Who’s at the top of the food chain? Gender diversity in the start-up world

A recent television commercial for a large cell phone company that featured a female boss setting hard targets for a man reporting to her (who later turned out to be her husband) ignited the gender debate in India, online and offline. As insidious as the ad is (at the end of the day, the ‘boss’ rushes home to cook a gourmet meal for the husband) the key point is that such situations are exceedingly rare in corporate India where the glass ceiling for women is firmly riveted in place.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the startup world in India, where there is a real paucity of women entrepreneurs, who have been bitten by the software bug. The gap starts much earlier at engineering colleges and the IITs, where the gender ratio is heavily skewed in favour of male students. The skew only increases further between year one and graduation. In case of at least two women CEOs we interviewed for this story, Sujata Tilak of Ascent Informatics Pvt. Limited and’s Anu Acharya, both were the only women in their graduating classes.
A problem whose roots run deep.

Priyanka Rungta, Founder-Director, Navigators Software and BoostMySale, feels that right from childhood, girls are led to believe that they are not meant for technology and gadgets. Thus gets ingrained the stigma that they cannot get technology. Though the stereotyping has waned in later generations and within certain socio-economic segments, from the games and toys for children to the language and subtle messages used/spread in society, there is a definite gender bias that is reflected in the choices women make at school, college and in their careers.

The distribution of women in the IT workforce reflects this. From the start, at the lowest levels of the employee pyramid, men outnumber women and as one goes up the ranks, the number of women thins out even more with only a handful of women emerging right on the top, as founders, owners and CEOs.  The trend mirrors the international data on gender diversity in the tech workforce. Industry icon Apple recently published its employee workforce statistics, which paralleled that of the vast majority of tech companies – women form just around 30% of Apple’s employee base worldwide. This is the figure that Sujata Tilak, CEO and CTO of Pune-based Ascent Informatics Pvt. Limited cited too for her company.

Helping women ‘lean in’
At Anu Acharya’s company – – the story is a little different, with 90% of her employees being women. One reason Acharya cites for this is that women are well suited for a field like genetic counseling. She also pointed out that, with the management team comprising mainly of women, there was a tendency to bring women on board. Acharya is also quick to add that gender parity works both ways, and that no one should get complacent, adding that her company is actively hiring more men.

Fewer women, less pay
A recent, well publicized report from, the Monster Salary Index India IT Sector Report 2014, brought to the fore another matter of concern – the startlingly large gap in the IT sector, in wages for men versus those for women employees. Women in IT earn 29% less than their male cohorts, according to this report. Citing women as accounting for around 30% of the workforce, the report (unsurprisingly) goes on to state that there are far fewer women in supervisory roles when compared to the men, and points to a marked difference in pay for supervisory versus non-supervisory roles.

One of the reasons for this is that while women do very well at work at the start of their careers, for a majority of them personal life takes precedence after they get married, and the focus shifts from their jobs. Tilak says that while the women start out on par with the men at the time of their first jobs after graduation, the break occurs at the time of marriage and children. Managing a demanding job and a family is a juggling game at best, and often, women choose to either take a break from work or else step back from demanding positions that require travel and uncertain or long hours in the office. Taking care of young kids is primarily the mother’s responsibility and women should enjoy that time of their lives, she says, suggesting that in order to have a successful career, women must make the decision to come back after a break, and in the meantime, should keep themselves up to date of happenings in the IT world.

Women employees at her company enjoy the full freedom to take a break and are assured that they will be hired back once they wish to return, a statement echoed by Acharya, whose employees are offered the flexibility to work from home and can transition back to work at their own pace, post motherhood . Mapmygenome’s CEO firmly believes that in order for women to continue to work post marriage and children, the motivation has to be strong. Some women need to work, but others don’t. Feeling valued and getting meaningful work to do will make women return, says Acharya, and they will be encouraged to shoot for leadership positions.

What do women bring to the table in IT?

Women can do extremely well in IT, and are especially suited for project management roles given they multi-task well. They bring a lot of positives, such as the ability to relate to people well ; they  are adaptable, and engage in a lot of self-learning, says Rungta. Tilak adds that women have better empathy and connect better on an emotional level, without succumbing to or creating flashpoints with peers and customers. On the flip side, women also tend to be more forgiving of mistakes and accepting of excuses. They must learn to be hard task masters, she says. 

What women need
All three women interviewed for this article have several things in common – they have founded and are running successful startup ventures. All three of them cite extremely supportive family – including mothers-in-law and husbands who were either their co-founders or else joined them in the business at a later point – as integral to their success. The pattern is clear – having a supporting family is key to balancing demanding careers and families/children at home.

Why should women ‘lean in’
Rungta is firmly of the opinion that women should not waste their education. She believes that both men and women have challenges, so it is all about accepting the competitive challenges and being successful. One thing all three women interviewed are clear on is that it is about ability and interest and women should not let their gender get in the way. Says Rungta: I didn’t let gender affect me; I don’t look at myself as a man or a woman. If I offer value or have knowledge to share, that’s all that matters. It is the belief in one’s abilities that matter the most. Tilak has a message to aspiring women entrepreneurs, underscoring that it is a fulfilling and rewarding experience. As she puts it: Don’t lose confidence just because you’re a woman and society sends you messages that it’s a bad world out there. If you are self-confident, if you have a passion, the world can be managed. It’s about having faith in yourself.

Go ladies!

Content for box:
NASSCOM has long engaged in initiatives to champion the cause of women in tech. Their ‘Girls in Technology’ program (part of the ‘10,000 start-ups’ initiative), aims to encourage women entrepreneurs in India through Tech Talks, Hackathons and workshops.

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