Bengaluru: Making Indian companies view inclusion and diversity in the same manner as their Western counterparts is Anita Borg Institute’s (ABI) key challenge in a country where societal pressures are still real and could take generations to dissipate, said speakers and organisers at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
The conference, an annual event that began in honour of the American computer scientist by the same name, is in its seventh year in India. What started with around 500 participants in 2010 in Bengaluru has now grown to about 3,000 attendees ranging from students to working professionals, including those from eight other countries.
This year’s conference began on 7 December and will go until 9 December. It will witness around 2,000 women students–over and above the 3,000 attendees—thronging to the venue in Bengaluru to interact with companies and distribute resumes to those that catch their attention. That compares with about 1,200 student participants last year.
While the growth in participants is indicative that awareness about gender equality in the workforce has grown, India still has roadblocks that are unique to it when compared with the developed world.
“Our challenge would be to make sure that the Indian market recognizes diversity and inclusion in the same way as the West," said Geetha Kannan, managing director of the ABI in India which conducts the conference.
“Global companies like Google are easier to talk to because it’s already on their agenda. One challenge we would be working on in future is to ensure that we’re spreading that word and making sure other companies, even the start-ups, are thinking of this and putting it on their agenda," Kannan added.
While the Hoppers, as the conferences are popularly known, have seen increased interest from Indian multinationals too, there has only been a very marginal improvement so far.
“There is a small shift and I think the needle is moving but very, very, very slowly because it’s a lot of different things. It’s social, cultural, unconscious bias–everything together has to be solved. It’s not just a question of getting the women together and putting them there," said Kannan.
The Indian family system – of at least three generations living together under one roof–in a way acts as a huge support for working mothers. It allows them to leave their children at home and focus on their careers instead.
With families now becoming more nuclear, though, that support system is also becoming harder to find. As that continues it will throw up additional difficulties for companies when it comes to retaining women employees, at least until there is a significant change in society and women aren’t branded as ‘bad mothers’ for using daycare centres.
But that kind of a mindset change could be generations away. “The pressure of bringing up your kids yourself and not leaving them at daycare was there in the US too. We used to shame each other," said Nora Denzel, an independent director on boards of Ericsson and Advanced Micro Devices Inc, gesturing towards fellow conference speaker Cynthia Stoddard, chief information officer at Adobe Systems Inc.
“We tried to shame each other but now the younger generation, it’s different. So it takes a generation or a few generations," Stoddard added.
It’s not all bad news. About 51% of entry-level jobs in the technology services sector went to women last year, a joint study by the National Association of Software and Service Cos (Nasscom) and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) found in March.
Between 40 and 50% of computer science graduates in India are women, which is significantly higher than the US which is about 18% said Telle Whitney, co-founder of Grace Hopper and CEO of ABI.
“There are more women entering the technology field (here). Having said that there’s less women in leadership roles in the technology industry. And so we don’t have those senior role models in India," she said.
Indeed, the same Nasscom and PwC survey found that women in technology still assume only a fraction of senior roles and the trend of women resigning is also at a higher rate than men as personal priorities change and hamper career growth.
While the number of women leaders have increased globally, it’s still mostly men in power so there is a system that prevents women from taking that one final step.
“I’ve been a fan of Hillary (Clinton) for a very long time and I really did think we’d have the first female president. But if you look at some of the news coverage of what (Donald) Trump has done and some of the things he’s said, if a woman had said those things, it would not have been forgiven. That’s just one example of how the system is much more forgiving of certain behaviours in men than women because they’re part of the power structure," said Whitney.