By Ashwini Asokan
As a woman in tech, I’ve been talked over at panels, had time limited so the superstars (read men) can have more time, and I’ve seen that happen to women in tech over and over again. And I think all this talk about manels (all-male panels, for the uninitiated) couldn’t have come at a better time.
There’s a massive start-up event on today and tomorrow called UnPluggd. It’s a sold-out event in Bangalore being attended by over 1000 founders and investors, and with plenty of speakers and panel discussions. Except that every one of those speakers is male. (In a week’s time, there’ll be another massive one by VC Circle.)
The original schedule for UnPluggd had 20 speakers, and included a panel on women in tech at the very end, which I was asked to moderate. I said yes, until I realised the all-male part of it. I’m friends with the founder of NextBigWhat, the tech start-up journal that’s hosting Unpluggd, so I told him what my deal was: he’d have to invite women speakers onto the panel. If he needed, I could give him a list of women he could contact. Or I’d be out.
Here’s the thing about posing a problem that has to do with gender – everyone gets very defensive. Men organizing panels do this thing where when you tell them to include more women, they say, oh but there aren’t any. And when you mention two names, they’ll jump to point out that they’re not really women in tech, they only run fashion websites. And then when you give them two more names of women who work in what they see as tech, they’ll say the women were too busy.
Then you’ll be told that 60 percent of the applications were open to all, but no women applied. Well, what about the 40 percent that were invited? Why were all of them male? The intentions of male organisers may not be misplaced, and many do want things to change. But there’s a lack of understanding when it comes to how deep the issue really is, and a lack of awareness about the representation of women.
Levelling the playing field, that’s my mantra.
I came back to Chennai from Silicon Valley two years ago, and it’s filled with the same crap – the nature of sexism in the Valley is ridiculous, and can be violent, like Gamergate showed. But there’s also a conversation about discrimination that’s happening there, within companies and in tech journalism, and there’s a systemic level of engagement that involves coders, gamers and people in allied activities to address the issue that women in tech face, along with a systemic process of mentorship and sponsorship. Not to mention stuff like provisions for daycare. They’re looking for solutions to this problem in the Valley, and these solutions are helpful.
Here in India, this isn’t a conversation we’re having enough. We already have issues with the ‘leaky pipeline’ for women in STEM, with not enough of a support system to help them stay on. We don’t have daycares, or rooms for nursing mothers. And we don’t seem to want women in tech, apparently because they might get pregnant – a few months ago, I was trolled on a Facebook page called Bangalore Start-ups by a bunch of guys moaning about it.
I’m the co-founder of a start-up that works in artificial intelligence. Two months after having my second child, I was back to travelling, looking for investors. I spent four-and-a-half-hours with an investor, after which I went into the next room to feed my child. He left soon after, saying, “I don’t believe that you can run a company with young children.” My husband is my co-founder, and I sometimes wonder if I didn’t also have his name on the emails I send out to people, whether they’d respond at all.
Organisations in India like the Anita Borg Institute and conferences like Grace Hopper Celebration are important. They provide space, a support system, and a place where women can grow. And simultaneously, it’s also really unfortunate that this is the case and mixed-gender settings become less likely. We need to find a way to keep increasing the activity in mixed-gender spaces while also maintaining the kind of camaraderie we need as women.
But most tech events just aren’t women-friendly. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with women who just don’t like to hang out at them. And I can’t tell you the number of times mentors have gotten on stage to say, “Don’t go finding girlfriends that don’t understand the amount of work that you’ll have to do.” The atmosphere at these big bro things is so weird, and your confidence takes a hit. Women don’t feel welcome at all.
There are several aspects that contribute to keeping a woman in tech – her life in an organisation, outside of it, and a number of other small steps along the way. We need to shake off our conditioning – it’s a fundamental reset that’s required.
All day today, [after I talked about this on Twitter] I’ve been told to think carefully about the solutions I propose. I’ve been mansplained to about how maintaining a list of women speakers has downsides, how levelling the playing field may not work, and many other aspects that are really just excuses for not having to think too hard about keeping women in tech.
But you know what?
Having a set list of women speakers is a great start! We don’t have any women being invited to panels at the moment.
In a start-up, everyone’s winging it. Anyone who says they aren’t, is bloody lying. In that kind of environment, when we bring up gender, suddenly everyone wants to be “rational” when arguing about how women in tech, and bring up the question of “fairness”.
In a tech world obsessed with a hack culture, why is hacking gender code alone a no-no?
Ashwini Asokan is co-founder at Mad Street Den, an AI & Computer Vision startup.
June 19, 2015 at 1:44 pm
theladiesfinger thank you so much for amplifying the voices here!
June 19, 2015 at 1:55 pm
AshOnIndia meddem, pleasure is ours only
June 20, 2015 at 3:12 am
Excellent piece, Ashwini. I saw enough of this problem when I lived and worked in Silicon Valley but, clearly, it is much worse in India.
I’d like to add a few suggestions for women who’d like to get on panels. After all, we also need to “lean in” a bit here. Let me know if you think these will work in India (I’ve only been here a few months and still trying to get my head around things):
1. Use Social Media: If you’re an expert on a topic, make sure that your Linkedin and Facebook profiles call these out specifically. Linkedin allows for keyword tagging, which will bring your profile up in search results. Oh, and make sure that you make your settings public enough so that people can see these without having to be connected to you. On Twitter, share articles with hashtag keywords.
2. Be Your Own PR Firm: Create a personal blog. It costs nothing these days. You don’t have to post daily. Even two paragraphs once a week on your topics of expertise is good enough. This will start bringing you up in search engine results. Again, make sure that you’re using the right keywords.
3. Reach Out to Event Organizers: In a time when there was no social media or blogging, I would just call up event organizers and let them know that I was available to talk on certain topics. Don’t cold-call, though. No one cares then. I used to connect with them during an event and then follow up with an email about how much I enjoyed talking with them and how I would be available to talk more on the topics we discussed. In the beginning, I’d even offer to be moderator. That way, I’d connect with other expert panelists and, once they knew that I knew my stuff, they’d suggest me for other panels they were invited to.
4. Watch Youtube Videos of Your Role Models: I enjoy watching TED Talk videos. But, I also enjoy watching women like Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Janet Yellen, Condi Rice, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Barkha Dutt (controversial as she may be), Sheryl Sandberg and many others on panels. Not only will you learn something about world affairs but you will pick up tips on presenting/discussing from these consummate women. I know there’s only a couple of Indian women on my list above. I wish there were more. I’m confident there will be.
5. Support and Encourage Other Women: This should be obvious enough but I find that a lot of women don’t send the ladder back down after they’ve done a bit of the hard climb up a bit themselves. Maybe they’re too busy thinking about the next challenge they need to deal with. I was guilty of this too. I wish, now, that with every panel I’d got invited on, I’d managed to encourage and support another one to get onto another panel. I did this on the odd occasion but not often enough. So, set yourself a goal: with every panel you succeed to get onto, you will pass it on to another deserving woman.
OK. I’ll stop now. 🙂
June 20, 2015 at 4:56 pm
Link in the last tweet via jimanish.
June 23, 2015 at 5:22 am
I am a woman and I work in STEM. Hear you when you highlight how hard it is for us folk and completely agree outreach and support could be better. However, I do believe conference speaker choices should gender agnostic and based on merit.
June 29, 2015 at 4:14 pm
jenny_bhatt Hi Jenny – just saw these suggestions. I couldn’t agree more! We have a meetup group for women in all tech related fields in Madras where we regularly talk about the importance of engaging with community and being socially active in some form. I don’t think women in Indian tech industry put enough content out there for folks to consume. We’re in fact having a content / digital marketing workshop in a week or so to cover just this.
Wonderful suggestions. Thank you!
June 29, 2015 at 4:19 pm
Karthika Narayann Yes quite a few folks have said that. IMO it’s going to take a while to get to the gender agnostic state because the playing field is not yet level. Yes reservation is not the answer to this in the long run. But right now, it’s so lopsided that I think we need to do as much outreach as role modeling through speaker choices. And that means going above and beyond to make sure there are a few mixed gender speakers. As for merit, it’s not like any of the usual suspects today make it on merit around to these events, they make it on star power & piggy backing on friends. That’s not to say we shouldn’t care about merit but just that it’s kind of a moot point anyway. And if we’re looking for male role models/speakers as star power, we might as well find the equivalent in the other genders.