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A pandemic of gender disparity in India’s technology sector

A pandemic of gender disparity in India’s technology sector
Photo Credit: 123RF.com
17 Jun, 2021

Today, let’s try an exercise -- don’t worry, not one that involves your abs and glutes, but hopefully one that is just as effective. On one side of a paper, write how many women you have on your team, your company’s management and board and the total number of women in your firm. On the other side of the paper, do the same, but for men. 

Chances are, the number of women employees on your list will be significantly lower than that of men, especially in the top management. 

While this is no surprise, the pandemic has deepened the existing gender inequalities at the workplace, making women more vulnerable to the after-effects of Covid-19.  

As per a McKinsey report from July 2020, women are 1.8 times more vulnerable to losing jobs on account of the Covid crisis than men. The former, it said, make up 39% of global employment numbers, but account for 54% of overall job losses. In India specifically, women made up 20% of the workforce before Covid-19, but their share of job losses is estimated to be 17%. Unemployment surveys, McKinsey said, showed that the women may actually account for 23% of overall job losses.  

What are the causes for this massive inequality? McKinsey attributes it to the gendered nature of work and societal barriers, among others. Pick ten people around you at random (tough during a lockdown, but try?) and ask them what they think causes the disparity. Chances are, most of them, if not all, will tell you it’s because women take long breaks for “marriage” or to “start a family”.  

“There are managers who have said, ‘I laid the woman off because her husband has a job, but this man's family will suffer. I was not looking at gender here. I was looking at food on the table’. Sure, we all have reasons to do what we do. But if everybody follows this, it becomes a bias and that is not right,” Nirmala Menon, CEO of Bengaluru based Interweave Consulting, which provides diversity and inclusion (D&I) consulting services, said.

What can we do about it? 

“One is to definitely look at how to identify women leaders and how to support women through their career journeys early on,” Tina Vinod, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Chicago based software and consultancy services firm ThoughtWorks, said.  

The company said 38% of women at ThoughtWorks India are in leadership roles, but declined to provide exact numbers. Its top brass, as per the company’s website, includes 15 men and 12 women. TechCircle was unable to access the identities of its board of directors. 

“There is no CEO out there who will say that D&I is not important. But to what extent are they walking the talk? Because when the rubber meets the road, there are challenges,” Interweave Consulting’s Menon said. 

A 2021 LinkedIn report showed that only 23% of working professionals in the APAC region strongly agree that gender diversity is a priority in their organisations. 

“There was a mindset of ‘Oh, I am a good people manager, that's why I'm a leader. I don't need to learn anything more; I don't have biases. However, I am seeing a lot more C suite leaders getting engaged -- since they are forced to talk about this a lot more, they are actually trying to understand what it actually is. Because diversity inclusion is not just about managing people,” Menon said. 

Women, the LinkedIn report said, make up only 39% of any given organisation in the Asia Pacific region. At 30%, the representation is lower in senior level positions (senior manager and above). A whopping 85% of women in India said in the survey that they have missed out on a raise, promotion or work offer because of their gender. 

Big Tech’s diversity report

Things must be better for women in the “progressive” technology sector, surely? Well... 

To assess the gender D&I data at a closer level, TechCircle spoke to (or at least tried to) some of the largest technology enterprises and startups in the country, across sectors, and mined whatever little D&I data they published on their websites.  

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IBM chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna, in the firm’s D&I report for 2020, said that the technology company “conducts statistical pay equity analysis, which has been in place since the 1970s, to ensure that all employees receive equal pay for equal work. Women now make up more than a third of IBM’s workforce, and we increased representation of women, black and hispanic employees in 2020 compared to the prior year. Promotions of women and underrepresented minorities are also up over prior years.” 

The report shows that the firm increased the percentage of women in its workforce to nearly 34% in 2020, without offering comparative figures. It claimed that 36% of IBM promotions, 30% of executive hiring and 39% of hiring over the past three years have been women. No employee numbers or comparative percentages were mentioned. 

IBM's senior leadership team has 16 men and four women. Its 12-member board has two women. 

Women account for 32.3% of the global workforce at Bengaluru based Mindtree, the information technology (IT) services company that is now a part of the L&T Group -- a two-fold increase from 2004, Paneesh Rao, the firm’s chief people officer, told TechCircle. The company did not specify how many women the firm had in leadership positions.  

As per its 2019-20 report detailing D&I updates, among others, women made up 50% of campus recruits and 40% of all new joiners in the reported period. The company’s board of directors, according to its website, has two women and 12 men. The company looks to increase women’s representation to 40% by 2030, Rao said, marking a mere 8% increase nearly a decade from now.  

The country’s largest IT services firm Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), including subsidiaries, had a global talent base of 4,88,649 associates, as of March 2021, as per data on its website. It claims to be one largest employers of women, with 36.5% women employees. 

The company did not respond to TechCircle’s request for comment. 

The Mumbai based firm, as per its website, has seven men and two women on its board. Its executive leadership team has no women and four men. 

As per Wipro’s interactive annual report 2019-20, it employed a total of 1,88,270 people, with women making up 35% in financial year 2019-20 (FY20), an incremental drop from 35.2% of 1,75,690 employees in FY19.  

The company declined TechCircle’s request for more recent data and comments. 

Its nine-member board comprises eight men, while its executive committee has 20 men and two women.   

It runs a gender inclusion initiative, dubbed the Women of Wipro, which offers training and mentoring programmes, networking opportunities with women leaders from across the industry, and includes policies and practices that aim to foster a gender-inclusive work environment. 

Next, let’s take a look at a few consumer-facing technology companies that have a significant presence, in terms of office or user base, in India. 

Google’s 2020 diversity report shows that the company had hired 32.5% women, fractionally higher than 32.3% in 2019. Last year, Asians accounted for 48.5% of all new hires. 

Its total employee base comprised 32% women in 2020, and of the 41.9% Asian population, 14.2% were women. A year ago, it had 31.6% women, and of the 39.8% Asian staffers, 13.2% were women. Since 2014, it said representation of women in tech at the company has grown 360%, and Asian women, 290%. It claimed to have increased representation of women in leadership roles globally for the second year in a row, reaching 26.7% in 2020, up from 26.1% in 2019. 

Its retention equity programme for underrepresented groups has helped bring down female attrition. In 2020, 87 women exited the company, lower than their male counterparts at 106. 

The company is estimated to have about 5,000 employees in India, a key market for the company with a significant presence in Bengaluru and Hyderabad.  

Google’s leadership team of 20 has eight women, as per enterprise intelligence company Craft.co. Parent Alphabet's board has 11 members, three of whom are women. 

As of June 2020, social media platform Facebook’s global employee base comprised 37% women, compared to 31% in 2014, as per its diversity report. The percentage of women in leadership positions rose from 23% in 2014 to 34.2% in 2020.  Its Asian representation rose from 31% to 37% in the reported period across all roles, while the figures increased from 23% to 34.2% for Asian leadership positions for the same period. 

The company’s website lists five male board members and four women. Five women are part of its 18-member executive team.   

The Menlo Park, California headquartered company has a presence in the Indian cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Gurugram and Bengaluru, and reportedly had 58,604 full time employees in the country as of December 2020, compared to 150 in 2006. 

Between 2014 and 2020, consumer technology company Apple claims to have seen a 70% increase in the number of female employees worldwide, with an 85% increase in leadership. As of December 2020, women represented 35% of the company’s global team members and 38% of its global leadership. The company did not offer absolute numbers or country-wise data in its 2020 diversity report. 

The iPhone maker’s board includes five men and three women, while its executive team is made up of 13 men and four women.  

Redmond, Washington headquartered Microsoft, has a presence across 11 cities in India, operates three development centres and employs over 8,000 people in the country, as per its website. As of March 31, 2021, it had a global employee base of 1,75,508 people.  

Its 2020 D&I report claims that women in the US, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan and the United Kingdom combined earn $1.00 for every $1.00 earned by men for substantially similar work. The employee population of these 11 markets represents 85.7% of the total Microsoft workforce, the report said. 

Its global representation of women increased 1 percentage point year-on-year to 28.6% in 2020. The company did not mention the number of employees the percentage translated to in the report, and did not respond to TechCircle’s queries on its D&I initiatives and employee numbers.  

As per data on its website, the company’s board has six men and five women. It has 15 male senior leadership members and two female members. 

Gig economy startups

Closer home, one of the most valuable fintech unicorns, One97 Communications-owned Paytm, had rolled out an email helpline for women employees. The forum reportedly addressed queries and concerns, and allowed senior leaders at the firm to communicate directly with female staff. 

This was in 2017 though.  

Whether the helpline was beneficial, still operational, what other D&I measures the company has taken (no, the Women’s Day focused ad on gender based financial literacy gap does not count), what the gender ratio of its employees are – we don’t know any of this information. Its website does not have the details, and the company declined to participate in this story. 

What is available, however, is One97’s board lineup -- it has seven men and one woman on the team, as per the company website. Bloomberg puts the number of executives at the company at 21, three of whom are women. 

On the other hand, San Jose, California based PayPal has more than doubled the number of women on its leadership team since 2010, with women making up 42% of its global workforce, Jayanthi Vaidyanthan, senior director and head HR of PayPal India, told TechCircle.  

The company, which wound down its domestic payments business in India from April to focus on its cross-border payments business in the subcontinent, in March said it would hire 1,000 engineers for its development centre offices in Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad in 2021. The three centres currently employ over 4,500 people. 

It also offers support and mentorship programmes for not just women in the company, but also for college students across India, which can culminate into internship or job opportunities for the participants.    

Its 11-member board has four women, while its executive leadership team has seven men and three women.    

Digital payments platform PhonePe in March launched a D&I charter, with the first phase focusing on gender, sexual orientation and people with disability. It has over 8,000 employees, including third-party payroll staffers, with 2,300 people working at the firm full time, a company spokesperson said.  

Currently, women make up 20% of the workforce at an overall organisation level, the spokesperson added. 

As of December 2020, the Bengaluru based startup’s board included four men and no women, with the UPI market leader reportedly looking to add two independent directors. In March 2021, the 2015-founded firm had pledged to raise representation of women in its two leadership levels (directors and vice presidents) from 16% to 25% by December 2021. Information on its full leadership team is not available on public forum and the company declined to share details. 

PhonePe parent Flipkart employs 36,000 people, as per company crowdsourcing data platform Owler, but the gender ratio of the employee base is not known. The Walmart-owned ecommerce company, as per TechCircle estimates based on media reports, has seven people, including one woman on its board. The company did not respond to TechCircle’s request for information. 

The Bengaluru based giant’s rival, Seattle headquartered Amazon, on the other hand, employs a total of 1.3 million people worldwide, as per its fourth quarter 2020 earnings reports. In January 2020, CEO Jeff Bezos said the company will create 1 crore jobs in India by 2025, adding that it had enabled 7,00,000 jobs over the preceding six years in the country. 

As of December 2020, women made up 44.6% of the company’s global employee base, up from 42.7% in 2019, as per the company’s report, detailing its workforce data. Asian employees in the US -- both men and women -- made up 13.6% of its workforce, a drop from 15.4% in 2019. 

Women made up 22.1% of its global senior leadership team, the report said. Its board of directors includes six men and four women, while its officers comprise five men and one woman, as per data on its website.

It did not reveal India specific numbers in the report or on its website, and declined to respond to TechCircle’s queries on the same.  

Next up, the booming edtech sector, which topped all previous fundraising records, with firms in the sector scoring $2.2 billion in 2020 alone. 

The most valued company in the sector, Think and Learn-operated Byju’s, claims to have 33% of women on the board, 50% in the top management and 40% across the workforce. It has a total of 10,000 employees, as per a company spokesperson, who declined to disclose details on the number of people on its board and leadership team. As per Pitchbook, the company has seven board members and 14 people on its executive team – with this data, it may be inferred that the company has at least two women on board and seven women on its leadership team. 

“… The key to maintaining diversity is the gender-balance amongst the core leadership and the founding team. If a company has a good representation of women since inception, especially in strong leadership positions, this balance usually trickles down throughout the organisation,” Divya Gokulnath, co-founder and teacher at Byju’s, told TechCircle.

At Unacademy, yet another unicorn in the edtech sector, women made up 37% of its total workforce and 38% of its leadership team, Tina Balachandran, vice president of HR at the Bengaluru based startup, said in a March 2020 blog post. 

There is no publicly available data on its website or blog on the current status of the Sorting Hat Technologies-run firm’s leadership team, board of directors, total number of employees, gender ratio of its workforce or any D&I initiatives. The company also declined to participate in this story. 

Its core committee comprises an all-male co-founder team of three, as per data on YourStory, while Pitchbook says it has nine board members. Tracxn puts the startup’s total employee count, as of December 31, 2020, at 1,826.  

Mobility company Uber, in its 2020 D&I report, said that globally, women made up 40.3% of its overall workforce, down 0.6 percentage points from 2019. The global population of women in tech grew 7.6% to 23.1%. Of the new hires, 39.5% were women. In the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, women representation dropped -2.3 percentage points year-on-year to 41.4%.  

Women comprised 32.4% of its overall global leadership teams, and 15.3% of its tech leadership teams, while 40.3% of the new leadership hires were women.  

“Since March 2020, our global headcount has decreased by about 25%. Still, the proportionate representation of women and people from underrepresented racial groups in leadership roles has increased," the report said. It also claims to have pay equity across the company. 

Its board of directors included four women and seven men, while its 11-member executive team comprises three women.  

Uber's Bengaluru based rival Ola declined to participate in this story, and does not disclose the relevant details on its website.  

The company’s key executive team, as per Pitchbook, includes five people -- all men. In May 2020, the cab aggregator had let go of 1,400 employees, or about 25% of total headcount. With this, it may be inferred that its total workforce, at the time, was 5,600. It could not be ascertained how many of these were women.  

After poring through dozens of websites, reports and emails for scraps of information on Indian companies, who seem to not publish their boards of directors, leadership teams or employee strength, let alone D&I initiatives, TechCircle was happy to find a VCCircle story that had all the director details for the next company on our hitlist, as recent as April 2021. 

IPO-bound foodtech company Zomato last month said its eight-member board had added five independent directors, four of whom were women. It now has 50% of men and women on the board. Its leadership team, as per its website, has six men and five women.  

“A number of companies start with a diverse employee base at the entry-level, but it reduces significantly over time and at senior levels,” Deepinder Goyal, CEO and co-founder of Zomato, said in a blog post. “We decided to turn the paradigm on its head by introducing diversity with our board of directors.”

As of May 2020, after layoffs, Zomato's total employee strength reportedly stood at 4,000. TechCircle could not ascertain how many of these were women. The Gurugram based company’s earlier D&I initiatives include equal parental leave policy for all, as well as menstruation leaves. 

Rival and duopoly partner Swiggy, as per its website, employs 5,000 people, apart from providing jobs to 2 lakh delivery executives. The Naspers-backed firm did not, however, mention how many of those employees were women.  

The Bundl Technologies-run startup’s leadership team has 15 men and two women, as per Craft.co data. TechCircle could not determine who the executives on its board were. The company did not respond to our request for information.  

How and why gender disparity needs to go

Now we know where companies stand on gender (dis)parity. But what do they have to gain from an inclusive and diverse workforce? 

Apart from finally enabling a level playing ground for a gender that continues to be oppressed even after decades of “reform”, studies have shown that having more women on the team makes businesses more successful, employees more productive, benefits the global GDP and actually take some pressure off men from being the sole breadwinners (hi there, feminism!). 

Let’s take a closer look at some of those benefits. 

McKinsey, in a May 2020 report, said that the greater the representation of women, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. What it means is that companies with more than 30% women executives are more likely to outperform those where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30, or lower.  

The research also found a diversity dividend for companies. For example, those in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Moreover, companies now pulling back on D&I may be placing themselves at a disadvantage in terms of resilience and the ability to recover from the current crisis; they could be limiting their access to talent, diverse skills, leadership styles, and perspectives, the report said. 

In a separate July 2020 report, McKinsey said that if no action was taken to address the gender-regressive scenario, the global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men.  

Conversely, taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario.  

According to the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report 2020, India is ranked 112th globally in terms of gender gap. The average economic contribution by women in India, it said, stands at 18%. If 50% of women join the workforce, India could boost its economic growth by 1.5 percentage points to 9% per year.

The widespread adoption of flexible location, and in some cases work hours, during pandemic times, have made jobs more accessible to urban women. 

“With the movement away from location, it's become more about talent ability. Therefore, a lot more women who earlier would have given up their jobs now have more of an opportunity,” Ipshita Sen, founder of Engendered, said.  

It has also allowed them to make better use of the time spent to commute to work, offered global opportunities, cut down on expenses and thus save more money as well.   

Having more women at the top, multiple studies have shown, translate to more women in the workforce. A 2019 Deloitte report, for example, said it could break down stereotypes on women in leadership and encourage women to pursue their careers further, to seek for roles which they would have not otherwise considered and to ask for more raises and promotions.  

And it goes without saying that making people aware of the gender-based inequality, backed by data and facts, is key. If nothing else, talking about diversity and inclusion will get your company attention.

At the current rate of progress, the world will take another 100 years to achieve gender equality, as per the World Economic Forum report. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren could be 3D printing organs and buildings, travelling to Mars for weekend vacations and likely living in submarines thanks to rising sea levels, but we still would not have achieved gender parity. Think about that. 

With inputs from Shubham Sharma