this emerging technology. Facebook launched a platform called 'She Means Business' on March 8, 2016 across 16 countries to help self-employed women or startup entrepreneurs. Since then, they have trained 8500 women across these countries out of which 4500 are from India. All these women have now set up businesses which is nothing short of a movement. Facebook's bundled up platform, with their tools like Whatsapp, has taken the movement beyond boundaries.

Please give us your views on some women led businesses you have come across recently.

Many aggregators are emerging here with IT enabled services. A woman started crowdsourcing for NGOs through IT platforms. Another example is P to P (Peer to Peer) financing, aggregating a number of small players. Another woman runs a number of tech platforms for health spa. These are a few impressive examples I can cite.

In your view, how does a woman led department make a difference in governance?
It certainly does make a difference in many ways. National Informatics Centre, the largest e-governance agency is headed by a woman, so is Ernet. Women leaderships bring in a certain orientation and gender sensitivity; a definite desire to bring in more women is inherent here. I can see the difference in terms of policies. We are trying to bring in a startup policy for women with a package of assistance.

What does this start up policy for women entail?
Women entrepreneurs face three to four kinds of challenges. First, negotiating the regulatory environment. Often, when they go to an incubator, the environment is not gender friendly at all. We are customizing the environment to make them feel valued as women entrepreneurs. Second is access to funding. We are trying to arrange venture funds for women. A special round of financing happens only for women entrepreneurs. Third and the most important is mentoring. We are trying to create a pool of women mentors – primarily of two kinds. One is specific to domain and the second type is market mentoring by business leaders. The challenge here is, there aren't too many business leaders. Until we mentor and create business leaders, we don't expect to see more entrepreneurs. Let's create this pool, and support each other. Unless we support the young girls, how can we expect them to be successful on their own?

Why are there so less women in the workforce?

Even today there are a lot of barriers. I will give you a classic example of Kerala where women are highly educated and qualified, all of it for the sole end – marriage. Many women don't want to work after marriage. Those in the lower middle class may not have the choice, and may be forced to work to meet economic ends. The degree of a doctor eventually earns better chances of getting married. Since Ayurveda is perceived by many women and their families as an alternative to the study of Allopathy, 70 per cent of the students in the former are women. Yet, not a single one of them is ready to work.

The last 10 years witnessed a decrease in women's participation in the workforce from 34 per cent to 25 per cent, whereas it is 50 per cent in neighbouring countries. Why is it so low in India? With affluence on its rise in the country, women have dropped out of the workforce. There are some deep social barriers which cannot be tackled very easily.

Is bureaucracy any different?

Only 10-15 per cent of top bureaucrats are women. Fortunately that is changing, but not fast enough. The way to increase the participation of women in the workforce is to recognise and acknowledge them when they do a good job, since they do it against great odds. We need to educate a lot of parents. Marriage cannot be the sole end of a girl. It's important to look at her as a human being wanting to fulfill certain dreams of her own.

Have you ever faced gender challenges in your journey?
I faced one as recently as three days ago. My driver has been working with me for the last three years. When my husband came home during the weekend, the first thing my driver asked him was, "Sir, can I get two days' leave?" Surprised, my husband said, "Ask Madam because you are her driver." He said, "No Sir I will ask you because you are the Sahab."

How about your colleagues and peers at work?

In retrospect, I feel we ourselves have started behaving like men. Not that I have felt anything with my peers, but now when I think about it, I feel if I thought like a woman, I would have said and done a lot of things differently. In those days if you wanted to be successful, you had to reinvent yourself as a man. The plain clothes, fewer laughs, more homework, and speaking when spoken to helped the then women bureaucrats be taken seriously.

Your message to young women aspiring for bureaucratic positions.

I would really like to support them because this is a great career. It's an opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. I think we need more young women to come into the civil services, and fortunately there are a lot of role models. What I want from them is to be confident. Women often underestimate themselves, which leads to lack of confidence. I want them to be who they are, speak their mind and pursue their dream without any compromise.