I’m the only woman in a tech design team of 3 in an Indian start-up. Previously I worked in a US-based global organisation, so I’ve got to experience both working styles, and they’re very different. Women make up around 1 in 5 tech sector employees in India and when I speak to my female friends and colleagues working in tech, there are positives and negatives, as in any industry.
At the recruitment stage, men and women seem to be treated equally. The focus is on ability rather than gender. In fact, there are female-focused recruitment drives nowadays, encouraging women who’ve had time off, usually to have children, to get back into work. So, this is a very good thing.
After completing my Bachelor’s in Technology, I joined an American Multi-National Corporation (MNC) in their Indian IT operations as an Associate Consultant. This involved interacting with clients and gathering their requirements, which led me to focus on user-friendliness, then to learn about user experience and user interface, and now I design apps and websites.
Skills-based versus requirements-based
When I first went into tech for the American-owned MNC, I was a fresh graduate and very nervous because I was stepping into a new phase of my life. My friends and I joined various different companies where in interviews we were told a different story to what actual work life was like. For instance, we were told we’d be working on development, and then we were put into testing or some other function that we were not interested in. Wherever there was a requirement, we were deployed there, regardless of whether we liked it or not. We had to do what we were told.
On a positive note, the interactions between team members was really good and managers were supportive. Everyone was encouraged to share their different ideas, which meant we learned from each other, which was really good. Apart from work, we were given an opportunity to do volunteer projects, which I enjoyed a lot.
Despite the great work culture, I didn’t want to code. I wanted to specialise in and explore design, so I joined an Indian start-up, hoping that I’d be able to focus exclusively on design.
When I studied engineering, there were multiple courses in our curriculum that were taught like IoT, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and various different languages and technologies. There was a wide curriculum, so we could figure out what we really liked and pursue a career in the field that interested us.
In India, we have this college hiring system, so when you’re graduating companies come to your college, and we don’t need to look for jobs outside. We sit for all the companies where the job description interests us and hope to get shortlisted. And then later, when we join, we find out the reality.
Although I was interested in data science, they put me in testing. So, I was just doing manual testing. This was very disappointing, and I couldn’t really do anything about it. I needed a job, and I couldn’t just leave until I found a new one. I didn’t get to work on what I liked. Instead, I was forced to work on whatever was being assigned to me, based on open positions and requirements.
I have many friends who are doing their Masters in the US and in other places abroad. When I tell my friends what it’s like here in India, they tell me that in other countries, if you’re interested in something, they will put you to work on that. They hire you based on your skills and not based on requirements.
Gender-blind hiring versus, ‘men only need apply’
Of course, this is the same in India for everyone, regardless of gender. Where I’ve seen a different approach to women and men is in hiring. Western MNCs are different from Indian companies in terms of hiring. They base hiring decisions on performance in a gender-blind manner, while I’ve seen Indian companies come to a college and look specifically for male candidates. I’ve seen this, and so have many of my friends.
There are legal restrictions for MNCs, but smaller Indian companies have different policies. They’d openly say, “We just want men.”
Generally what people in India think is that women are likely to go for maternity leave. Even if you hire them, maybe they would stay for a few months, then they would take a nine month leave or even one year leave. So, during that time the company would need to pay them and get a new resource in. That’s what we think holds Indian SMEs back from giving us work offers. In India there’s no such law forbidding this, like there is abroad.
Another situation that women face is harassment at work. One of my friends faced a harassment type situation with her boss who was ‘over-friendly’, and it was in an Indian company. He was telling her to meet him outside of work, and she was very scared and left the organisation. She told me after she left, which is really terrible as not calling out this behaviour means the boss can do something similar with the next female employee.
I have noticed that it’s customary for women to never speak out. So even in my company, there are many girls who never
want to speak out. Not just in extreme situations like harassment, but if they’re sick, not comfortable with the work they’re doing, want to develop a new skill or they’re looking to change career direction. There always seems to be something holding them back. Women are scared of talking about anything that may sound like a complaint. They get trapped in thinking about all the possible negative outcomes. For instance, a fear of getting released from a project holds them back from speaking up for themselves. Women are scared of talking face to face and are much more comfortable texting or sending emails. I’ve noticed this.
Personally, I’ve learnt to feel comfortable speaking up for myself because my female manager encouraged me to. At first, I also felt nervous and fell into the ‘what if?’ over-thinking mindset.
Work life balance and mental health
Another thing I really feel is not good in India is work life balance, and it affects men and women equally. Before COVID, it was a lot better, but during COVID companies felt that as we were working from home and there’s no travelling, they could take advantage. You’re sitting there from 9am, and it gets extended, so you’re doing late nights till 11pm or 12am, and this was affecting people’s mental health. In COVID there were so many people who were facing mental health issues with all the screen time, they were consulting different doctors, and it was really bad. I saw many of my friends have too much work pressure which resulted them becoming obese, overeating, getting stressed and eventually falling sick.
In terms of what it’s like in the workplace for women, it really is company specific. Amongst ourselves, women will talk about what it’s like to work in different companies, so reputation is very important. In the American company I worked for, my female boss encouraged all of us to be ambitious and become managers if we wanted to. She was great and thanks to her we challenged the false stereotype that only men can be managers. She encouraged us to show that we’re good at Technology. She motivated us with good hikes, good promotions and it was a very equal workplace culture and very performance based.
So overall, it’s very company dependent, but patterns emerge. The American company was better in terms of company culture and being treated equally as a woman, but I joined the Indian start-up to advance my career in design, and not get assigned to other tasks, etc as happens in an MNC in India.
In the Indian start-up, even though I’m focusing solely on design, as a woman you feel less supported. Supposing April is the month when the company’s supposed to give you a pay hike, if they’re concerned that you might take maternity leave, they wouldn’t give you a hike. They would probably prefer giving men hikes.
These companies are generally start-ups. They aren’t very well established, with very few employees. So, they have very different policies, and there are many companies who do not even give you your salary on time. I have seen so many people experience that. People post out on LinkedIn about how frustrated and mentally affected they are by not getting salaries on time. They try reaching out to HR by sending multiple emails but feel extremely saddened not to hear back from them. When they finally eventually get a response from HR four months later, without even an apology, it’s a case of, “sorry, but we will not be able to give you this month’s salary,” or “we regret to inform you that your employment is officially terminated.”
Another issue women in India face relates to social pressures outside of the workplace. For instance, many of my Muslim friends were able to study but then weren’t allowed to get a job. Obviously, they weren’t happy after spending 4 years studying to be forcefully told to get married and become housewives.
Financial security is one of the reasons people prefer working for global companies. First of all, you have that brand on your CV. You know you have a secure job, and you know that the company is unlikely to shut in just a day or two. You never know what the true financial status is with start-ups. Start-ups might pay you really well but job security is quite uncertain. Even Netflix is firing a lot of people right now and it’s not like Netflix is a small company. You cannot rely on start-ups as secure employers, but you get to learn a lot in them. In a large company, I’d require a minimum 1-year experience to enter as a product designer, so I had to join a start-up.
My advice to other women
I’d heard so many stories about start-ups, but I’d never experienced one myself, so I wanted to find out for myself. The start-up that I’m working in is amazing. As is the case in our industry, it’s around 80% men and 20% women, but everyone is given equal opportunities and the ability to speak up.
My advice to women in IT in India? Go for it! Explore your opportunities and never let your gender hold you back. Speak up, and that includes if you suffer any harassment. Keeping quiet means harassment continues and becomes ‘normalised’ when really we need to eradicate it from the workplace. Legislation and policies are in place to protect us and promote us. If you’re in a workplace where that’s not the case, speak up then move on.
For me, I’ll probably build up my experience in start-ups, then go for a position in a MNC where I can focus on design, as I’ll be a specialist and not deployed according to requirements. Also, I’ll want to work in a company where I can get the chance to work abroad. My generation has opportunities that the previous generation of women didn’t have, and I thoroughly intend to take advantage!