I’m writing this in light of the countless questions I have received from young men and women alike who ask me why there are so many women in tech scholarships and opportunities. And if we still need them.
To be able to answer this, let me take a step back and set the context.
What is happening in reality?
Below is an interactive map by the World Bank on India’s Female Labour Participation. As of 2019, hardly 20% of women participate in the workforce.
This is called the leaky pipeline. What’s happening is that women are dropping out of their careers at various points of their lives.
If we look at the journey of a woman in her life/career, this is what it potentially looks like. I’m segmenting this based on career levels and age-groups. For each category, you can see the challenges these women face.
Challenges explained: From a woman’s perspective
Let’s look at a few challenges – I’m not saying this is applicable for everyone, but it is for most women.
Young girls are not allowed to explore on their own in most cases. Conservative families make it difficult even for these young girls in colleges to travel and explore their career interests!
By the time these young women hit their 20s, talks of marriage start brewing. Well, they don’t have to get married immediately, but there’s often this ‘deadline’ that they have to get married by 24-25.
While in college, they lack guidance or awareness of what career options are available for them. In specific cases of STEM, they sometimes lack role models who are relatable because there are only a few women in tech and even fewer in leadership roles.
So these women tend to pursue the opportunities they are aware at the time of graduation. They get started with work. Even before they figure out their own personal identity and ambitions, they go from single to double. Data says the average age for women getting married in India, is 19.2.
But then, let’s assume our lady gets married by 25 typically. What follows?
Before the age of 30 women typically have 1-2 kids. Bearing each child would mean going through a pregnancy of 9 months and delivering the baby. Women usually take anywhere between 3-6 months off during their pregnancy depending on the complications involved.
Once the baby has indeed arrived in this world, she cannot return to work immediately. She still has to tend to her child for at least the next 3-6 months, and in some cases for a year before she can resume going to the office. So we are talking about being out of work for potentially 1 year or more for each kid she has.
The new mother has to deal with sleepless nights. If she does not have a supportive family or husband, she has to tend to household chores herself as well.
When she is finally ready to return to her job, she may have been pushed over for that promotion and out of touch from work. For her, getting to work after a career break becomes a hurdle.
If she quit her job during her maternity, she would have to now find new opportunities and even start at a junior level!
As her kid(s) grow up, her responsibilities increase – she now has additional dependents who might not even understand what they are told to do and why. Sending them to school, ensuring they are healthy and eating well and most importantly, safe and sound become some of her top priorities.
If she does not have her partner who is willing to share this responsibility of taking care of her kids.. and if she does not have any other additional help from her parents/inlaws or nanny, she is pretty much doing all this herself.
In this process, she forgoes that promotion because that would not allow her to take care of her kids as well. She has to compromise ongoing to her kid’s PTA meetings and football matches to keep up with the work demand.
Truth is that a mom is guilty at all points
Am I doing justice to my kids vs am I doing justice to my work?
By the time her kids grow to become adults, she is in her 40s. Potentially behind in her career ladder compared to her peers. She eventually gives up on her hopes to get into the senior leadership or gets pushed over for promotions despite her hard work.
We are then left with a handful of women who try and fight multiple battles at home and workplace.. just so that they can have their own dreams and pursue them.
These are the women who make it to the top and they are hardly 12%.
Biases and Stereotypes
At every stage in a woman’s career, she is asked certain questions that men are seldom asked.
- What if you get married? How will that affect your work?
- So your parents/husband makes decisions for you?
- Do you have kids or plan to have?
- Can you travel for the job?
Gender-based stereotypes and biases at the workplace make it way harder for women to rise in their career.
Women are not invited/preferred to the ‘bro clubs‘ or informal parties where casual business talks and networking happens. This exclusion from informal networks can hurt her from bonding with her superiors and others.
Creepy colleagues make unwanted passes at her or even harass her – sexually, verbally or psychologically.
While these are only a few of the biases that are visible, there is also a whole gamut of challenges called ‘Unconscious biases’. This means that people tend to have a certain view about women that may not be true – For eg: If you see an unnamed resume with an impressive technical background, you may assume it is a man. If you wanted to pick a woman for a project that involves excessive travel, you may assume she is going to say no to it and hence reject her without even giving her the opportunity.
So are we lowering the bar for women?
Hell no. Women and Men and everyone else have to go through the same requirements to get through to a job or perform well in it.
Let me put it this way.. if there was a criterion that one needs 7/10 to clear an exam/promotion, we are not saying make it 3/10 for women, while men are at 7/10.
It should be 7/10 for all.
But all we are saying is, engage women in a remedial class of sorts to give the extra nudge so that they can get there. And women need remedial classes not because they don’t have the skill to get that mark through normal classes, but because of the structural disparities over the years that have ensured that they won’t.
This real-world remedial class is scholarships, mentorships and other initiatives dedicated to women so that they can compete at par with their peers.
What should be done to fix these challenges?
Now that you know what our large scale problem is from a data/economy perspective and what the challenges are from a woman’s perspective, let’s talk about what we can do ideally to help women stay and advance in the workforce.
She needs the right guidance, information, awareness and exposure to what kind of career opportunities lie ahead for her and how she can pursue those. What kind of skills does she need to build and how? Are her dreams ambitious yet realistic and how can she get there?
Information alone never helps! She still needs to believe that it is possible to pursue her ambitions. For that, she needs to see relatable role models who are like her and have accomplished similar goals. She needs to believe that she can do it too and it would take significant encouragement from the universe to help her get there.
Encouragement alone doesn’t stand. It’s important that her immediate support system – her partner, family, friends, managers and the organisation she works for – believes that she can do it and is willing to extend all possible support to ensure she does!
When the going gets tough, it is this support system that has to kick in to have her back, so that she continues to pursue her goals, while fulfilling other duties of being an employee, daughter, mother and wife.
Women-specific opportunities and initiatives
There are a number of women-specific initiatives these days. They range from scholarships, travel opportunities, skilling programs, back to work programs, mentorships and leadership development. There are also several women-specific communities.
How do these help?
Scholarships – These provide women with the financial freedom to continue their education and pursue their career interests. More importantly, this is validation for her, that she is capable of doing great things. This kind of validation in the early years, while in school and college can go a long way in boosting her confidence.
Exposure/Travel/Mentorship programs – All of these extend young women the opportunity to see a world outside. Especially for girls in college, travelling outside their city could be a big mountain to move. But when programs like the Google WTM Scholarship award women free travel to Singapore/Austalia/USA, they have support from a renowned organisation to venture outside and explore.
These programs that pair young women with mentors give them the belief that it is possible for them to be like these role models one day. Since a woman can best understand the troubles of another woman, these mentors become great sounding boards and friends to resolve even personal issues such as figuring out work-life after marriage/kids.
Back to work programs – Since women have to drop out of their careers for a variety of reasons as discussed, and since it gets difficult for her to upskill herself and get back into the industry after the break, these programs play a very important role to bridge the gap. They typically train these professionals and give them career opportunities within the organisation.
Women-specific communities – There are several such communities by leading organisations such as Lean In, Google etc that allow women to find and connect with their fellow women and seek help. When you are going through difficult times, knowing that there are others who are going through or have gone through similar challenges in the past can be a huge relief! These communities also go on to facilitate peer-to-peer support/mentorship.
How can you help?
So now coming back to our question – do we need women-specific initiatives?
You just saw for yourself – The world is well behind a 50-50 workplace. And don’t take my word for it. Read up and explore and see the countless number of news reports that call out this problem.
- Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in the Workforce – India (November 14, 2019).