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.