India’s women find oasis of opportunity in tech transformation

Vaishali Neotia is CEO of Merxius, an Indian virtual reality startup. Ashwini Asokan leads an AI and computer vision firm called Mad Street Den. Nivruti Rai – whose parents received messages of sympathy because she was not a boy and neither were her two older sisters – is today head of Intel India.

The three Indian women are at the pinnacle of a success story that has vast implications for the nation’s future. Even as India struggles to achieve gender equality, its tech sector has become a surprising avenue of opportunity for women. A study by Open University and Nasscom found that women make up 34 per cent of people in specialist technology roles in India – compared with 17 per cent in the UK.

Tech companies are embracing the talent of women graduates by actively recruiting female students on university campuses. And the majority of these companies encourage career progression with in-house leadership and management programmes. The study found that India’s tech sector “has achieved comparative advantage to other sectors by offering career support; high status, reward and security; and visible equality policies that attract women”.

As tech becomes one of the most powerful drivers of India’s growth, there is real cause for hope that it will lead the way toward greater gender equality across society. Such a boost is critical since India’s overall female workforce participation rate of 27 per cent is one of the world’s lowest; in fact the rate has fallen sharply even as India’s economy develops at an impressive pace.

Successful women role models in tech will encourage more families to provide first-rate educations to daughters, as training in STEM disciplines is seen increasingly as an enabler of social mobility. The potential economic rewards of such a turnaround are enormous: McKinsey estimates that India would gain a $770 billion, or 18 per cent, boost to GDP by 2025 if it improved gender equality at the best-in-region rate.

Having said all that, even in tech the picture is far from perfect. Neotia, Asokan and Rai remain rare examples of women at the very top in tech roles. Although women fill more than a quarter of managerial roles in India’s tech industry, less than 1 per cent are in the C-Suite. There is momentum however, with the Open University-Nasscom report finding “a marked increase” in women in leadership over the past five years. Moreover, tech firms forecast strong growth in female leadership, with half projecting 20 per cent of women at C-Suite level. “Overall, the Indian IT sector is heading in the right direction toward recruiting and retaining more women in the highest leadership roles,” the report said.

Tech is a young sector in a young nation undergoing astonishing economic transformation. The demographic dividend stemming from India’s growing working age population promises to deliver its greatest payouts in tech. Conservative attitudes toward gender and social rank are less prevalent in the industry, which tends to embrace a more informal, collaborative and meritocratic work culture.

Elsewhere, India’s social divide is as powerful as its gender divide – and women in India’s tech sector still tend to be from elite backgrounds. Yet the fact that 20 per cent come from families where neither parent had a university education shows the industry to be a realistic path to a better future. It’s a factor that will only gain momentum as India becomes more technologically advanced.