How do you increase gender diversity in technology? This is the fundamental question that the Anita Borg Institute, a non-profit organization headquartered in the US with a presence in India, tries to solve. For the past five years, it has conducted an annual conference bringing together women in technology, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing India (GHCI), named after a computer scientist from America who developed the first compiler used for computer programming, and was responsible for COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages. The sixth edition of the conference is to be held from 2-4 December in Bengaluru and is expected to bring together 2,200 women technologists from around the country, the largest technical conference for women. Geetha Kannan, managing director, ABI India, spoke in an interview on the efforts being made at the student and professional levels to increase gender diversity and what ABI hopes to achieve. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about ABI and GHCI.

In today’s world, with the Internet of things, anything and everything that you touch will be technology-driven. If technology has to be written by people who mirror the society that it’s being done for, you have to have women in your team because then you’re catering to your market, and you’re doing better from a business perspective. The intent behind ABI was to create a network of women that they could fall back on when they face some kind of challenges in the tech world.

The GHCI is entirely a volunteer-run effort. We have an India council which serves as an advisory body with heads of organizations who have ideas about the market and push the ABI story forward by acting as ambassadors for us. We also have a Grace Hopper advisory committee of 12-13 members from different organizations, drawn from among people who have been associated with the Grace Hopper conference for a couple of years, who decide what tracks we should have and the theme for the conference. Our community at large then sends in submissions telling us what sort of sessions they’d like to see in each track and we have committee members to review each submission.

Do Indian women in tech face the same challenges as their western counterparts?

By and large we have the same family, work-life balance kind of issues that the West has but we have one big piece that sits right on our heads all the time, that is the societal piece which is not a major influencer in the West. We’ve got anecdotal references where the woman was allowed to work by the husband, it was okay by the in-laws that she worked, but all the pressures of the extended family forced her to stop working. That’s one piece I have no solution for but we’re hoping to make organizations aware and people aware.

We have a leaking pipeline where people drop off from the beginning itself. We went to a college far south and we had 2,000 women engineering students in a room and we were talking to them about ABI and Grace Hopper and we asked them how many of them would pursue, not a career, but a job after their studies, and seven of them raised their hands. This is just at the student level, then comes marriage and all the responsibilities ... they can’t hold on. We can stop that leaking pipeline only if the societal piece is solved.

How does ABI help students who want to build a career in technology?

We’re very strong from an educational identity perspective. All of us want to do our engineering or MBBS, but after that it fizzles out. We’ve figured out that many don’t have a career identity. So we’re saying that when you’re studying itself, form your career identity so that you won’t drop off the workforce. We provide a platform for people to explore and be inspired by different opportunities available. We also have a student career fair at the conference where you can come in and get exposed to many companies. There’s a poster competition that’s open for students and corporate women, but we reward the students with prizes to encourage them.

We have also started conducting regional women-only hackathons for students and corporate women to encourage networking and get them building products. A lot of women face difficulty in getting back to the workforce after taking a break.

What do you think can be done?

We have a programme called back to work. Our challenge is in getting more women to come, which seems very ridiculous in a way because usually the question is: “I want to come back to the workforce, how do I apply?". But today we have corporates who are very keen mainly because you’ve got a ready-made resource, plus the people who re-join the workforce have the ability to go faster in their career track and so you’ll get very senior women very quickly, but we don’t have too many women who are really willing to step up. They are very hesitant.

You lose a little bit of self-confidence when you’re not working anymore, so you come to the programme and we have workshops for you to build that confidence and see people who’ve dropped off and come back again. We also have tied up with our sponsors to look at these women. They offer part time jobs or job shares or something that will assist the women to manage their work-life balance. The programme is in its second year now, but only in Bengaluru. Next year we’re taking it to Delhi and Pune and try to get it across cities so that we can try to get more and more women.

What about women entrepreneurs? Do you take initiatives in that regard?

We have something called the Women Entrepreneur Quest, which is a business plan contest for start-ups led by women. Six finalists are taken on a week-long visit to Silicon Valley and go to eBay, Google and meet seasoned VCs (venture capitalists) for mentorship, and the winner gets a cash award of 500,000. The National Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Development Board of the department of science and technology sponsor the trip and stay, we organize the contest and structure the programme. This year we received about 150 applications.

We’re also planning to have something we call women entrepreneurs in motion where we want to create collaboration. We’re saying to organizations like Nasscom 10,000 start-ups, tie up with us and we’ll bring all the women entrepreneurs together in the tech space and lets all of us together as ecosystem partners come up with something. And we hope to have a year-long platform for these entrepreneurs.

What are the changes in policy that you think will make a difference?

The government did bring up that one person on the board policy, and did get people thinking about it but that’s just not enough. It has to be a bizarre number… it can’t be at least one person, it has to be like 50% of your board has to be women. Then, they will have to look for professional women… those kind of policies the European countries are following and those are the things we’ll have to give a lot of thought to. Even now when you’re talking a start-up fund, nobody’s really saying that of that start-up fund we will give 30% for women-led start-ups. There also needs to be some kind of due recognition from the government for organizations that do have diversity.

What do you think of policies for gender diversity globally? Has Indian firms done enough?

India Inc. is struggling because it’s just not enough to recruit. The whole retention is a climate and culture that you have to change in your organization. I was part of the Nasscom diversity committee a decade ago, and we spoke about the same thing then too. It’s changing, it’s not changing, so moving the needle is happening, but it’s barely perceptible to our eyes.

Each country has their own challenges and I don’t think anyone has really cracked the diversity story and my take is if you crack gender diversity then you can crack all other diversity. I don’t think there’s any other country other than Australia that’s really got it in their DNA and thinks like that.

With inputs by Dhanya Skariachan in Bengaluru.

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