The bedrock on which the vision for technology stands is that access to technology products has the potential to level the disparities of birth and privilege, and create an even playing field for anyone looking to learn, connect or grow. Where the impact stands to be so transformative, it is critical for technology developers to ensure they’re building for all, and not a select few.
Doing the latter would further stack the disparity and not level it, not to mention limit the adoption of their own product. That said, building for all can only happen if there is adequate inclusion and representation of all kinds of users at the table where these products are being built.
Under-representation and participation of women in the industry in general, and in technology, specifically, is not just a moral debate, it’s an economic one. While the existing socio-cultural impediments are well-documented, it’s important to understand why women’s participation in tech, both at leadership and development levels, is absolutely critical in the first place.
Between 2015 and 2018, the gap between male and female smartphone users decreased by 8%. GSMA values the opportunity of getting to an equitable male-female user ratio at an additional $15 billion a year. So it’s increasingly clear that building for all, in the true sense, has gone beyond just being the ‘right thing to do’ and is, equally, a compelling economic and business case.
Despite that, while many products are often touted to be gender-agnostic, that is not the case in reality, for reasons that range from lack of inclusive precedent to over-simplification. However, not accounting for an entire population of users i.e. women, can have unintended and even grave implications, when deployed at scale. Research shows that gender has a bearing on usability, interaction design, premium on safety and privacy, purchase journeys, use of social networking, form factor and much more.
For example, during the research phase of Neighbourly, a hyper-local app by Google, designed to let users ask questions about their neighbourhood and get quick answers from people nearby, women expressed strong inhibitions about using a product that exposed their identity and location in their neighbourhood. Maintaining women’s privacy and safety became a key focus of the app in the design phase.
There is ample research to show that diversity of thought leads to better problem-solving. We have been very focused on ensuring that we share all our learnings and insights at Google, with the wider technology and startup communities through our Google Launchpad Accelerator program in India, that focuses on mentoring startups that are solving for real issues in India. Over the years, the number of female founder applicants to the Launchpad Accelerator program has doubled and it is heartening to see compelling examples of universally relevant products made by women-led, diverse teams.
In a similar vein, it’s very important to fix the women-in-tech talent pipeline at its various chokepoints to address the issue of representation - be it addressing the vast dropoff that happens between women entering undergraduate courses in technology, to the postgraduate level, or addressing organisational policies that can help women re-enter the organisation after a sabbatical, with options like ramp-back time and upskilling opportunities.
Breakout products and businesses led by women in India, such as Nykaa, BabyChakra or emerging healthcare startups like Niramai, an AI-led diagnostic platform for early-stage breast cancer detection, are creating much-needed role models to inspire and encourage more women to look at technology as a career. And it is mission-critical that we actively facilitate this trend as it builds better products, better businesses and is the very spirit of technology’s mission in society.
Paul Ravindranath, is program manager, Google Launchpad Accelerator, India. The views expressed in this article are his own.