Does going digital mean even fewer women in the workforce?

Saundarya Rajesh | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on March 07, 2017

Participants at a Hackathon for Women in Bengaluru (file photo)   -  THE HINDU

International Women’s Day is here and for those of us who work for gender diversity, it is among the busiest of seasons. Juggling time on my calendar to attend the ‘office-warming’ of a friend’s 500-seater IT company, I had a very gratifying vision as I looked at the lines of empty workstations and cubicles. An image of neat rows of women occupying those seats! Women closing deals, stylish women writing code, empowered women speaking confidently on hi-tech communication equipment, et al. Stuff that truly dreams are made of.

Unable to hold my excitement, I asked the CEO, a young tech wizard, “So, how many women do you think you will hire? About 40 per cent? 50 per cent?” My mood was upbeat.

“Well, honestly, if I were to go by what I saw during my last campus hiring exercise not more than about a dozen,” he replied. “A dozen! Out of 500 hires?!” I was incredulous. “Yes,” he replied calmly. “I don’t think women are cut out to be digital citizens.” And that shocking statement led me to find out for myself what exactly is in store for women in the digital era.

Digital fluency

Recent studies indicate that there is a gender gap in ‘digital fluency’. What does this term mean? Digital fluency is the extent to which people embrace digital technologies to become more knowledgeable, connected and effective. It impacts how men and women use digital technologies for education, information and career advancement.

Women, the studies note, are digitally less fluent than men. A recent research by Accenture reveals that Indian women score the lowest in digital fluency. Of the 31 countries covered in the research, India has a gaping gender divide in digital attainment. However, the same gap is an opportunity too, since 46 per cent of all enrolled undergraduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in India as of 2014 are women. If digital fluency can be instilled in young female engineers and graduates, then the Indian IT industry — which today has a 30 per cent representation of women — can increase in numbers to bridge the workforce participation rates.

Let us consider this: while digital fluency has the felicity to impact women’s workforce participation, are women ready to become digital citizens? Again, there is no paucity of research on this. Male brains may be optimised for motor skills but studies say female brains are optimised for combining analytical and intuitive thinking, with greater connections between the left and the right parts of the brain. While gender stereotypes might refute this by asserting that women are not comfortable in STEM sciences, research actually states the opposite — that it is more nurture than nature which causes women not to become as technologically confident as men. If analytical thinking is what women’s brains are optimised for, there is a lot women can do in the day and age of Big Data and analytics. The little secret is that, they don’t know it!

Women and neurosexism

In an interview to Forbes, Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, once said there is an over-emphasis on the influence of gender on STEM. This is validated by words of Lise Eliot of the Chicago Medical School, who believes that while there are basic behavioural differences between the sexes, this difference increases with age due to our gendered culture. She states, “Children don’t inherit intellectual differences. They learn them.” As a skill-building initiative working in the space of education for underprivileged children, we have seen heavy stereotypes parents often bear, that boys have poor chances of acquiring good verbal skills or that girls have little opportunity of developing mathematical prowess. Such biases place serious and unjustified obstacles in the path of children’s education. If we were to push this “neurosexism” out of the way, girls stand as much a chance of excelling in STEM as do boys. Exposure to tech platforms in formative years helps ensure that a ‘tech inclination’ is built early on, in girls. Girls are often able to optimally look at problem solving, as they are empathetic in their approach. But what actually impacts their participation in STEM? It appears to be the usual suspects of media which inculcates stereotypes, our education system which creates biases and subsequently, the work environment which engenders the bias to a greater extent. So, what should women do in order to become truly skilled digital citizens?

Stay digitally adaptable

Technology is evolving, revolutionising the world at an unprecedented pace. Newer versions of apps appear every other day, software platforms that were once the rage become archaic in a few years. Against this backdrop, to become truly skilled digital citizens, women should adapt, stay digitally relevant. Mentors, peers or online courses are all potential channels for staying aware of digital evolutions.

The AI wave isn’t science fiction any longer. There are machines which have proved to be smart doctors, have won games of chess and jeopardy! It is definitely going to be another era of survival of the fittest and how can women ensure they are the fittest? By nurturing their creativity, and adding these elements to AI platforms that can ensure creative intelligent solutions.

It is proven that having more women on board brings more innovation to business houses. If that is the case, in a world set to be overtaken by automation, it is important that women leverage their cognitive diversity. To give an example, if a woman is in a client-facing role, she can ensure empathetic use of technology (factoring clients’ approach to the tech platform) to build better client relationships.

But most important of all, to all those young women who are already in STEM, here’s what I would say: STEM careers are not easy. But then, no career worth having is. Your challenges are deeper since this is a VUCA world sitting on a burning platform. So, you won’t always know or see the right path in solving a problem or taking a decision in your career path. You might have to step back, realign, make adjustments and maybe even choose a career a little away from the one you got into. But it’s okay. What is important is for you to be intentional. If you’re intentional, you will be successful.

(The author is Founder-President, AVTAR Group)

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Published on March 07, 2017
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