Five Tips for the Indian Woman Techie – Rajani Seshadri

A couple of weeks back, James Damore, then a Google employee, wrote a now (in)famous email to his coworkers, about Google’s policies and practices on gender diversity.

While many people have commented on various aspects of the original memo, I wonder what lessons this has for us, a country where women are joining the tech workforce in large numbers.

Today, women form almost 50% of the class in Electrical, Electronics, Computer Engineering, Computer Science and Information Technology programs. We have several advantages over the west

  1. The Indian tech industry is open to hiring women
  2. Our families, especially our mothers, whether they worked or were home-makers, are supportive and value the importance of our careers
  3. Despite the stereotype, many Indian men do want their wives to have a career, especially in tech
  4. Indian Tech companies lead the way in gender diversity programs

Women form between 30-50% of the entry-level professionals in Indian tech companies.

What can we do to ensure that this pipeline remains healthy over time and women find it interesting, satisfying and rewarding to work in high technology areas?

I hope to write this as a three-part series to share my ideas on what can be done – by the individual, by industry and by academia (schools and colleges)

Here are five things I’ve learnt in my career of over 30 years in Electronics and IT Services.

Stay Immersed, Stay Invested

Academically, women continue to take the top places in graduate and under-graduate programs, as they do in high-school. It is important to continue the learning habit once we complete our education. Immersing oneself in a subject builds interest and as we ‘get it’, interest develops. This is the single best investment each of us can make. In my experience, women get caught up in several challenges and under-invest in continuous learning.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of the very few women in the area of Telecom Switching. It was a new subject for all of us, but I had a 4-year old child to raise, a home to manage and I had to find time to acquire expertise. It was also before Google and electronic tablets, which meant I carried books (heavy ones at that) and print copies of articles around, to read on the train, in buses and wherever else I could. In fact, I have been so immersed in reading at the bus-stop, that if my colleagues hadn’t shouted from the company bus, I’d have missed it. But all the reading and learning helped me to become one of the experts in the company.

Information is easier to access today than ever before. There are free and paid courses, webinars and tons of reading material available online to build awareness and expertise. We are limited only by our willingness to invest – time and money – in ourselves.

Each of us has to take personal responsibility to continue to learn – Every. Day.

Stay Relevant

Once you develop Subject Matter Expertise, don’t hide your light under a bushel. As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book, Lean-In – take a seat at the table (not along the wall of the conference room), volunteer an opinion, defend your position – let people know that you know your subject.

Every single person in that room is there to showcase themselves, so don’t wait for someone to solicit your opinion. Leaning-in and contributing will ensure that you are always on the invitee list.

It is difficult to speak up, especially when everyone else in the room is talking loudly, often over each other and without any blank air-time to allow for an interruption. I have seen people get their point in by speaking softer – the entire room goes quiet, to hear better. Preparing a set of bullet-points before the meeting can also help you get started.A coach can help you rehearse your points before the meeting.

Contribute to Technical and Industry Forumspost on LinkedIn – when you have published a technical piece on, say, ‘How IoT can influence Healthy Office Buildings’, most colleagues will automatically want to listen to your opinions on other areas – after all, you may have an idea!

Stay Connected

I was the Chairperson for the Indian Women Network (IWN), Tamil Nadu last year and have been involved with the organisation from the conceptualisation stage. IWN aspires to bring women professionals together to learn from each other – to gain a mentor and to mentor younger women. Our single biggest challenge has been to get women to attend ‘member meets’ – once a quarter.

Women believe that their work should speak for itself, but the body of work we produce is screaming, “Hey, give me some help here – talk about me” – we need to tell people – what we have accomplished, what we are doing, how the work matters to our employer and maybe society. Our immediate supervisors and our teams may know, but if we don’t bother to tell people, why should they do our work for us? They’ll talk about their achievements, not ours!

Please join IWN, IEEE, Computer Society of India, NASSCOM or a similar organisation, meet other women – mentor and be mentored. Talk about your achievements and experience.

While an Indra Nooyi or a Shikha Sharma may be aspirational role models, it is easier to relate to someone closer in age, background and experience.

Women are hungry for role models and you may be the one they can emulate!

If there is a party at work, do attend. Your partner and you can agree that you will attend your company’s events, while he spends time with family. I find that when a role requires networking, women believe that they’ll be out every evening.

Industry bodies rarely require more than two or three evenings a month. This means, in a year, you could have thirty opportunities to learn, network and consistently build your brand.

Do join in, enthusiastically, and make those evenings matter.

 Stay Organised 

Time Management is essential if all these have to be done for several years. I recently wrote a post on LinkedIn about time management being the key to work-life integration – so is, staying organised.

My life lesson is, “Where possible, outsource!!”.

We cannot outsource being a good daughter, wife, mother, sister, friend – but we can outsource housekeeping, laundry, cooking and cleaning. Making my kids’ beds doesn’t make me a great mother, but sitting with them while they eat breakfast or helping them with homework gives us time to talk.

A weekly planner with 3 lists – a “Must Do”, “Ought to Do” and “Nice to Do” helps.

Plan your weekend, as much as you plan your week – whether it is Online grocery shopping, planning weekly menus, wardrobe planning for the week ahead – all make for a busy weekend, but help during the week when work crises erupt with zero warning.

If you would like just ‘down-time’, plan that as well.

Do build a group of like-minded women, with whom you can swap tips.

I used to cook all day Saturday and freeze food, as my son’s school was closed on Thursdays and Sundays in Mumbai. I had an advantage, that I recognised and used – power rarely failed in Mumbai and food didn’t spoil. While this worked for me, it may not be right for you – each of us has to find ways that work for us.

Stay Determined

When my younger colleagues ask me how I managed work and family, I wonder what they’re talking about. Granted I had a fantastic support system at home, but I also did all the things I have talked about here. I also showed up for work every day and never refused an opportunity I was offered. I have done roles in programming, design, project management, software process management and have run a business.

When I took a year-long sabbatical after working without a break for 25 years, I trained to become an Executive Coach, which is now a satisfying and rewarding career and plays an important part in shaping future leaders.

Damore didn’t get it quite right – biology is a factor, but it is because women generally subordinate their careers at multiple points in their lives – we’re still the trailing spouses who move cities to accommodate our husband’s careers. Child-bearing, raising children and elder-care fall to women. We need to plan for and around these, rather than give up on our careers.

Critical to Success is not giving up your job – do take long leave if your company offers the option.

It is much easier to return to an organisation that knows your capabilities and where you know the environment and people, than to start job-hunting after a break.

And if you are taking a break, stay connected with colleagues on social media and continue to Stay Invested in learning.

If you must give up your job, fix a date by which you’ll return to work and plan accordingly. There are several companies that hire women who have taken a break and others (for example, Avatar Career Creators) that help women to return to the workforce

The key is to not drift away from the workforce.

So, there is a lot that a woman techie in India can do –

Stay Immersed and Invested in building your expertise,
Stay Relevant by showcasing your competence,
Stay Connected to mentors and peers,
plan your time by Staying Organised
and above all,
Stay Determined to never, ever quit the workforce

Rememberwhen economists talk about the demographic dividend that is a driver for India’s growth story – you’re the superior half of that secret weapon.

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