Gayatri Buragohain on Women and Technology in India
By Kirk L. Kroeker
(This interview appeared in
CACM, January 2011.)
Buragohain, Indiaís ACM-W Ambassador and a member of the ACM
India Council, is an outspoken advocate for young women in
India who are interested in technical careers but face an
opportunity deficit due to legacy gender bias. Buragohain
founded the nonprofit Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT)
in 2007, and for her advocacy and mentoring efforts was the
recipient of the Anita Borg Instituteís Change Agent Award
Based in New Delhi, Buragohain not only focuses on
providing local women with real-world technical training and
vocational guidance through FAT, but also leads Joint Leap
Technologies, a technology consulting and development firm
that works closely with FAT and serves as its primary
Buragohain is invited regularly to conferences, seminars,
and other events to talk about issues ranging from
technology education to the representation of women in
leadership positions. She talked with Communications of the
ACM about what motivates her and the issues she faces in her
efforts to foster gender parity in the workplace and equal
opportunities for young women interested in technical
How did you come to be interested in a career in
I come from a small town and a middle-class family in
India. Thirteen years back, when I finished school, kids my
age used to have only two options for a career: doctor or
engineer. I did not want to be a doctor, so I ended up
getting into engineering school. It sounds funny, but itís
the truth. Back then, that was the craze. Everyone wanted
their kids to be either a doctor or an engineer. And getting
into either field used to be very competitive. However,
after getting my degree, it was very tough to get a job in
my native place, Assam. Even though I had a degree in
electronics and telecommunications, I had to work for a call
center, and then I got into Web development to earn money.
Somehow, I got hooked on Web technologies.
Was there a particular point in your career when
you began to feel a sense of urgency about womenís issues
and, in particular, about womenís role in the world of
Yes. Although I was a born feminist, and always worried
about the injustice and inequality toward women as I saw it
happen around me, I did not quite know what I could do about
it. After I moved to Delhi, I started working at a womenís
rights organization as their network support and Web
administrator. In this position, I got to meet many women
and discuss womenís rights issues with them. Thatís when I
realized the gap between womenís empowerment and technology,
and that most women are unaware of and disconnected from
technology. Even progressive womenís rights organizations
were not thinking about the latest challenges created for
women by technology or how technology can be used to empower
women further, or how womenís participation in technology is
badly needed. Thatís when I felt an urgency and decided to
quit my job to start FAT.
Youíve written about how there cannot be equality
unless we consider the use of technology in our everyday
lives. Do you mean by this that you see gender bias in
technical products themselves or in how technology is
marketed and consumed?
Both. The whole domain of technology is presently
catering to men. And yes, the caterers are also men. Women
form just a tiny fraction of the technology makers, but a
huge part of the technology users. I often give this simple
analogy to explain the situation. If a male tailor is told
to make a garment, by default he will make something that he
would wear. Now if that garment is sold as a unisex garment,
will it fit everyone well? Also, the marketing of technical
products is so sexist and offensive that most women will not
be inclined to look at the product just because of the way
it is marketed.
Youíve also written about how indirect
discrimination is not nearly as obvious as overt violence
against women but can be just as detrimental to women. Can
you elaborate on what you mean by indirect discrimination,
and how the work youíre doing with FAT may help counter it?
I would like to give the simple example from a friend who
works for a well-known multinational corporation. When I
asked her if she has ever felt any gender discrimination in
her workplace, she readily told me that she actually felt
more privileged as a woman. When a man makes a silly mistake
in his code, not only does the manager yell at him and make
him work late hours until he gets the code right, but also
his coworkers may even ridicule him. When a woman makes
similar mistakes, she is not yelled at. Quite often the
manager asks someone else to take over so she does not have
to work late hours to find her mistake.
While my friend felt that this means the manager is nice
to women team members, it also means that this nice behavior
comes with a huge loss of credibility in doing good work,
with the result being no proper feedback or a chance to
correct the mistake. The reaction to the male team memberís
mistake is also discrimination and not correct, but still it
comes with the opportunity to learn from the mistake. This
doesnít mean the manager should shout at the woman as well
and make her work late to find her fault. We need gender
equality and equal opportunities in workplacesówhich means
policies and practices that respect human rights for both
men and women equally, and that work well for both.
In certain situations, a female employee may need some
special consideration because she is a woman. We need to be
gender-sensitive, not gender-blind. Similarly, making sexist
remarks about other women in front of female colleagues, or
sharing uncomfortable jokes, or not including a female
colleague in a discussion, even though the exclusion may be
unintentional, are all discriminatory. They discourage women
in male-dominated work spheres and may make women feel like
they do not belong there.
The fact that there are fewer women in technology has
nothing to do with womenís technical ability. One hundred
years ago, women were not allowed to work in industries and
study technology. That has resulted in making the technical
workforce male-dominated. But today, as women are coming
into the field, it has become so male-oriented that women
donít feel welcome.
At FAT, we are trying to raise the awareness about this
situation and find ways to improve it. Unlike in the U.S.
and the U.K., in India there is no discussion related to
women and technology. Only when we accept that there is a
problem, will we be able to find the solutions.
Youíve been an outspoken advocate for educational
policy changes as a way to dismantle legacy gender bias in
India. Can you talk about a few educational policy changes
that you hope to see implemented in the coming years? What
sort of impact do you see these changes having in the near
term and in the long term?
School textbooks should have illustrations, photos, and
text that break gender stereotypes, not reinforce them. Even
today in many schools, girls are encouraged to learn cooking
and embroidery while boys are encouraged to learn electrical
work and carpentry. Even though the classes are not marked
as for boys or for girls only, this division in the class
happens by default, due to general perceptions. It should be
the teachersí responsibility to break such perceptions and
ensure that both boys and girls take technical classes.
Gender sensitization of teachers in urgently required.
Computer education is not enough. All students should be
given the opportunity to learn basic day-to-day technical
work. While boys usually learn at home or from friends,
girls do not get a chance to learn basic electrical work or
mechanical work. Unless they donít see how interesting it
is, they will never have the opportunity to choose whether
they want to learn it. In the short term, these changes may
be challenging, but in the long run they will definitely
change perceptions of gender roles and inherent abilities.
These changing perceptions not only will reduce gender
disparity in technology but also will definitely result in a
more gender-just society.
And in terms of leadership positions, what are
your thoughts these days on achieving gender parity in the
workplace? Do you believe changing corporate culture is
possible in the near term?
When it comes to gender parity in the workplace in India,
the reason for womenís dropout is more because of the status
of women in Indian society rather than gender discrimination
in the workplace. Although Indian society has gone through
great transformations due to globalization, the status of
women is still as the primary caretaker of the family.
Most women leave the workforce between the ages of 25 to
32óthe prime age to grow in your career to reach a
leadership positionóbecause that is the age they get married
and have kids. Many times, women also take a break from work
because they have to take care of elders in the family. I
feel that change in corporate culture alone is not going to
change the situation much. There should be a change in the
role of women in the family and hence equality within the
family as well.
Corporate culture is changing, and it is possible to
change it even further. Most companies are making efforts to
retain their women employees. However, more efforts that
keep in mind the lack of support by family and state are
needed. Some suggestions would be child-care facilities,
mentoring, flexible work hours, flexible leave policy, and
While there are some statistics available on the
number of women working in IT in India, youíve mentioned in
the past that data is lacking. Can you talk about the latest
statistics and what sort of research needs to be done to get
a better handle on the issue?
The latest statistics available are from NASSCOM-Mercerís
2009 Gender Inclusivity in India study, which has some data
relevant to the IT industry. According to NASSCOM, 23% of
the IT workforce is women. We need extensive studies across
all technical sectors, not just in large corporations but in
small and midsize businesses, government departments,
educational institutions, and research institutions. To
handle this issue more effectively, we need statistics on
students as well. We also need research on which technical
sectors have the fewest women and why.
In addition, we need details about what roles women play
in each technical sector. Are they engineers, scientists,
and researchers, or are they in training, testing, and
marketing? We need to know how the skewed gender ratio in
technical fields relates to societal beliefs, such as son
preference, gender division of labor, and so on. Finally, we
need research on womenís access to technical education.
Having details about economic class, caste, and religion of
the women in technology would be useful too.
As you work in your daily mentoring and advocacy
efforts, are you encouraged by the current pace of change or
does it feel like youíre fighting an uphill battle?
I do feel like I am fighting an uphill battle. Quite
often we tend to be happy that there are so many working
women now in India, and most of them seem to be working in
the technology domain. That is why there is this perception
that the Indian technology workforce has a lot of new
age-empowered women. But when you probe more deeply into it,
the percentage is still 23%, which means itís actually not
that great. Most of the women are not technology creators.
And, most importantly, are they really empowered women?
The new age Indian woman is burdened by double
responsibilityóof being the caregiver of the family as well
as earning for the family. She is still not there in that
job for her personal growth or personal contribution to
science and technology. That is why at some stage she
definitely has to choose between her job and her family. We
still do not see this issue as a women's rights issue.
Also, when we are talking about this, we are forgetting
that India has a population of 1.3 billion, 48% of which are
women. A majority of women do not have the option of
choosing a technical education or a technical career. I
would like to see research that gives me the percentage of
women in India that do get access to technology education
and technical work. I fear it may come to less than 10%.
Whatís the most exciting thing happening now with
FAT and Joint Leap Technologies?
FAT has just received its first grant. We are hiring for
the first time. We are excited to soon have a small team in
place that will carry forward our mission. This is the
beginning of the organization, so it feels like finally we
are in action. Joint Leap Technologies will continue to
provide Web support to its clients and hence fundraise for
What advice do you have for young women
interested in technical careers in India?
Be more informed about opportunities and be prepared to
grab them. Donít feel pressured to do what others do or what
others expect you to do. If you feel like you want to make a
career in technology, you have got what you need. All you
need to do is chase your dream.
Kirk L. Kroeker works in communications
and has written extensively about the impact of emerging