What We’ve Learned About Gender Equality

January 16, 2017

Having more women in the room is powerful. Whether as engineers, board members, or VCs and more, increased gender diversity in technology is good ethics and good business.

For example, increasing women’s participation on boards significantly improves financial performance. Women working as VCs increases start-up success and industry performance. Even small increases women’s workforce participation could boost the US’ economic output by $2.1 trillion, or by over $12 trillion globally.

However, inequality in hiring practices and education continues.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen what this inequality looks like. I also know how powerful overcoming it can be.

While studying engineering, I was one of just 17 female engineers among almost 3000 male engineering students. At HP in its early days, I was the first female R&D engineer in my department, the first woman to go into the southern sales region, and the first female HP engineer in Germany. I was part of the team that started HP in India, in an era when people didn’t believe that IT could be done there.

Societal norms and family pressure kept suggesting to me – and my female colleagues – that “women can’t be engineers!” Together, we went on to defy these pressures and build new norms.

Along the way, I learned ways to encourage women in fields like engineering and technology. The best teachers I’ve had are the women at iMerit.

One of our delivery centers, located in a conservative Muslim neighborhood in Kolkata, India, is made up of over 90% women. Company-wide, women make up 60% of our employees.

These women work on advanced machine learning projects like building datasets for algorithms that power artificial intelligence. Here is some of what we have learned through them.

Train for the future

Our women show us that this inequality in access to technology education is not a factor of their interests or capabilities.

When access is provided, they engage with training opportunities: from computer literacy to understanding how machine learning works. Even those with little or no formal computer education excitedly seize training opportunities.

Addressing disparity in educational access is an important part of unlocking the potential of women. In the US, the percentage of women seeking computer science degrees has dropped over time. Even before college, girls pursue computer science at much lower rates than boys. In India, this pipeline problem is magnified by girls’ unequal access to any education.

By meeting these women where they are, and equipping them with future-proof skills, they can become the future shapers of technology.

Work with culture, not against it

The educational pipeline is not the only factor creating an imbalance in the numbers of women in technology. It’s a cultural challenge – in the US and abroad – too.

In India, we didn’t at first set out to make our Metiabruz center mostly women. Instead, we learned this through conversations with women who wanted to work with us while upholding their culture. By creating a safe space for women in a conservative society, we found we could maximize not just their comfort, but their participation, too.

Engaging more women has become one of our biggest goals, and it only makes sense to make sure their workplace is welcoming to them and sensitive to their culture.

In other contexts, this may mean ensuring that women – often seen as the sole family caretaker – are offered childcare options or extended maternity leave. Both of these have been shown to increase women’s labor force participation, and wages. In many cases, it means ensuring that we build a culture where women’s presence is respected (and ultimately, expected).

Everything from leave policies to company traditions and working hours can have gender-sensitive aspects. This is especially true when operating in a field that has been male-dominated for so long. It’s up to us to take note and build welcoming environments.

Connect women to growth-ready industries

Globally, women are an underutilized segment of the workforce. At the same time, the digital and data services industry is well-positioned for growth, making the joining of the two particularly powerful.

By linking women with high-growth industries and possibilities, we believe that we can fast-track their engagement not just in the workforce, but the digital future as a whole.

It’s not enough to incorporate women in technology generally; we’ve found that they must also be connected to rapidly-growing industries with huge future potential, like artificial intelligence and machine learning.

It Just Makes Sense

We can’t talk about diversity as if it is something that should only be pursued for its own sake. Encouraging women’s participation in technology (and other homogenous fields) should not be – and is not for us – a token gesture. Instead, encouraging diversity will bring about sustainable social change and can create sustainable businesses.

This is untapped potential. It is an opportunity to strengthen companies, families, communities, and individuals around the world.