AnitaB.org Insights

Indian Women in Technology Face Unique Cultural Obstacles

By Geetha Kannan
Managing Director, AnitaB.org India

Most headlines about the gender gap in technology typically discuss U.S. companies, where the representation of women in technology — 23 percent — is dismally low. Compared to this, the situation in India, where 34 percent of India’s IT workforce is female, seems rosier.

The STEM education pipeline is also more diverse in India, where 57 percent of high-performing women study STEM fields in college, according to a 2013 McKinsey Report. In the U.S., that number is only 4 percent. But these relatively high numbers in India don’t tell the whole story.

Once these high-performing Indian women graduate and enter the workforce, nearly 50 percent of women in technology leave the employment pipeline at the junior to mid-level. This sharp drop off is unique across Asia, where 29 percent of junior to mid-level women leave.

Women in Technology Around the World Face Deep Cultural Forces

India’s high attrition rate can be traced back to many of the same issues that women face across the world — unconscious bias, stereotyping and the difficulty to find work-life balance. But other deeply ingrained cultural factors make it particularly difficult for Indian women to stay and thrive in the technology field.

Recently an Indian laundry detergent kicked off a conversation about these cultural challenges with their advertising campaign, In the video ad, a father watches his daughter juggle — literally and figuratively — her responsibilities around work, her marriage, children plus all the household chores. He reflects on this steadfast stereotype that Indian women must perfectly balance career, family and social responsibilities, and how he has perpetuated this stereotype in his own family.

This ad, which has more than 1 million views, captures the unique cultural challenges Indian women face (in and out of the tech industry).It’s this societal pressure to be the sole family caretaker while single handedly managing the home that prevents many Indian women from staying and thriving in technical roles. It’s true that women are underrepresented in technology all over the world – but the hurdles Indian women face are deeply tied to the social structure and expectations that are intrinsic to India’s culture.

Indian Women in Technology Perform a Complex Balancing Act

The pressure to conform to societal norms is hard to ignore in India. At AnitaB.org India, I routinely hear anecdotes from women technologists who, despite support from their husbands, face pressure to leave their jobs from their extended family. For many in India, the ideal woman is, first and foremost, a doting wife and mother.

She must also represent the family outside the home, especially at the countless religious and cultural functions that are omnipresent in Indian society. These responsibilities leave little time to develop and hone an ambitious career in technology. While women around the world juggle responsibilities at work and at home, Indian women must meet the expectations of an entire society.

And when women do earn a living through their career, this income is often discounted as non-essential. Many households have an unspoken rule that women cannot earn more than their husbands, a disparity reinforced by the fact that Indian women make nearly 29 percent less than their male counterparts in tech.

Building Relationships and Creating Opportunities Helps Increase Representation of Women in Technology

When seen through the lens of these deep cultural challenges, the landscape for Indian women technologists can seem tough. But there are plenty of hopeful opportunities for women as well.

For instance, in 2015, Grace Hopper Celebration India (GHCI) welcomed nearly 2,300 women technologists in Bangalore to learn and network with one another, hear from technology leaders across industry and academia and explore new career opportunities.

During the Women’s Entrepreneur Quest at GHCI 2016, six Indian women entrepreneurs with tech ventures were honored and chosen for an all-expenses paid trip to Silicon Valley for mentoring, networking and learning opportunities.

These are critical programs that will help women around the world break down stubborn societal and cultural barriers, and I’m proud of ABI’s efforts around this vision. To drive truly meaningful change and increase the representation of women in technical roles, we must continue this mission and create opportunities for everyone to contribute and thrive.