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BW Businessworld

Women At Work:Hope & Change

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Like many other scientific and industrial fields, technology-based industries have essentially been defined and dominated by men.
Of course, women have played significant roles in the development of science and technology, but for the most part, they are some of history's best kept secrets, often even among women themselves.
For example, how many of you knew that the very first real computer programmer was a woman? Ada Byron King, the Countess of Lovelace and daughter of poet Lord Byron, was a prominent mathematician in the mid-1800s. She worked along side her better-known male colleague, Charles Babbage, on the first mechanical computing machines.
What's however not such a big secret is the dismal picture of women in the top echelons of the IT Industry. For example, even in India while women constitute almost 40 per cent of the IT Industry's workforce, the numbers thin down significantly to less than 5 per cent (Only 5.3 per cent of all directors on the BSE-100 being are women as per a Standard Chartered Bank Report: (Women on Corporate Boards In India 2010).

I've now spent 30+ years in this Industry and worked in different parts of the globe from India and China to Hong Kong and the Silicon Valley, but over the years, one thing has remained constant - the speed of change around the world in this crucial area has been less than encouraging.

However being a woman - "a gender of hope" as my grandmother used to say - I also believe that revolution is always around the corner… There is not a single problem in this world that has not been solved when humanity has decided to join hands to solve it. So let's begin by changing our mindset first from 'what hasn't been done' to 'what can we do' and approach this demographic dilemma with ideas of action.

What Can We Do?
While I'm sure there are many different ways to approach this path, I believe that three things are most important:
1) We must combat gender bias and discrimination in every situation and every way we can.
Ideally, the representation of women in the power structure of a community or organisation should reflect their numbers in that community or organisation.
Patronising behavior and assumptions that women are less qualified or committed than men, regardless of whether the assumptions are conscious or unconscious, must stop.

Childhood influences should also be studied and remedied. For example, research has found that boys and girls have different ways of looking at technology and these patterns kick in at a very early age. In the US, boys and girls tend to be equally interested in computers until they are about 10 years old. At that point, boys' use rises significantly and girls' use drops. Looking behind the statistics, we see that most children are first introduced to computers in their homes and at school through games, and that the vast majority of games software is developed by men.

The predominant themes of recreational computer games are war, battles, crimes, destruction, and traditionally male-oriented sports and hobbies. As girls tend to prefer nonlinear games, where there's more than one direction to take, where you can work in groups, and where no one "dies" on screen.

These seemingly subconscious layers that surround our very homes need to be investigated and amended by every parent.

2) We must address head-on the lack of mentoring programs for women and girls and make sure that role models are more numerous and highly visible.

Mentors and role models play a crucial, though usually informal, role in personal growth, and in training for all professions, and it's clear that role models are important at all stages in personal and professional life.  It is not unusual for female employees to seek mentors more frequently than their male counterparts.  When mentors or mentoring programs are not available, the female technology professional often shifts her career to the applied technology fields.

This lack of mentor resources is particularly acute in technology businesses and computer sciences where the number of available female mentors and role models shrinks as one progresses through the pipeline.
While young women can benefit from mentors of either gender, it is desirable for women to be exposed to females in higher level positions. For example, we at HCL run a program called Feminspiration where we invite women achievers from various fields to mentor our women employees. A role model can serve as evidence that a successful career in computer science, for example, is not only a possibility, but a normal and even unremarkable option for women.

Role models and mentors are perhaps even more important to younger women and girls. Without them, girls may lose interest or end studies in technology fields prematurely, and for the wrong reasons.
3) We must make sure that the difficulties in balancing career and family responsibilities are overcome.

Concern with this problem has led some young women to abandon the possibility of such a career at a very early stage in their training.
Women considering careers in computer science are not very different from women in a wide range of other careers... or, for that matter, from many men in those careers. A recent New York Times article noted that, "Fathers, too, are seeking a balance between their families and careers."

It must be possible for both men and women to work hard and well at a career, without neglecting their personal lives. No one should have to choose one at the expense of the other. Both men and women should have the right, and often have the obligation, to have careers.
There are a variety of ways to support this. As my colleague and friend at HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, wrote in his recent blog hosted on the Harvard Business School website — Companies must create organizations that are aligned, culturally and emotionally, with woman employees' priorities…(they) also need to change their expectations that employees should be available anywhere, anytime; find ways around women's reticence to advocate for themselves; and change the unwritten rules of workplace engagement favoring men.

Yes, we must do all this and more for a lot hinges on increasing the number of women in the field. We must make sure that increased representation of women is not stalled, but rather accelerated, by the policies and practices of educators and employers, governments and corporations.
The good news here is that this is a relatively new industry, and there's opportunity to change it before behaviors and expectations become too entrenched. The responsibility for this change lies in each one of our hands, and I am sure as a generation who has triggered more revolutions than any in the past, I am confident that we will.

The author is a director on the board of HCL Technologies