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Monday, February 25, 2002
Lead Article

For women, information technology doesn’t click
Nalin K. Rai

ILLUSTRATIONS BY GAURAV SOODFARAH was one of the rising stars of an IT company based in Delhi. She was involved in deciding the future course of the company. The annual promotions were due and she was sure that she would be co-opted into senior a managerial position and the IT industry had succeeded in breaking the gender barrier. But that was not to be. On the day of her promotion, she was sidelined and a junior promoted to the senior managerial cadre.

Farah was dumbstruck. She had hit the glass ceiling. A reality check was undertaken and she found that being a woman and perceivably inhibited by the fact that she could not be mobile to the extent that a male candidate could be, her claim was overlooked. This is what may be termed "eroticisation of the male dominance" by psychologists, which is a big barrier in career progression for women.


The advent of information technology had meant that this would be one area where gender-based discrimination would be given the go-by and technical expertise would be the criterion for career progression. The ground realities, however, are in stark contrast.

Nina ChatrathNina Chatrath
Vice-President, QAI India Ltd.

Has being a woman been a positive or a negative factor in your professional life?

In most ways it has been a very positive factor, but I would confess that in certain ways it has been a negative factor. But the positive far outweighs the negative, thus in a larger framework being a woman has been a positive factor.

What accounts for the fact that there are such few women in top positions in the IT industry?

I would say that this area requires large amounts of analytical and logical skills. Women are perceived not to be too strong in these areas. Thus, I feel, it is a pre-emptive decision of sorts in which by choice woman have stayed away from making IT their profession of choice. Also because of the pace of technology, dynamics of the business change at a very rapid pace, and woman are not so comfortable with changes of the roller coaster kind. They are more comfortable excelling in the traditional industries.

Do you feel there is a glass ceiling for women in the IT sector?

No. I would not say that. There has been a perceptible shift in the area of acquisition of skills in women and, thus, any barriers can be overcome. Also, there cannot be a glass ceiling in a particular sector that is gender-based.

How can companies encourage women to excel professionally in a proactive manner?

Encouragement can be provided by progressive companies, wherein the inherent skills of women are built upon. This can very effectively be done in a proactive manner. To excel in any field, certain inputs are required from companies, which are applicable to both men and women equally. If the companies are progressive, they will have commitment towards thr development of their human resources. — TNS

A survey conducted in the USA found out that three out of every five women currently employed in the IT sector, if a chance is provided to them, would switch career because of the glass ceiling that blocks their rise. The glass ceiling that women face is because of the notion that seriousness is not found in them to the degree required to pursue IT careers on a long-term basis.

While the roll call of leading IT professionals is studded with male performers, can anyone quote more than a painfully few women IT professionals who may have made a mark at the national level. Among the few successful professionals, who could be counted on fingertips, would be Caroline Fiorina, who rose to become CEO of Hewlett Packard worldwide. Other such examples are not even visible on the horizon, though they may be present in great numbers at lower rungs.

Cultural attitudes about women can at best be summed up in a quote offered by the chairman of one of the leading IT education companies on the eve of its 20th anniversary. He had reportedly said that those women who pursued a particular professional IT degree course from the institution stood a better chance of finding a good husband with less amount of dowry!

A recent World Employment Report published from Geneva has also underlined that slowly, but surely, women are dropping out of the IT sector as a career choice; the number of women among the overall IT professionals has dropped to 20 per cent, as delineated in the report. The report is also anguished by the fact that IT as an industry is getting loaded with male professionals increasingly by the day.

The advent of the Internet was also thought to have opened new vistas for women. But this is what the report had to say about the usage of the Internet as well: Of the total users of the Internet in Europe, women have a miniscule presence of only 20 per cent, while the percentage for Russia stood at 19, Japan 18 and in Central East and other regions a mere 4 per cent.

"I truly hope that we are at the point now when everyone has figured out that accomplishments of women across industries demonstrates that there is no glass ceiling. — Carly Fiorina, CEO, Hewlett-Packard, in a statement issued through HP, 1999

Most people in senior executive positions have been mentored by someone within their organisation who has promoted them. Most senior executives are men, and men are still uncomfortable mentoring women. Overall, people tend to befriend people who are like them. But it's more deeply rooted than workplace [dynamics].

Traditionally women and minorities have not pursued education in computer science, engineering and math. That's because kids still don't get the broad picture of what it means to have a career in technology. They think you have to be a gee-whiz genius to be in the industry, when there's a wide spectrum of what you can do. We don't do a good enough job of explaining that. — Sheila Talton, founder of Unisource Networking Services, a Chicago-based telecommunications and networking consulting firm, in interview to cio.com."

The report further adds that post advent information technology, though quantitative job offers have increased for women, they are primarily employed in less remunerative positions like cashier, data entry operators, etc. Men are in an advantageous position, working as they are in software development and devising new applications that could generate new business models, and new vistas of revenue.

The IT industry has not been able to provide qualitative jobs to women as it works on the close-knit college fraternity culture, which is male-dominated. Wherever women have attained higher positions it is due to their association with college fraternity in one way or the other.

Is IT not amenable to the natural demeanour of a woman? IT professionals opine that while a male can keep on serenading to a PC throughout the day, a woman IT professional cannot do the same. To succeed in IT, a PC has to be cultivated as a bum-chum, which most of the women professionals are unable to do.

Has this got something to do with the fact that majority of the women working in an office environment need someone to talk to, to smile and interact? It is said that as a natural corollary of this, women workers in information technology are in the kind of jobs whose key ingredient is external interaction. The possible explanation for this may be found in the natural communication skills that woman generally are bestowed with as also the natural inclination among women professionals to be in the action field, interacting with the customers.

This natural affinity to be where the action is, and not behind the PC—that is shying away from the technical requirement of IT jobs—conveys the impression to the management that they are disinclined to contribute in the development core competitiveness in technology and this could be the reason why lesser number of women IT professionals are to be found in the higher spectrum, says Osama Manzar, CEO of 3c plus.com, an IT solution company based at Delhi.

Ajay Singh, vice-president of Magic Software, an IT software company based in Delhi, believes that IT being a very demanding career for a woman to be on a par with her male counterparts, she needs to develop allied interests akin to her male colleagues, like playing golf and showing an interest in the stock market.

Senior management functionaries always have the desire to see that those they promote to get into their own shoes have the same interests as them so that the management functioning is a smooth process.

While the woman is in an advantageous position, as she possesses a heady combination of empathy and collaboration, what is needed is to develop an attitude to compete in a man’s world with a man, and to derive stimulation from this competition.

The orientation of IT companies also needs to change vis-à-vis woman and motherhood, and it needs to get out of the vortex of being an age conscious industry. What is urgently needed is to cultivate paradigm shifts of the male dominance and incorporation of the concept that a gender is not an inhibitive factor for exclusion claim. Power that flows from the veins of a man or a woman is not gender-based, but works as change agent, neutral of gender.


Padmaja KrishnanPadmaja Krishnan
Vice-President, Corporate Planning & Strategic Initiatives, HCL Perot Systems

Has being a woman been a positive or a negative factor in your professional life?

Being a woman has not particularly been an advantage or a disadvantage. What really matters is performance, track record of achievements, capability and merit.

What in your opinion accounts for the fact that there are such few women in top positions in the Silicon Valley?

Although the number of women at the top is small, I do believe there is a positive trend and the numbers are getting better. This is true of most industry segments, and IT is not an exception. It is partially true that many women would assign a higher priority to their family over their profession, although, increasingly many women are getting serious about their profession. Couples are taking a judicious view of a common problem and take a balanced decision, keeping in mind the professional commitments of both the partners. Women who are committed and are serious certainly need to perform exceptionally well to establish the fact that they are indeed committed to their profession to counter the general beliefs substantiated by some women who were less committed or to correct the pre-conceived notions and perceptions that exist about women workers. Women tend to get alienated as their numbers reduce, especially as they move up the corporate ladder. It is the right combination of the woman's capability and personality, along with the climate and corporate culture that prevails at the workplace, which would determine the probability of a competent woman being able to break the glass ceiling.

Do you feel that there is a glass ceiling for women in the IT sector, where only skills and expertise matter?

Glass ceilings do exist for any community that is in minority or needs to prove its real worth in most industries and in every part of the world. In this regard, IT as an industry or women as a category are not exceptions. As I said before, one has to be exceptionally good to be able to break that glass ceiling, as much as an emigrant to a new country, as a woman at workplace.

How can companies encourage women to excel professionally in a proactive manner?

There are many industries and kinds of work where proximity and physical presence is necessary in order to perform a given job. The IT sector, being a knowledge industry, can make use of remote work for many of its activities, especially with connectivity getting better.

If appropriate metrics and processes are in place, the productivity achieved could be far superior to what one can get during regular hours.

Recent research studies have predicted that beyond 2003, India may not be in a position to meet the global demand for IT resources, based on the current models of harnessing human resources. HR initiatives and policies to harness the latent human resources would certainly be of great advantage in times to come. I really do not believe in encouraging anything that would compromise the meritocracy of the work environment. In fact, most of the HR initiatives that would attract and retain women, be it a crèche or child-care arrangements or remote working or part-time employment, they would be attractive to men folk as well. The job description should be able to cope with such arrangements without compromising on end results. Also, some of these policies are very useful, particularly for tiding over a temporary phase or a problem of employees who are otherwise valuable to the company and need to be retained.

Many of my senior male colleagues have acknowledged that they prefer to have a senior lady manager, especially in key positions that involve people and client relationships or developmental activities, which are rather critical activities in the IT industry. The reason attributed is their natural ability and strength for dealing with such situations and a high degree of emotional quotient and ownership that are necessary to  make things succeed, apart  from  capability. — TNS