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Why should I care about 50/50 by 2020?

In June 2016, while sitting across my family at dinner, I announced my application for a one-in-a-million chance at a Google Anita Borg Scholarship.
Anita Borgsource: http://ignite.globalfundforwomen.org
A fortnight later, I found that I had won that one-in-a-million chance at the prestigious Women Techmakers Scholars Program, WTM. The scholarship is awarded to a very small group of only 50 women in the field of computing and technology from across all of Asia Pacific.

Meenakshi in the newspaper

And, it was through WTM that I first heard of Dr. Anita Borg and her vision for women in technology; an ambitious ‘50/50 by 2020.’

As an APAC WTM scholar and beneficiary of Dr. Borg’s intent, I believed that it was my duty to encourage more women to be a part of the technology industry. I spread the word about Google’s Anita Borg Scholarship and encouraged my college juniors to apply. I became an active advocate who discussed the scholarship off and online (on social channels and forums like Quora). I even helped a few applicants draft their SOP’s.

I made it my personal mission to discuss with as many people as possible how the scholarship had given me access to this new world of smart technology and technologists. It gave me pride to discuss my regular interactions with industry experts who came from both India and abroad. Honestly, for a young girl in tech, I could not have asked for a better initiation into technology.

But, life sped on and preparing for my Computer Science Masters’ final exams gradually took up more and more of my time and attention. The frequency of my scholarship-related or Borg-related conversations grew fewer and far between.

In retrospect, I wonder if my passion for a perfectly justified cause waned because I hadn’t yet experienced gender-based discrimination. As my exposure to the world grew, I realized how lucky I was to have parents who ensured I had access to equal opportunities at every stage of my life. But, could that really be why my enthusiasm for Anita Borg's vision died down?

Today, it has been almost two years at my first job. I am an Application Developer at Thoughtworks, and it feels like I’ve come full circle because AnitaB.Org announced Thoughtworks as the 2018 Winner of the Top Companies for Women Technologists Program.

At work, I have gradually become more aware of things like team structures and gender dynamics. For example, a project team that I was a part of had a 50/50 ratio of men to women, and that reminded me of Borg’s lofty ambition for the technology industry.

The memory moved me to capture my thoughts on how equal representation at work and how it has impacted my life. I hoped the exercise would help me answer the old question that has been at the back of my mind for so many years, “Why should I care?”

I have condensed all of my musings into four personal observations -

Overthinking is something I indulge in and have also felt judged for. However, the presence of women on the project team empowered me to believe that I was not strange but reasonably cautious. Also, I've felt more comfortable presenting my ideas to the larger group because the team’s diversity meant that my idea would resonate with someone in the group. Additionally, I believe it has been the women role models on my team who have inspired me to aim higher and be a proactive mentee.

At the risk of generalizing, I have found that women are usually more organized. For example, I have observed that tasks management stays ‘clean,’ and imagine my pleasant surprise when Vishal Bhalerao, a Principal Consultant and longtime Thoughtworker seconded my observation during 2018’s International Women’s Day celebration at our Pune office. While appreciating his colleague who happened to be a woman technologist, he alluded to the fact that women bring an enhanced eye for detail and need for perfection to a project.

My third observation has to do with how being in a diverse team is an important perk for someone like me, who still lives with her parents. Team dinners do not end with me being the lone woman traveling back alone, late at night, which is a relief for protective parents like mine!

Fourth and final is something that truly struck a chord with me - diversity of thought encourages better software design and development. And, I’d wager that tech huddles with varying and opposing viewpoints are more exhaustive in what they cover than the huddles of a homogenous group.

This journey of penning my experiences and observations down took me on a path of both, self-discovery and rising curiosity. I wanted to better understand a wider circle’s experiences of diversity and whether they felt the same way I did - did diversity make a difference to their day to day working style and productivity. I created a really simple, short and anonymous survey and sent it out to project teams sitting in Thoughtworks’ Pune office.

Here are the three questions - 

  • What is the ratio/percentage of women in your team?
  • Comment on how the above ratio affects the team, in terms of performance. Describe incidents, if any :)
  • What are your views about diversity and inclusion in teams

And, here are a few of the responses -

‘I think the diversity of gender, experience brings different views and ideas to the table.’

‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance!’ This happens to be something Verna Myers, Inclusion Strategy Consultant at Netflix said. I guess my colleague identified with this quote!

‘Diversity and inclusion improves organizational culture.’

‘Diversity is much needed. Having worked in a male majority team before, I can compare the two experiences. It is indeed helpful to have a diversified team.’

The responses left me intrigued by how strongly many people felt about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. And, having had a first-hand experience of working in a diverse team and a not-so-diverse team, I realized why I should care about a stronger representation of women (or all genders, for that matter) in the tech space. My own eureka moment - if the software we build is being used by people of all genders then it makes sense that a representative group builds it!

I decided it was time to revive my efforts that would do their bit to further Borg’s vision of equal representation in tech. As I write this article, I also promise myself and the larger tech community to proactively connect with, and discuss the positives of diversity and inclusion with those who are passionate about technology.

Here is a list of action points for those who feel the same way as I do, about the need for a more realistic representation of society in the tech space -

  • If you look like you don’t belong, then buckle up, believe in yourself and engage with the technical community
  • Leverage the many opportunities for scholarships, travel grants, meetup groups, networks and more.
  • To the women who are just beginning their technical journey:
    • Dream
    • Believe in your dreams
    • Take that leap to make them come true
  • To the women who have been working in tech for a while:
    • Mentor, because it’s a two-way experience
    • There is power in the collective. Stay connected.
    • Stay in tech and inspire
For those of you who’d like to see a short video of the above-discussed action points, here’s the link. It’s a short message I had put together with the Google Developers India Group, in support of WTM.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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