In the US, technology companies and the press alike regularly frame the debate about gender and technology in terms of a supply problem, arguing that there are too few women in STEM fields. In a previous CASTAC blog post, Samantha Breslin suggested that focusing on the number of women in tech hides the political aspects of the technology sector that oppress marginalized groups more generally.
In India, much higher numbers of women enter STEM fields from an early age as compared to the US. For example, in 2008 in the US, women earned only 18% of computer and information science undergraduate degrees, while in 2011 in India women made up 42% of undergraduate students in computer science and engineering. In both technological companies in Silicon Valley and in India women make up roughly 30% of the overall workforce (NASSCOM 2015b; Vara 2015), but in India women now make up over half of entry-level hires, compared to 37% in the US. In one recent article, Raina Kumra, founder of a startup based in Bangalore and Silicon Valley, argues that in the US people think that “coding and programming is a man’s job,” but in India “women feel at home in engineering.” On the face of it, it seems that the tech industry in India is outperforming US in terms of gender equality.
Yet Indian women leave tech jobs with startling frequency. A recent study finds that in India, women in tech start out on equal footing with men but over time experience a pay gap and fewer opportunities for crucial experience, and are under pressure at home to scale back careers so that, “as they climb the ladder women begin to experience a different reality from that of their male colleagues.” The question in India—for the tech industry, its female employees, and STS scholars alike—is less about a lack of women in tech and more why women leave these jobs after the first few years. An anthropological perspective that takes a holistic view of women’s lives and local gender roles can show the limitations of focusing on the number of women in tech.
Pressure on women: ethnographic findings from Bangalore
The south Indian city of Bangalore is arguably the center of India’s technology outsourcing boom. The IT sector made up 9.5% of India’s GDP in 2014 and had revenues exceeding $130 billion (NASSCOM 2015a), but the sector employed only around 2.5 million Indians nationwide and perhaps 500,000 in Bangalore in 2009, most of whom are middle to upper class and upper caste (NASSCOM 2009; Upadhya and Vasavi 2006). At the same time, professional and so-called “modern” women find themselves the focus of anxieties about Indian society losing its cultural traditions and family values in the midst of globalization. My findings from long-term field research with women working in the tech sector in Bangalore reveal pressures on women that are culturally specific, but apply to conversations about gender and technology work elsewhere.
I found that women were enthusiastic when they first began working and had similar positions to men at the entry level, but over time fell behind men and often decided to quit. These issues stem from ideas about gender roles that go beyond the office environment and reflect wider Indian society’s moral discomfort with professional women. Overt sexism in the workplace is often blamed on men’s upbringing, allowing men to avoid responsibility for their own ignorance. For example, one manager told me that some men in her office think women should be at home and not working, but said: “it’s not any fault of theirs. It’s just the way they’ve grown up. They see their mother at home, so that’s what they think all women do.″
In talking with women in tech, I also found that many fight stereotypes of being too sexual, too emotional, or too aggressive. They roundly criticized female coworkers who they see flirting to get ahead, arguing that work in tech is so intense that performance at work is all that matters. Yet at the same time they hide dating relationships from their coworkers, their parents, and even from their friends, showing how gendered expectations about women’s reputations carry over into the workplace.
In addition, several thought that letting personal problems affect their work was unprofessional. One described a coworker as “cracking under the pressure” from her new in-laws to do housework in addition to her job, and crying at her desk, saying that, “I think women right now are still tormented by family pressure. But at the end of the day, she just cannot perform.” Meanwhile, when women become managers they find that male subordinates do not listen to them and more senior men patronize them, one explaining that most men in her company think that women are “too emotional and too unstable” to be in a leadership position. Other women reiterated a stereotype of women managers as “dominating” or “interfering,” further reducing the choices women have in establishing a work identity past the entry level.
The other part of the equation is pressure from family and, crucially, from women themselves to quit work after marriage or having children. One senior woman described how her colleague’s in-laws were asking her to quit because they believed the stress was preventing her from getting pregnant, saying:
I told her, ‘You can’t even imagine the amount of stress that would be there if you’re not at work. When you sit at home, your in-laws expect you to cook. Your husband expects you warm the dinner. You’re not an equal anymore. A lot of expectations change. Then you know what stress is.’
However, the women I spoke with often felt they should devote themselves to the home and family as their mothers had, blaming themselves instead of a culture of overwork for not being able to do both. Working from home—often heralded as the solution for women in tech—was not a good option either, as it reduced visibility at the office so women were passed over for opportunities, while they felt isolated from social life at work. As these pressures combine, women in their late twenties and early thirties tend to leave their jobs in tech companies in Bangalore.
Jobs in tech: a failure of the job, not the person?
Perhaps, in contrast to what they themselves may think, the women who left work did not “fail.” Instead, they may have recognized the fact that tech jobs demand too much time (Darrah et al. 2007; English-Lueck 2002) or are unfulfilling in other ways. Several women working in IT in Bangalore told me they would prefer a job that is more meaningful and human, and some have found other, less lucrative work, as a yoga instructor, photographer, or social worker, for example. Many of these women had the luxury of making the choice to not work or to work for less, as they are part of the educated, urban middle classes. If they were single they could often rely on their parents, whereas if they were married, they could—as women—often rely on their spouse, a choice men in India rarely have.
Many women I spoke with, however, insisted that a dual income is becoming more necessary for Indian families, especially in Bangalore as the cost of living continues to rise. I also found an increasing number of women across the middle classes who are experiencing difficulty finding a spouse and thus must support themselves, and often their parents and extended families, with their jobs in IT. Work also gives Indian women more power in their households in a traditionally patriarchal society, power that becomes more important as one moves down the class hierarchy. For educated, middle-class women, in an era in India when work is becoming a more important part of self identity for women, giving up work can also mean a serious loss of self.
Framing the problem of women in tech by identifying too few women in the pipeline or in technology offices may in fact be more specific to the US. Technology expertise itself seems to be seen as less gendered in India, at least in terms of potential technical ability, but technology work certainly has gendered contours. The solution for tech’s gender problem may not just be to encourage young women to go into technical fields or even to reduce barriers in the office, but to reframe the debate by de-centering the focus on increasing the number of women in tech. Using an anthropological approach to account for a holistic perspective of someone’s life, along with wider gendered expectations that play a role in the workplace, expands the capacity for technology jobs to benefit a diverse cross-section of women as well as address the meaning women find in their work, in India and elsewhere.
 For more on gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, see “The Pipeline Isn’t The Problem: Dissecting The Real Gender Bias In Tech Positions,” “This is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like,” and “Technology’s Man Problem.”
Darrah, Charles, James M. Freeman, and J.A. English-Lueck. 2007. Busier Than Ever!: Why American Families Can’t Slow Down. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
English-Lueck, J.A. 2002. Cultures@SiliconValley. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
NASSCOM. 2009. Indian IT-BPO Industry Factsheet 2009. National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM).
—. 2015a. “Indian IT-BPM Overview” drawn from The IT-BPM SECTOR IN INDIA: Strategic Review 2015. National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM).
—. 2015b. “Knowledge Professionals” drawn from The IT-BPM SECTOR IN INDIA: Strategic Review 2015. National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM).
Upadhya, Carol, and A.R. Vasavi. 2006. Work, Culture, and Sociality in the Indian IT Industry: A Sociological Study. Bangalore: National Institute of Advanced Studies.
Vara, Vauhini. 2015. “Can Intel Make Silicon Valley More Diverse?,” in The New Yorker, January 11, 2015.