Gayatri Buragohain, India’s ACM-W Ambassador and a member of the ACM India Council, is an outspoken advocate for young women in India who are interested in technical careers but face an opportunity deficit due to legacy gender bias. Buragohain founded the nonprofit Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) in 2007, and for her advocacy and mentoring efforts was the recipient of the Anita Borg Institute’s Change Agent Award for 2010.
Based in New Delhi, Buragohain not only focuses on providing local women with real-world technical training and vocational guidance through FAT, but also leads Joint Leap Technologies, a technology consulting and development firm that works closely with FAT and serves as its primary financial donor.
Buragohain is invited regularly to conferences, seminars, and other events to talk about issues ranging from technology education to the representation of women in leadership positions. She talked with Communications of the ACM about what motivates her and the issues she faces in her efforts to foster gender parity in the workplace and equal opportunities for young women interested in technical careers.
How did you come to be interested in a career in technology?
I come from a small town and a middle-class family in India. Thirteen years back, when I finished school, kids my age used to have only two options for a career: doctor or engineer. I did not want to be a doctor, so I ended up getting into engineering school. It sounds funny, but it’s the truth. Back then, that was the craze. Everyone wanted their kids to be either a doctor or an engineer. And getting into either field used to be very competitive. However, after getting my degree, it was very tough to get a job in my native place, Assam. Even though I had a degree in electronics and telecommunications, I had to work for a call center, and then I got into Web development to earn money. Somehow, I got hooked on Web technologies.
Was there a particular point in your career when you began to feel a sense of urgency about women’s issues and, in particular, about women’s role in the world of technology?
Yes. Although I was a born feminist, and always worried about the injustice and inequality toward women as I saw it happen around me, I did not quite know what I could do about it. After I moved to Delhi, I started working at a women’s rights organization as their network support and Web administrator. In this position, I got to meet many women and discuss women’s rights issues with them. That’s when I realized the gap between women’s empowerment and technology, and that most women are unaware of and disconnected from technology. Even progressive women’s rights organizations were not thinking about the latest challenges created for women by technology or how technology can be used to empower women further, or how women’s participation in technology is badly needed. That’s when I felt an urgency and decided to quit my job to start FAT.
You’ve written about how there cannot be equality unless we consider the use of technology in our everyday lives. Do you mean by this that you see gender bias in technical products themselves or in how technology is marketed and consumed?
Both. The whole domain of technology is presently catering to men. And yes, the caterers are also men. Women form just a tiny fraction of the technology makers, but a huge part of the technology users. I often give this simple analogy to explain the situation. If a male tailor is told to make a garment, by default he will make something that he would wear. Now if that garment is sold as a unisex garment, will it fit everyone well? Also, the marketing of technical products is so sexist and offensive that most women will not be inclined to look at the product just because of the way it is marketed.
You’ve also written about how indirect discrimination is not nearly as obvious as overt violence against women but can be just as detrimental to women. Can you elaborate on what you mean by indirect discrimination, and how the work you’re doing with FAT may help counter it?
I would like to give the simple example from a friend who works for a well-known multinational corporation. When I asked her if she has ever felt any gender discrimination in her workplace, she readily told me that she actually felt more privileged as a woman. When a man makes a silly mistake in his code, not only does the manager yell at him and make him work late hours until he gets the code right, but also his coworkers may even ridicule him. When a woman makes similar mistakes, she is not yelled at. Quite often the manager asks someone else to take over so she does not have to work late hours to find her mistake.
While my friend felt that this means the manager is nice to women team members, it also means that this nice behavior comes with a huge loss of credibility in doing good work, with the result being no proper feedback or a chance to correct the mistake. The reaction to the male team member’s mistake is also discrimination and not correct, but still it comes with the opportunity to learn from the mistake. This doesn’t mean the manager should shout at the woman as well and make her work late to find her fault. We need gender equality and equal opportunities in workplaces—which means policies and practices that respect human rights for both men and women equally, and that work well for both.
In certain situations, a female employee may need some special consideration because she is a woman. We need to be gender-sensitive, not gender-blind. Similarly, making sexist remarks about other women in front of female colleagues, or sharing uncomfortable jokes, or not including a female colleague in a discussion, even though the exclusion may be unintentional, are all discriminatory. They discourage women in male-dominated work spheres and may make women feel like they do not belong there.
The fact that there are fewer women in technology has nothing to do with women’s technical ability. One hundred years ago, women were not allowed to work in industries and study technology. That has resulted in making the technical workforce male-dominated. But today, as women are coming into the field, it has become so male-oriented that women don’t feel welcome.
At FAT, we are trying to raise the awareness about this situation and find ways to improve it. Unlike in the U.S. and the U.K., in India there is no discussion related to women and technology. Only when we accept that there is a problem, will we be able to find the solutions.
You’ve been an outspoken advocate for educational policy changes as a way to dismantle legacy gender bias in India. Can you talk about a few educational policy changes that you hope to see implemented in the coming years? What sort of impact do you see these changes having in the near term and in the long term?
School textbooks should have illustrations, photos, and text that break gender stereotypes, not reinforce them. Even today in many schools, girls are encouraged to learn cooking and embroidery while boys are encouraged to learn electrical work and carpentry. Even though the classes are not marked as for boys or for girls only, this division in the class happens by default, due to general perceptions. It should be the teachers’ responsibility to break such perceptions and ensure that both boys and girls take technical classes. Gender sensitization of teachers in urgently required.
Computer education is not enough. All students should be given the opportunity to learn basic day-to-day technical work. While boys usually learn at home or from friends, girls do not get a chance to learn basic electrical work or mechanical work. Unless they don’t see how interesting it is, they will never have the opportunity to choose whether they want to learn it. In the short term, these changes may be challenging, but in the long run they will definitely change perceptions of gender roles and inherent abilities. These changing perceptions not only will reduce gender disparity in technology but also will definitely result in a more gender-just society.
And in terms of leadership positions, what are your thoughts these days on achieving gender parity in the workplace? Do you believe changing corporate culture is possible in the near term?
When it comes to gender parity in the workplace in India, the reason for women’s dropout is more because of the status of women in Indian society rather than gender discrimination in the workplace. Although Indian society has gone through great transformations due to globalization, the status of women is still as the primary caretaker of the family.
Most women leave the workforce between the ages of 25 to 32—the prime age to grow in your career to reach a leadership position—because that is the age they get married and have kids. Many times, women also take a break from work because they have to take care of elders in the family. I feel that change in corporate culture alone is not going to change the situation much. There should be a change in the role of women in the family and hence equality within the family as well.
Corporate culture is changing, and it is possible to change it even further. Most companies are making efforts to retain their women employees. However, more efforts that keep in mind the lack of support by family and state are needed. Some suggestions would be child-care facilities, mentoring, flexible work hours, flexible leave policy, and so forth.
While there are some statistics available on the number of women working in IT in India, you’ve mentioned in the past that data is lacking. Can you talk about the latest statistics and what sort of research needs to be done to get a better handle on the issue?
The latest statistics available are from NASSCOM-Mercer’s 2009 Gender Inclusivity in India study, which has some data relevant to the IT industry. According to NASSCOM, 23% of the IT workforce is women. We need extensive studies across all technical sectors, not just in large corporations but in small and midsize businesses, government departments, educational institutions, and research institutions. To handle this issue more effectively, we need statistics on students as well. We also need research on which technical sectors have the fewest women and why.
In addition, we need details about what roles women play in each technical sector. Are they engineers, scientists, and researchers, or are they in training, testing, and marketing? We need to know how the skewed gender ratio in technical fields relates to societal beliefs, such as son preference, gender division of labor, and so on. Finally, we need research on women’s access to technical education. Having details about economic class, caste, and religion of the women in technology would be useful too.
As you work in your daily mentoring and advocacy efforts, are you encouraged by the current pace of change or does it feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle?
I do feel like I am fighting an uphill battle. Quite often we tend to be happy that there are so many working women now in India, and most of them seem to be working in the technology domain. That is why there is this perception that the Indian technology workforce has a lot of new age-empowered women. But when you probe more deeply into it, the percentage is still 23%, which means it’s actually not that great. Most of the women are not technology creators. And, most importantly, are they really empowered women?
The new age Indian woman is burdened by double responsibility—of being the caregiver of the family as well as earning for the family. She is still not there in that job for her personal growth or personal contribution to science and technology. That is why at some stage she definitely has to choose between her job and her family. We still do not see this issue as a women's rights issue.
Also, when we are talking about this, we are forgetting that India has a population of 1.3 billion, 48% of which are women. A majority of women do not have the option of choosing a technical education or a technical career. I would like to see research that gives me the percentage of women in India that do get access to technology education and technical work. I fear it may come to less than 10%.
What’s the most exciting thing happening now with FAT and Joint Leap Technologies?
FAT has just received its first grant. We are hiring for the first time. We are excited to soon have a small team in place that will carry forward our mission. This is the beginning of the organization, so it feels like finally we are in action. Joint Leap Technologies will continue to provide Web support to its clients and hence fundraise for FAT’s activities.
What advice do you have for young women interested in technical careers in India?
Be more informed about opportunities and be prepared to grab them. Don’t feel pressured to do what others do or what others expect you to do. If you feel like you want to make a career in technology, you have got what you need. All you need to do is chase your dream.
For More Information
Interested in following the efforts of Gayatri Buragohain in New Delhi? Visit http://fat-net.org.
Based in Los Angeles, Kirk L. Kroeker is a freelance editor and writer specializing in science and technology.