Women in Indian tech: a journey of promise

A look at how India’s tech sector invests in helping female talent reach their greatest potential.


India’s path towards gender parity has been a rocky one. In 2021, the country dropped 28 places on the WEF Gender Gap Index to 140th among 156 countries. Labour participation fell from 24.8% to 22.3%, and women held only 14.6% of senior and managerial roles with just 8.9 % of firms with women as top managers.

The country’s technology sector however presents a more hopeful picture. With 1.5 million women, tech companies in India are the largest employer of women in the organised private sector according to National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM) research. In 2020  more than one in three employees were women, a definite improvement from the 20% of 2004 and 1.5x times the participation rate for India Inc., as a whole. The number of women in executive roles has also doubled over the last three years.

The reasons for better gender parity in tech

In the mid-2000s, NASSCOM encouraged the Indian tech sector to launch gender diversity initiatives to tackle growing talent shortages. Since then, the industry has made steady progress in hiring and nurturing female talent. Currently, 60%+ of mid-size and large companies have formal diversity programs.

As STEM education is highly valued in India, and technology is accepted as a socially approved career for women, partly in response to the industry’s initiatives, this has led to a considerable talent pool. Today, the country turns out more female STEM graduates than some developed nations and women formed 44% of net hiring by the Indian tech sector in FY 2020, according to NASSCOM.  

On the leadership front as well, the last few years have seen far more frequent announcements of a woman moving into the 'corner office' of Indian tech operations. And this has happened as the result of some informed policy-making.

“Those like me are not an overnight phenomenon,” observes Daisy Chittilapilly, who took over as President of Cisco’s India & SAARC operations in mid-2021 after 25 years in the industry, most of them at Cisco.

“Rather, we are the outcome of many conversations about enabling an equitable workforce for women, which led to companies with a conscious culture, including Cisco, making a consistent effort to build an environment for women to flourish. So, what we are seeing now is women who have been groomed through entry-level and mid-management and emerging as leaders just like men do.”

But the Indian tech sector continues to pay close attention to the issue of gender parity. Women occupy roughly 20% of executive roles, NASSCOM research has found, which is much lower than entry-level participation.

“This is a journey we are on,” says Chittilapilly, “and I think we are miles away from declaring victory.”

Missing steps on the ladder

In a country with very basic, sometimes non-existent state schooling, the limiting of horizons for a woman can begin before she even steps into the workplace. In the absence of external support during the formative years, a woman’s career trajectory depends heavily on her family’s liberal thinking and status.

As a launching pad, NASSCOM research has found that a relatively privileged background with at least one parent who is university educated is far more important for women technologists (80%) than men (67.4%).

With safety worries, it is also not uncommon for Indian families to insist that girls choose colleges closer to home. While this is done out of concern, it keeps talented female students out of the top institutes which send candidates to blue-chip firms.

Once in the workplace, social norms can continue to impede a woman’s progress. For instance, a woman may be counselled by her family circle to settle for career choices that do not utilise her complete potential but allow her the time to carry out caregiving duties.

These social limitations have led to a self-perpetuating cycle where women are not able to rise through the ranks as often as they should and each new generation is short of role models. Notes Madhurima Agarwal, Director - Engineering Programs and Leader - NetApp Excellerator, an accelerator program by technology enterprise NetApp that supports women tech founders through a targeted program, NetApp ExcellerateHER, “Since there are very few successful women founders, there is that hesitancy to take the first step. It's more difficult for a woman to believe she can do this.” Only one in ten tech co-founders are women, as per NASSCOM research.

Adapting for the Indian context

The Indian tech sector strives hard to tailor its gender diversity initiatives to address local factors. “Many of our programs have been designed, curated, and rolled out keeping in mind India challenges, which  are slightly different from global challenges,” notes Ruhi Ranjan, Senior Managing Director, Accenture, who also handles inclusion and diversity for India.

For example, Accenture runs a recruitment and training program in India for female graduates of lower-tier engineering colleges. These are institutions the company usually does not hire from. The selected candidates, who don’t always come from very privileged backgrounds, are absorbed after a 12-week internship.

Accenture's technology upskilling program for Indian women employees is another instance of customisation for the Indian context. The certification courses required committing a significant amount of time at once which women are unable to do due to multiple demands. Ranjan’s team got past this obstacle by extending the duration of the courses and making them self-paced.  Women also take the courses in groups so they can support and learn from each other.

Companies are also finding that hybrid work aligns well with the Indian woman’s need for flexibility. While the pandemic has not been great for gender equality in India, it has had a positive impact on the prospects of white-collar women professionals, technologists forming a large percentage of them. Tech employers are leveraging this to retain female talent as well as bring them back into the workforce.

“Women are telling us they want the freedom to decide where they will work from, not necessarily only from home. And they have shown us they can still be as productive, and deliver to the business and their own goals. The pandemic has been a successful experiment on this and hybrid work has become a formula for the future,” says Chittilapilly.

Creating an equitable environment

Women working in the Indian tech sector receive the same support as their global counterparts to balance their caregiving responsibilities with work. This includes a decent amount of parental leave, childcare allowances and facilities, and programs to transition back to work after career breaks. A few return-to-work programs for new mothers have seen retention rates upwards of 90%, as per NASSCOM research.

Community platforms where women employees learn from and mentor each other, and do not feel alone in facing challenges have been found effective in the Indian tech sector like elsewhere. Male allyship initiatives have boosted inclusion in the Indian tech workplace, in line with global observations.  “Seventy percent of the people in Cisco are men. We realized a few years ago that they need to be part of this conversation,” says Chittilapilly of the allyship initiative at Cisco. “These platforms help allyship, and support from the majority group becomes a sustainable practice within the workforce, without companies having to look over people's shoulders all the time.”

And finally that much-needed impetus, leadership development. NASSCOM research says 20% of tech companies are investing in programs that build career intentionality amongst women – a number that needs to increase.  “When I ask women what their career vision is, a lot of times, I don’t get a response. Women have to realize that if they see themselves in a leadership role, they have to start investing in it, they have to start building the skills which will help enable their vision,” observes Ranjan.

Some tech companies have leadership programs that are global in scope, and many focus on addressing women’s unique struggles with gunning for the top job. “It has created a good impact,” says Ranjan of an award-winning leadership program for women at Accenture. High potential women candidates who went through the program have gone on to take up leadership roles.

The coming years

Deeply entrenched societal beliefs are not easily uprooted. They subject minority groups to daily microaggressions and exclusionary practices. It is not very different for Indian women. Even a relatively inclusive environment like the Indian tech sector is not completely free from discriminatory patterns such as pay gaps and perception bias.

But India now has a growing number of female achievers in numerous spheres. These role models have emerged, despite odds, due to enlightened parenting, supportive families, teachers and mentors. Girls, women and their support systems are looking and learning and there is a sense of great possibility.

And the Indian tech sector is one of the areas at the forefront of this change. It has continually persevered to meet women aspirants more than halfway and is producing role models for female leadership who are actively giving back. The future looks hopeful.