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Opinion and Editorial

Women in business are not damsels in distress

Shalini Verma (Real & Virtual)
Filed on December 1, 2019 | Last updated on December 1, 2019 at 06.59 pm

When evaluating a man or a woman for a tech role, focus should squarely be on performance and skills

Women in tech is the popular zeitgeist of today's corporate world. If a startup adopts 'women in tech' sobriquet, it is bound to catch the attention of investors. Especially in the Silicon Valley. This is because an unspoken misogynistic selection process has ensured the underrepresentation of women in the technology world. The industry is now trying to make amends.

While many top-50 lists are cheering on women in tech, it does not tell the real story. Don't just count the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer who are leading tech companies.

According to women in technology statistics 2019, only one in four jobs in the technology industry are held by women.

It is not widely known that women were among the pioneering programmers in the early part of the 20th century. But much before that, Ada Lovelace is credited with writing the first algorithm to be carried out by a machine in mid 19th century. She also happened to be the daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron. She had likely inherited her father's poetic sensibilities, which she combined with her own training in mathematics. This led her to envision computers with a larger role beyond mere calculations, quite unlike her peers like Charles Babbage who was focused only on the machine's capacity for number crunching. She called it the Analytical Engine.

Believe it or not, until World War II, computer programmes were largely written by women.

This was not surprising because up until then armies of women were hired in the US to do large scale math calculations. They had played the role of human computers during World War I when they were employed for calculating the trajectory of bombshells. In early 1920s, women continued to operate as human computers. While they played a pivotal role in technology evolution, their work went largely unnoticed, while their male bosses took all the limelight.

During World War II, Alan Turing's achievements in breaking the Nazi code is well known in the world of technology. But he had the crucial help of Joan Clarke, a mathematician who studied in Cambridge, but did not even graduate let alone be recognised for her contributions in the stunning code cracking. Only men were allowed to graduate at the time. They also took all the recognition.

Women's early robust relationship with technology could not be extended to the decades that followed. Fast forward to 1990s and 2000s, men completely dominated the computing world.

It is not as if women don't have an interest in technology. The study mentioned above shows that three out of four girls have an interest in science. But later women go on to fill only 20 per cent of the engineering graduate seats. Merely 11 per cent of these working engineers are women as the 'women in tech' funnel progressively becomes narrow. This is because nearly half drop off the job market when they have children. Faced with dwindling career prospects and a lack of support for parenting, they choose the latter.

We need more women in the technology industry. Not just that. We need women to actively participate in the entire technology value chain from creation, to evolution and sustenance. Why? Simply because diversity in software and hardware engineers brings richness of application, especially in the AI era.

Some companies who are trying to close the gender gap are doing it all wrong. They are at risk of vaulting to the other extreme. Meritocracy must not be placed at the altar of 'women in tech'. Don't just promote women for the sake of filling tech jobs. We need to create a fair system that will offer women a level playing field. Today the tech world is structured to exploit women. Women are paid 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.

Women don't need to be treated like damsels in distress who need rescuing. Women don't need an unfair advantage. They don't need a reserve quota - a crutch that insinuates that women are indeed unequal. If women don't deserve obstructions in their technology careers, they also don't deserve to have an easy ride. It is almost insulting that companies who in their zeal to improve the gender gap, promote women without giving due consideration to their contributions or credentials. Men with strong technical credentials must not be sidelined because fairness cannot be a zero-sum game. A fair system for one should not be unfair for another.

In the Hollywood movie Disclosure, the company boss Bob Garvin played by Donald Sutherland admits that all along he was trying to promote the best woman for the job. Instead he should have chosen the best person for the job. He still went on to choose a woman as the new Vice-President, but for the right reasons.

When we are evaluating a man or a woman for a tech role, we need to forget gender, and focus squarely on performance and skills. This would be the greatest service to women. Or else women will never be taken seriously for their professional and technical abilities.

When it comes to 'women in tech', the industry needs to tread carefully.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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