Year after year, hundreds of Indian women in tech come together at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It’s the largest gathering of women technologists in India, with talks from experts and industry leaders, a competition for women entrepreneurs (called Women’s Entrepreneur Quest, for which The Ladies Finger is an ecosystem partner) battling it out for prize money and training, amazing discussions and intense magic happening behind the scenes. This year, it’s on from December 2-4 in Bangalore, organised with the help of an army of largely female volunteers who work hard to put it all together.
For a better idea of what goes down at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, we spoke to Geetha Kannan, Managing Director of the Anita Borg Institute India (ABI), which produces the conference. Kannan has worked in diversity, sustainability, HR recruitment, HR operations, and leadership development for senior executives at companies like ANZ and Infosys, and brings a wealth of experience to promoting women in technology. We caught up with her to ask a few burning questions we had about ensuring gender equality, women in tech and the Grace Hopper Conference, about which we’re incredibly excited.
You’ve had over 20 years of experience in a range of fields – HR, marketing, sustainability, e-commerce, and you now work as Managing Director of the Anita Borg Institute where promoting women in tech is a full-time job. Do you still feel like you have something to learn in the field of gender equality in the workplace?
Having worked in the diversity space for the last 10-12 years, and having worked with organisations like NASSCOM in addition to regular organisations and not-for-profits, I’d say in a way, the diversity story and the questions we’re asking ourselves seem to be the same that we were asking a decade ago. But if you delve deeper into how [the diversity space] is evolving and why our trajectory isn’t quite the same as that of the West, I think that’s where the learning is really coming from. As children, when we go to school, because of our parental upbringing and so on, we are all geared towards thinking about the education we want to get, the colleges we should go to, and everything revolves around what I would call an educational identity. But nowhere in the Indian context have we been focusing on building a career. One thing that we learned from speaking to academicians and corporates is that a career identity is never put into a girl child’s head right at home. Creating that identity for girls is the base activity that’s needed as a point for take off.
Conversations with senior executives of different companies has highlighted the fact that there are three pieces to the puzzle. One is that thing we’ve heard dozens of times: that women need to be more aggressive, they need to be more amibitious, chase their dreams, ask for what they want…ask for raises, promotions and so on – that it depends on them as individuals. The second component is the ecosystem you’re in – whether you’re in academics or in the corporate world, you expect the organisational culture to have family-friendly policies, offer pick ups and drops, etc and be conducive to having women in the workplace. The third piece is society, over which we’ve been having a dialogue with everyone over the last 12 months, and this is where that difference between India and the West is more stark. For us community means everything – our standing in society is linked to our self-respect. So sometimes you’ll see that women – these are anecdotal stories – may enjoy their careers, their partners may be fine with it, their in-laws may be fine with it, but there’s so much community pressure that they have to give it up. Just a couple of days ago, we were talking to someone who used to work late shifts, who said people used to slyly ask her parents why she was coming home at 2am, and what was “really” going on. Unfortunately she felt she had to quit her job, not because her parents objected to it, but because she was getting tired of answering prying questions about what she was upto so late at night. Lessons on dealing with that kind of social pressure cannot be learned from the West, and that’s been one of the biggest eye-openers for us. The question is of how we make this not a program, but a movement.
When it comes to ensuring gender equality, what are the easier problems to get over, and what are the harder ones?
The easiest have been to simply recruit women. For some reason women really are attracted to taking up careers in computer science and technology so recruitment at the baseline is easy. Corporates have been successful in recruiting women at the entry level. But I think from a corporate perspective the challenge has been in retaining women, and recruiting at the middle and senior levels. From a diversity movement perspective, it’s the social aspect. We need to get into our DNA that there should be no difference between men and women in the workplace, though that’s easier said that done – we’re such a country of contrasts, where we worship Lakshmi but burn our daughters-in-law. But we aren’t asking for women to be prioritised in our workshops. We ask companies to frame policies that would apply equally to men and women. For example there may be men who want a career break to spend time with their families; what’s good for women will be good for men too.
Have your personal experiences in the workplace shaped your perspective on the work you do now? Was there a particular incident or moment of realization when the gender problem was driven home for you?
In my upbringing it was never pointed out that there was a difference between male and female, and I worked at an organisation like Infosys, which was growing so rapidly that I think they never bothered to find out whether we were male or female – “as long as we can grow”, right? But one of my key supporters and mentors in the organisation, he actually said that women used to complain to him as the head of producation at Infosys, pointing out that they couldn’t work late hours, and that they were being treated differently than the men. So he put together a team, which I was part of, to try and create a network where women could come together. We called it I-win. At that point, me being who I am, I did a lot of research – I spoke to people and organisations in the US that were customers of Infosys, like CISCO and BP, asking what they did to include women in their journeys, and that’s what got me hooked on the topic. It wasn’t a realisation I had, it was more other people showing me a small doorway that later opened up into a whole new world that I probably would never have seen otherwise.
Is convincing companies to implement policies that are more conducive to women’s participation in tech hard to do? Is there a fight back against what is perceived as women pushing to occupy a space that isn’t seen as rightfully theirs too?
I’ve seen that companies are generally amenable to doing everything that we can put down on paper. But I think the thing we all struggle with is – my two favourite words – unconscious bias. And that’s where the DNA change is necessary. The bias is so ingrained we don’t even know we’re thinking that way. Like Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Blink, you’re taking those decisions in the blink of an eye and that’s because you’re conditioned to think that way. That’s the hardest thing corporations have to deal with. When you have an unacknowledged bias in a company, it sets into the culture of the organisation and that becomes harder to change over time.
What is it like to be at the Grace Hopper Conference with hundreds of women in tech all in one place? What’s the best part of it?
Do you know how the conference is organised? First of all, the Grace Hopper Conference (named after Grace Hopper, who was a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy and a computer scientist – a true tech woman) was envisaged to bring women in technology together so they could have a forum for discussion. Over the years it’s become a conference where the latest trends in technology are shared. The entire conference is run by a set of volunteers – about 400 of them, mostly women, on the ground.
They have their day jobs, so they do this when they get the time. Rather, they make the time for it and make it all happen. At the apex level we have the advisory committee – women in fairly senior positions in different organisations who have been associated with Grace Hopper for some time, and they drive what the conference will be each year: they decide things like the theme (this year, it’s “Our time to Lead”) the kind of sessions to have, and trends in tech to focus on.
The events at the conference are divided into ‘tracks’, each of which has a chaiperson and a co-chair. Candidates apply and are interviewed for the post. They drive the thinking for their particular track.
Then, through social media, we put out a call for participants; we ask them to submit proposals for the session they want at the conference. The chairs of each track and their respective committees review each of these (there were 1,400 this year), and select around 40-50 of them, which will be presented.
There’s only one word to describe the Grace Hopper Conference when you come to it: it’s energy. It’s electric, and you have to come feel it to believe it. It’s not the buzz of women talking but the sheer enthusiasm they bring to the table. 2,200 women under one roof? Yeah, it’s exciting.
What’s the most fun thing you’ve done while at ABI India?
I probably shouldn’t say this but the most fun I’ve had was organising a conference when I didn’t know how to do it. When I joined in 2013, I had jumped in at the deep end, and it was decided that the conference wouldn’t take place that year if there was no one to take it up. My role was not to be a program director for a conference but to set up India operations and see how we could grow. But I didn’t want to see the conference canceled so I stepped in and said we’d handle it. Thanks to volunteers who came together to give me templates, lists of things I should do, people I should talk to, excel sheets with information from previous years, it all happened that year because of them.
It was the most fun thing I’d done, and the volunteers coming together was like the power of a wave that pulls you in when you’ve drifted in the ocean and draws you back onto the beach. And they do it year after year – working with volunteers like that is the best part of being at ABI.
In the years that you’ve been at ABI, have you drawn together a sense of what people come to the Grace Hopper Conference looking for? What do you think they get out of the conference?
Women come to the conference to connect with others – to network with their peers and meet people from different organisations. They also come looking for inspiration from role models at conference – women who are keynote speakers and so on, women who they aspire to be a certain number of years down the line. The other they come for – and which we try to provide in our sessions – is information and guidance that they can put to use in their own organisations, like input on how to manage their own careers or the latest practices in tech.
In your interactions with all the participants at the conference over the last couple, have you heard any crazy stories that you’d like to share?
We’ve got heartwarming stories – we had someone who once came to Grace Hopper when she was a student, on a student scholarship (we give students free passes to attend the conference, and take care of travel and accommodation – this year we’ve given out about 170 passess) the next year she came to us and got a job working at Google, and the year after that she came to the conference as an employee from Google! For her it was a moment of pride, as if she owned the conference and had built it herself.
Here’s another story, about Sangeeta Banerjee from Apartment Adda, who won our Women’s Entrepreneur Quest around three years ago. She had taken the prize money that we give out and put it in a bank deposit without touching it. She said she’d keep that money as backup for any contingencies, and it gave her the confidence to go ahead and scale her business with the money as a safety net.
Later, she wanted to pass on that same feeling of security to another woman entrepreneur, so she took our prize money and handed it over to someone else. The only condition was that instead of wanting to be paid back for it, Sangeeta wanted the money to be passed again to another woman entrepreneur. There are plenty of heartwarming stories, but that one’s my favourite.