“Women in tech”: what gives?

(Long post alert!)

The meme is old but the current phase may well have started with Tereza’s idea of starting an XX Combinator, an incubator for women entrepreneurs. New York based VC, Fred Wilson gave the idea wings on his blog. He was then quoted in a now-widely discussed Wall Street Journal article, in which Rachel Sklar criticised TechCrunch. That riled TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington who wrote a post arguing why women mustn’t blame men for their relatively scarce numbers in the tech entrepreneurs community. In my view, Arrington highlights a key point about women not putting themselves forward enough. It is borne out by many people’s experience, including people like Robert Scoble’s, who invite women and are open to approaches, but have seen few women turn up or promote themselves. A more specific – and actionable – point was made by Alan Patrick, who says that at the moment the low numbers of women may be a flowrate problem. Spoken like a true engineer, I say. Now before you point out that I have overwhelmingly quoted men’s point of view on the issue so far, here are some other views. From women. Cindy Gallop says nobody is blaming men, and that systemic solutions are needed. Jamelle Bouie writes “try harder” is not the answer, adding another voice to the chorus calling for systemic solutions.

So far so motherhood-and-apple-pie. Don’t we all know that systemic solutions are needed? We do. Don’t we all know that women are different from men – no implied normative labelling there – and therefore different approaches may be needed? We do. In all the widely read and most shared posts I cite above, we hear only three creative ideas: Scoble and Arrington asking women to come forward, and Tereza proposing an investment fund for women. I like Tereza’s idea, but as a minority myself, I am no fan of ghetto solutions or “specialist” offerings. I do not believe that positive discrimination of any kind helps women. Nor does positive discrimination or special dispensation of any kind help promote the cause of inclusiveness, going beyond gender segregation.

I also believe that “systemic solutions” have their place but can we really afford to sit around for another 25-30 years for these solutions to take effect? Calling for systemic solutions is also a get-out-of-jail-free card of sorts. Like the trolley problem, it makes it possible for us to distance ourselves from the myriad of moral dilemmas and the choices we make in our daily lives. What is needed is for us to take steps – in our families, in our neighbourhoods, in our communities – to ensure we capture the attention of young girls and attract them to science and maths for careers in science and technology.

Here’s my take on the issue. Most of it is borne out of my own experience as an engineer who diversified and has run her own business focusing on technology-led businesses for a decade now. All of the following requires us – who are upset by the state of “women in tech” – to make different decisions in our lives.

Agree on Definitions. And avoid self-limiting boundaries.

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”, said Socrates. Yes, another man, I note. One of the egregious things about this debate bubbling at the moment is that “women in tech” is mostly being narrowly interpreted as “women entrepreneurs who start companies, typically in the USA, and seek venture funding”. Isn’t that too limiting?

There are, for instance, numerous women biologists and with much innovation happening at the cusp of disciplines, physicists and engineers will find themselves working with these biologists with their special expertise. Are these not “women in tech”? An estimated 30% of engineers employed in India’s private sector are women. Granted not all of them start companies, but are they not “women in tech”? What about women leaders of science and technology driven businesses? Some, it may surprise you, did not have degrees in science at all. Are they not “women in tech”?

While the lament of women being relatively fewer in science and technology is not misplaced, the dimensions of that lament can be put in perspective, if we define “women in tech” more broadly. The broader perspective will also lend itself to more creative and wide-ranging possibilities for addressing the issue.

Oh, by way of some data, here are Fierce Biotech’s top 10 women in biotechnology – a “tech industry” that needs a solid grasp of science as well as of business cycles. The list does not include one of my picks for most inspiring women in tech: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder CEO of Biocon, an Indian biotech behemoth.

Eschew early gender stereotyping.

In the 18 years since I graduated from engineering, many of my friends have had children. I have had the chance to observe the children closely. With some stellar exceptions – and I have a working hypothesis for that, which I may write about another time  – most of my well-educated, professional friends have proceeded to imbue gender stereotypes in their children pretty early on. Girls are co-opted into baking, while boys are given errands including things like fixing their sisters’ bikes or polishing shoes. What’s wrong with baking? Well, nothing – I bake most weekends – since baking is a highly controlled chemistry experiment. But also one, where one pays a heavy price for tinkering and taking risks with the recipe. What has that got to do with girls in science? Well, research suggests that girls not being encouraged to tinker is directly linked to their not choosing science, maths and engineering subjects.

Now think of all the activities that are stereotypically considered “girlie” and “boy stuff”. Baking, cooking, sewing, knitting and most care duties, while allowing for some creativity, are not about tinkering. But computer games, opening and mending things, fixing bicycles, repairing fuses etc all require a lot of tinkering. Early gender stereotyping in bringing up girls does them no favours, if we are to address the “flowrate” problem of girls in science and technology.

What about my own experience? I didn’t tinker much as a child, but I was always allowed to be an apprentice to my father, who did tinker an awful lot. I learnt much by observing and then much more when I started living away from home at age 17. I have learnt to curb some of my desire to open things up but I can confidently say that I know intimately the insides of my car as well as my piano thanks to my fiddling and tinkering. I tinker with complex problems and issues in my mind longer than most people which may explain why I do not churn out posts on “hot topics” while they are hot!

Do we need role models? If yes, think laterally.

I started studying engineering in 1988. In India. About 18% of my class was made up of girls. Barring 3, who then proceeded to read for an MBA, all have remained in the workforce in “tech” careers in engineering, and in research and teaching. Most are in Silicon Valley, some are in India. Most studied for second and third degrees, many after their marriages, some while bringing up their children and managing their careers. Nearly all have children. On first glance, all odds were stacked against the emergence of this longitudinal pattern. But it is there for us to see.

I have never sought or cared for role models but if I had to pick, these women would be my role models. They remain committed to science and technology not only in their careers, but also take an open-minded approach to other pursuits they have undertaken in their lives. These, to me, are “women in tech”. Because they show how it is possible to be one. They can, and I have no doubt, do influence young girls around them positively.

For my part, I decided I wanted to be an engineer when I was about 8. I had, of course, been tinkering as an apprentice to my father. But more to the point, I followed the example of an older male cousin. He is everything I wanted, and still want, to be: an engineer, a sharp brain-box, a gifted cook, a whiz with a sewing machine (!), a talented musician. He now has two girls of his own – both are “women in tech” via engineering and medicine. One has recently started her own business in Canada. I find them inspiring and consider myself fortunate that I can mentor them and participate in their journeys.

Role models needn’t be far-away exotic characters about whom we read in magazines. They need to be picked from our lives. For their ability to show what is possible, and for their ability to mentor and guide young girls. The gender of the role model, I believe, is less important than what a young girl can learn from the role model.

Negotiate better to remove barriers in adult life, aka men and women need to cooperate.

I am not making this up. Women scientists do more housework than male scientists. But it is also true that male scientists regret limiting their parenthood choices than women scientists do. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research has found that at 40, 31% of men are childless. Her earlier research had found that 40% of successful women at 40 were childless. “So what?, I hear you ask. Well, perhaps women need to understand and respect that life for men in science and technology – and business – isn’t a bed of roses either. They make sacrifices too. In other words, there are some common pain points for men and women, and sustainable change can be better effected if solutions to these pain points are sought jointly.

For women already in the workplace, it is important to recognise that before we can negotiate harder and better deals for ourselves at work and outside our homes, we first need to negotiate better and fairer deals for ourselves at home. With the men in our lives. If we are lucky, we already have relationships and friendships based on common values. These relationships give us advice on and insight into complexities and motivations of people we meet in work situations.

In other words, women need to cooperate. With men. Women need sponsors and champions. To invest their time, money and social capital into our ideas. And to avoid the negative vibes that sometimes dominate women-only groups.

Accept that men and women are different. Life is better for it. Now let’s enable the choices these differences foster.

In a conversation with Alan Patrick (whom I mentioned earlier), I said to him: “Women have lives, men have jobs. Fact.” While I readily admit to the shade of hyperbole in that statement, it does contain much truth. Most women I know – including those in science and technology – seem to have rich lives. They have fulfilling, if sometimes challenging, work lives; they have relationships and families; they have rich social lives; they have outside interests such as culture or sport. Most men however have relatively simplified lives where work and weekends feature heavily. It is not because men don’t try. But my working hypothesis is that it is because men are worse victims of gender stereotyping than women are. It must be tiring for men to live up to these negative stereotypes.

May be to enhance the numbers of “women in tech”, we need to show them the possibility of a rich tapestry of careers. And we need to work to create structures – investment funds, mentoring programmes, whatever it takes – to enable such possibilities. These possibilities may not necessarily follow a set pattern but must allow for women’s different priorities. As life goes, women’s fertile years coincide with their early career years too. It makes sense, where possible, if women wish to start companies or businesses later in their lives, perhaps in their 30s or 40s.

I recognise that not all of these ideas will prove popular. But as a person who sees possibilities in cusps, confluences and convergences, I believe sustainable solutions to the “women in tech” problem will require us to take conscious, mindful, sometimes difficult decisions every day. For a long time. Now would be a good time to start.

Late edit: some excellent articles by women – and men – I found after publishing (I don’t have to agree with all I list below/ disagreement sharpens thinking!):

Stubbornella on Women in technology

Aparna on Empowerment begins at home

Jezebel on What do “where are the women” shitstorms achieve?

Leah Culver on Is there a gender divide in start-ups?

Jon Pincus gives some actionable advice to Arrington

JP Rangaswamy muses about inclusion in technology and discusses anchoring-and-framing

Rachel Sklar’s post on the current wave of the meme

Suzanne Lucas on taking responsibility

Geoff Livingston on mindfulness to find female speakers

Admirable women-in-technology: Ada Lovelace Day 2009

Today is Ada Lovelace Day 2009, an international day to celebrate women excelling in technology. “Who was Ada?”, you may well ask. The answer is here.

I signed a pledge to write today about a woman – or women –  in technology that I admire. I interpret the brief loosely. I believe technology is not possible  without science, and the benefits of science and technology would not reach many without individual enterprise and leadership.

This pledge post particularly draws attention to the leadership of Indian women in science and technology.

When I was a girl growing up in India, an early text book introduced me to Madame Curie but not to any Indian woman scientist. In my extended family, there were several female cousins who were doctors, but only male cousins seemed to be engineers or scientists. Indeed one of those male cousins – and a chapter in my Hindi text book in Year 4 of school – inspired me to study engineering. But when I was a student of engineering, we had only one woman teacher.

Outside too, every once in a while a brilliant mathematical mind, such as Shakuntala Devi or Mangala Narlikar, would be mentioned in the press but these were the exceptions rather than commonplace appearances. Indeed while Mangala Narlikar’s husband Jayant has an entry on Wikipedia, she herself gets few mentions!

Women are under-represented and not very visible as scientists and technologists.

Women are under-represented in science and technology in India, as they are everywhere else. They are also not very visible. A recent book titled ‘Lilavati’s Daughters: The Women Scientists of India‘ attempts to change that.

Why Lilavati’s daughters? Lilavati was the daughter of renowned Indian mathematician and astronomer Bhāskara II (1114-1185 A.D.). In his treatise on arithmetics, Lilavati, named after his intelligent daughter, he proposed the modern mathematical convention that when a finite number is divided by zero, the result is infinity.

India still confounds many through its selective modernity. But worth celebrating are both quiet determination and bold leadership in women who on first glance may appear traditional. In particular, I want to pay tribute to two inspiring women who bring the wonders of science and technology to the public, combining their love of science and technology with their leadership and enterprise.

On Ada Lovelace Day 2009, I pay tribute to Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Neelam Dhawan, two of India’s admirable women leaders, in technology areas in which I work.

Dr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is India’s leading biotechnology entrepreneur, and the founder of Biocon Limited in Bangalore. Although she trained as a master brewer, she has built Biocon as a healthcare focused company, which is driven by original research. The company is the world’s 7th largest biotechnology employer.

She is also a vociferous, if not always popular, civic activist who is an advocate for better municipal governance in her home town. Personally, her ability to keep alive her wider interests, beyond just work, interests me greatly because I believe that a well-lived life is a well-rounded life. She is not known to be a wall-flower and I admire her for living life on her own terms.

Neelam Dhawan is my other choice of an aspiring technology industry leader in India. As it happens, I knew her when I first joined HCL in India in 1994. She was then the head of marketing in HCL-HP, a joint venture between HCL and Hewlett-Packard. She was on my very first performance review panel where I experienced her firm-with-fair and direct way of managing people. Her team – all young male professionals – respected her immensely. But above all, they liked her. She neither put up with unreasonable demands nor subjected her team to them.

Although I had no reporting relationship with her, there was no template in HCL then for a high-achieving female manager. Apart from Neelam. I benefited greatly from several short and long conversations with her, on various matters related to professional growth and conduct. She was amazingly calm and had a great sense of humour, and a perfect mentor.

Neelam is now the head of HP in India. Her commitment to customers, change and innovation – for which HCL gives its employees plenty of practice – continues to stand her in good stead. She is especially inspiring because she has balanced her career with a marriage and bringing up her children. Perhaps Sylvia Ann Hewlett would like to interview her next to unlock some of the secrets!

Who are the women scientists and technologists you admire? If you haven’t acknowledged their influence on you publicly, today’s is a good day! (Please tag the posts ‘ALD09post‘ so others can find your contribution too, thanks.)

Related reading:

A review of a translated version of ‘Lilavati’ can be found here (PDF).

My review of Dick Teresi’s ‘Lost Discoveries: The Multicultural Roots of Modern Science from the Babylonians to the Maya’.

The link between weight and cancer

Few are fortunate enough not to experience the middle-age spread which many dread, and rightly so. Recent research adds to the growing body of evidence linking a range of cancers with overweight and obesity, this time in a cohort study of UK women. You can read the entire post here on my Obesity blog.

Maybe baby?

At this time, I know two women and know of another woman, who are all undergoing the prolonged physical and mental agony of a battery of treatments to have a child. It has led to many interesting conversations with the former two about identity, the role of children and the reasons behind why they are willing to bear all this pain even before an actual child comes along, if one comes along at all. One is prepared and the other is not, for adoption as a possibility.

Two or three make not a statistically significant sample. But the route is familiar. In all cases, the husbands’ turn to be checked comes up very late. The presumption is that something must be wrong with the woman.

Those around me, who have children – careers or no careers – have never been able to tell me why they had them. Perhaps I am a wide-eyed ingénue and ask all sorts of wrong questions of people. But I have in the process heard some interesting ones.

Some of my educated friends have told me that one can never love somebody else’s children as their own. I find it laughable (I have a step mother!) because it is theoretical for them to spout such nonsense.

I think it is all about the capability to love. Period. If a woman could find a man some 25 years into their lives and love him as much as she claims to, then a small, helpless baby or child should surely be more easy to love. No? Especially for someone claiming to be maternal and all that.

Yet another conversation was quite amazing. The woman in question said to me:

Those adults, who want children but are finding it hard to conceive, can try modern technological options such as IVF. But those children, who want parents and are finding life hard without them, have no such technical options open to them”.

Point to ponder, indeed.

Nita has written an interesting post on the surge in the so-far unregulated business of surrogacy in India.

She discusses the estimated size of the business in India (~ £250 M) and the dangers of keeping it unregulated or self-regulated, as the current provision in the form of guidelines would suggest.

She writes:

There are some who feel that if surrogate motherhood becomes a legal ‘business’ then soon educated working women will start hiring wombs to prevent a break in their career!

This, I think, is an understandable fear which may not come to pass.

Yes, it is indeed true that many career women face the conflict between career and children. Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research found that fully 42% of professional women in corporate America were childless at age 40 and only 14% of them had planned life without children. Her research also found that these women blamed a variety of factors for their “enforced” childlessness, including long working weeks, rigid career structures, unsympathetic bosses and needy partners. Her more recent work discusses how employers put women with children on a sort of career off-ramp.

So the fear that this will become some sort of baby-making outsourcing – perhaps BMO instead of BPO? – is understandable but it may not come to pass. Here is why.

Educated women the world over have fewer children than their uneducated or non-career-oriented counterparts. It is not just about the rationality towards their career, but the gender empowerment that makes that career possible and is in turn, reinforced by career women’s presence. There is the additional factor to consider – the economics of having many children, when even relatively wealthy parents may prefer to divvy up their money and attention amongst fewer children, giving them better opportunities than amongst many, affording them relatively less.

Additionally, here is my hypothesis. Another reason, why despite adoption being a feasible and socially acceptable option – Angelina Jolie has her social utility after all – most people prefer to make their own children, is “genetic vanity“. I wonder if surrogacy – especially with a poor woman serving as the host womb – is something genetically vain people (educated, career-oriented, in a relationship so presumably attractive to someone, so, much to be understandably vain about) would consider with gusto.

Then again, as chance would have it, I came across Ben’s post about a new book. Titled “Why beautiful people have more daughters“, it is two evolutionary psychologists’ explanation of some of the curiosities of life.

An extraordinary view of poverty is expressed by Ryan Holiday in the comments section:

Poor families tend to have more daughters because having a daughter (often an economic asset) helps them move up in status.

In many patriarchal cultures in poor countries, including India, the custom is that marrying a daughter off costs a lot of money (in the form of dowry). On the other hand, keeping her unmarried to contribute economically is a stigma and poor people may not have much, but they have their pride and they care an awful lot about social stigma.

Sons in the same cultures bring dowry in, stay with parents – unlike the daughter who goes to live with or serve the in-laws – and inherit the assets, keeping the wealth in the family. Their sons also carry the family name whereas the woman is often forced to take the husband’s family name. Indeed in some communities in India, the woman’s first name is changed too, so she effectively brings nothing – but her dowry – from her parents’ house. Sons are therefore considered immensely preferable to daughters.

So the argument – if at all there is one – is the other way round. Families do not want daughters because they are seen as harbingers of poverty.

Ben’s post first made me laugh, then quickly look for the book and order it. Then I called my father, a father of well-educated professional girls, who found their own husbands, where applicable, without dowry, to congratulate him on his looks.

Then I began to wonder how wider knowledge of such an evolutionary link might pan out in an illegal abortion clinic in India:

“Oh, doctor, so you think it is a girl?”


“And that means I am beautiful?”

“Well, yes, so evolutionary theorists would say”.

“Ok, thanks for the compliment. Now can you hurry up and complete the abortion?”

End of.

Several million female foetuses and infants are killed every year in India. Indeed Asians, as people from the sub-continent are referred to in the UK, are so notorious for their attitudes in the matter, that in some parts of Britain, the doctor would just not tell the parents the gender of the child. Now if only this argument of vanity could help change some of those attitudes!

This female foeticide and infanticide, of course, carries on in spite of regulatory controls, that have been around a while now.

So what price children then?

I do not think as a society, we have any answers. Baroness Mary Warnock, well-known British philosopher, has argued that people have a right to try to have children, but not an actual right to have children.

Then there is the lure of all that science has seemingly made possible – from egg freezing to sperm-donation to IVF. All this, Hewlett argues lulls women into a false sense of security and into putting off trying to have children till it is too late.

I cannot claim to know the answer of course, and all the discourses with several educated, professional women, both with and without children, provide no wisdom.

If there is a fundamental right to try to have a child, perhaps surrogacy should come out of the shadows, as Nita suggests.

But then again, perhaps adoption should be made easier too so people do not have to go to other countries – richer or poorer – with relatively simpler regulations to find the missing pieces of their family.

And in all this, it is the child, whose rights, to be treated with dignity and compassion from conception to birth and beyond, should be supreme.

Additional Reading: Late additions/ editions:

Interesting discussion at Ben Casnocha’s blog on Child Free by Choice

Penelope’s controversial advice on Effective Ways to Wrestle your Biological Clock

99PPP’s exhaustive argument for A Case Against Having Any Or More Children