Vivek Wadhwa. (Vivek Wadhwa.)
Vivek Wadhwa.
(Vivek Wadhwa.)

Vivek Wadhwa: Going beyond quotas

The role of women in the IT industry, and how Indian companies can improve their gender statistics

Over the past year, issues of women in the workplace and in technology have been discussed at great length in Silicon Valley, US. Companies like Google, Apple, LinkedIn and Facebook made their gender data public for the first time. Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur-turned-academic who is affiliated to the Stanford, Duke and Singularity universities and has co-authored Innovating Women: The Changing Face Of Technology, has followed these trends and commented on the absence of women from leadership roles in technology companies.

Wadhwa found himself at the centre of controversy on the issue in 2013 because of a very public argument with Twitter chief executive officer (CEO) Dick Costolo, after he criticized the company for having no women on its board. In a phone interview from Stanford, Wadhwa spoke about women in technology in India, and why companies need to be criticized so things can change. Edited excepts:

You have called Silicon Valley a “frat party" and a “boys’ club". Would you use the same words for India’s information technology (IT) industry?

Actually, a year ago, I would say things in Silicon Valley and India were not very different. But, over the past year, things have changed quite dramatically in the Valley. There has been intense focus on the companies’ gender stats and their commitment to diversity issues. Indian companies haven’t had that level of criticism yet. They haven’t been embarrassed or pulled up enough on their data. It’s simple. Before you can plug the gap, you have to say it exists. The best way of fixing any problem is to start by admitting it exists, measuring it, and then taking positive actions.

In India, the IT and IT-enabled services (ITes) companies have better gender stats compared to, say, banking, with more than 25% women overall in the large companies, according to industry lobby Nasscom. Is there a positive in that at least?

The interesting thing about India is engineering and science education. India has a growing number of women engineering graduates, unlike the US, where the proportion of women studying computer science fell from 37% in 1987 to 17% in 2012. In India, the rising number of women engineers has ensured that the scenario is good at the lower ranks in IT companies. According to Nasscom, the IT services gender diversity (number of women in the workforce) ranges from 24-32%; in business process management, this is 34-42%; one million of India’s 3.1 million IT workforce is female; and women now represent 38-40% of entry-level recruits. It is also true though that these percentages drop sharply in the senior management of IT firms. The gap is much wider there. Still, Indian IT companies have a good chance of fixing the problem.

The new Companies Act, 2013, mandates that all listed companies, and entities with a minimum turnover of 300 crore, should have a woman director on the board. Do you think this can help fix the gender schism?

Of course, there is no doubt that when it comes to women on boards of companies, India does very poorly. The majority of publicly traded Indian companies—922 of 1,462—have no women on their boards. Women hold barely 5% of board seats in India in comparison with 17% in the US. But what I’ve seen often in India is that appointing women on boards becomes a compliance-only initiative. That is the problem with quotas anywhere. When you try and just fulfil a mandatory requirement, it becomes a tick-mark activity.

You have been critical of several companies in the US on gender diversity. But is there a company that has impressed you, one that you think others can learn from?

It takes a CEO to change a company. Human resources can have good intentions but without the CEO’s support and their active engagement, not much will get done. All the tech companies in the US that are really focusing on diversity have a CEO who believes in it personally, be it Facebook, Intel or Microsoft. Their diversity initiatives are driven right from the top. Actually, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is somebody I hope more Indian CEOs will learn from. The controversy that erupted over his remarks about women asking for a pay raise at an event in October was very transformative for Satya. He began addressing it at Microsoft’s executive council (EC) level. He has given his leadership team several measurable diversity goals and mandated that there must be not only equal pay for equal work, but also equal opportunity for equal work.

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