Can the Geek (Girls) Inherit the Earth

Written by V Shoba | New Delhi | Updated: Oct 6 2013, 23:00pm hrs
EyeGender code (Clockwise from top) Rashmi Mohan (second from left) mentors women in technical roles at Yahoo Labs, Bangalore; Gargi Dutta started an anime club in Kolkata; engineer Satabdi Das
Whether they are entrepreneurs or engineers, gamers or anime fans, women geeks find themselves up against stereotyping and a silent sexism.

Chetana Sukumar thought she had heard it all. You code like a woman. You sound like a virgin. But when someone wanted to throttle her and called her a f***ing bitch for playing a female toon on a multiplayer online game, it made her sit up and take note of the derision and misogyny that often follow women on the Web. Its as if we are rare birdswonderful, and for this reason, hunted, says Sukumar, 34, a hardware technologist from Bangalore who moved to Silicon Valley, California, early this year to be part of a crowd-funded content aggregation startup. She speaks, of course, for Indian women who have made inroads into the predominantly male world of capacitors and motherboards, busted into LAN parties and robotics contests, trawled Internet Relay Chats and programming forums, and played leading roles in multinational technology companies.

Skype-ing late into the night, Sukumar wears a messy topknot and oversized glasses, that totem of geek chic seen on Sabyasachi runways. She remembers the summer of 2006, the year she adopted this look. Being a female geek wasnt chic back then. People wondered why a good-looking woman would bury herself in code, she says. Today, popular culture has glamourised geeks, with sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory bringing them into the mainstream, but Sukumar says this hasnt necessarily empowered women in technology.

Womens participation in technology companies in India is now estimated at about 40 per cent at the entry level, tapering off to 20-25 per cent at the middle level and about 10 per cent at the senior managerial level. So when a bunch of successful women technologists got together to talk about the matter at an event held earlier this year in Bangalore, they were in for a pleasant surprise. Of the 250-odd women who attended the Women In Technology (WIT) Gig, most came looking for inspiration to further their careers in technology; some were aspiring entrepreneurs and almost none thought work-life balance was an issue. The organiser, Rashmi Mohan, an engineering manager at Yahoo Labs Bangalore, who also mentors women in technical roles at the company, says she has seen the female workforce evolve through her 13 years in the industry. Women increasingly want to take up technical roles. They want to be architects and they are willing to invest the time and the effort that the job requires, she says.

The stereotypes associated with geeks are fading, says Mohan, 36. I wear my geekdom as a badge of honour, she says. Honestly, we dont know why there arent more women in technology. We are trying to figure that out and shake things up. Lack of mentorship from within the community is a key reason, argues Noida-based Satabdi Das, an engineer who spends most of her time after work contributing to open-source software along with her husband and fellow techie Debamitro Chakraborti. The open-source community is not particularly women-friendly, especially for newbies. So, Das, 30, and other women, are part of forums meant specifically for women coders, including Linux Chix, PyLadies (for women who code in Python) and Rails Girls (Rails is a web application framework that runs on the Ruby programming language). Some of these communities arent very active in India. Outreach programmes can show women what is happening out there, what they could be a part of, Das says. At a recent event celebrating software freedom day, she noticed only half-a-dozen women in an audience of over a hundred. At technology events, women tend to feel like outsiders. Its often a subtle feeling but its there, she says.

Noopur Raval says she is used to being held under extreme scrutiny, both online and at technical meets. At developers conferences and programming workshops, she is often the only woman around. As a woman geek, you draw all manner of attention. On online forums, men help you, fetishise you, exoticise you, sledge you. But you know that for the tech community you are a prized possession, says Raval, 23, communications manager at Khoj, an association for artists, who is also pursuing an MPhil in film studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Raval, who grew up playing video games, has enough street cred as a geek. She spent a year with the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, and worked for the Wikimedia Foundation until four months ago. She continues to edit Wikipedia, but says it has its share of problems for women.

There is a gender gap in open source and open knowledge communities, including Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap, says Bishakha Datta, filmmaker, activist and trustee on the board of the Wikimedia Foundation. In a recent incident, while editing a Wiki entry on Asaram Bapu with a group of contributors, Raval was the only one who identified herself as a woman. There was a big argument about whether a mention should be made of the potency test he underwent, with some editors expressing concern about turning readers against him. In the end, we seemed to agree that the test and its result had become public knowledge and could therefore be cited, Raval says. But later, someone edited it out anyway. Raval feels women often dont have the disposition for such a showdown. Gayatri Buragohain, an electronics engineer who heads Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), an NGO based in Delhi that helps underprivileged women gain access to technology, says this is the reason many women mask their gender online. It is a masculine culture that prevails on technology forums, she says. In an age when most social discourses are guided by technology, womens voices are largely absent.

Zainab Bawa, a partner in Hasgeek, a Bangalore-based company that organises hackathons and other events for software developers, says women techies tend to be reticent when it comes to talking about their work. I wish they would speak up, says Bawa, who is vocal about the gender bias she faces as a female boss and organiser in a male-dominated industry.

For whatever reason, women tend to be less successful in the rarefied echelons of technology, says Mrudula Kanuri, director of architecture, chief technology office for the mobile business unit at Nvidia, Bangalore, which makes graphics processors and system-on-chip units for mobile computing. Kanuri is happy to juggle technical and managerial roles but says things get difficult as you move up the ladder. There were times when I worked more than 16 hours a day to get the job done. I often discussed the roles and responsibilities with my husband and he encouraged me to do what I like to do, she says. Kanuri was 16 when she decided to be an engineer, out of fascination for the PC, which was much less understood those days. She chose to make PCs rather than to write the software to drive them, and quickly churned out patents upon joining the semiconductor industry in the US. Over time, it got a bit harder. I felt that men were more in the loop. So I made it a point to have regular sync-up meetings with the guys who were to likely have more information on company direction, strategy and customer requests to improve our chips, she says.

It is this spirit of enterprise and the ability to take calculated risks that women techies must be encouraged to develop, says Valerie Wagoner, co-founder of ZipDial, a Bangalore-based mobile marketing company that uses missed calls as a platform. The biggest challenges that entrepreneurs face have nothing at all to do with gender, whether in India or in the West, she says. ZipDial was one of six startups selected from among dozens of entries at the Women Entrepreneur Quest (WEQ) held in Bangalore last year. WEQ is part of the highly respected annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, conducted in India for the past three years by the Anita Borg Institute, a non-profit organisation. The conference helps connect aspiring entrepreneurs with VCs and successful entrepreneurs, says Geetha Kannan, head of the India chapter of the Anita Borg Institute, who has in the past held managerial positions at tech companies including Infosys.

Where startup events usually see an ocean of men, with women conspicuously absent, WEQ is like a timed, all-woman reality show. We had 65 entries from women entrepreneurs last year and this year the number is likely to be much higher, says Manish Singhal, venture capitalist and chief mentor at WEQ. Singhal says the startup ecosystem is not prejudiced against women. Cultural notions are holding aspirations back. It is not the fault of the ecosystem, he says. It would certainly help to have a dedicated fund for women entrepreneurs in the mould of the US-based Golden Seeds Fund, points out Nidhi Saxena, founder of Karmic Lifesciences, a contract research organisation in Navi Mumbai. The personality of the woman geek has undergone a drastic change in recent years most successful female techies are also articulate and socially savvy now. With some support, they can also be successful entrepreneurs, she says.

It is true that the archetype of the male geek as being socially inept does not seem to extend to women. Women geeks are hot property in dating circles, says Raval, who herself prefers to date geeky men. Poornima Iyer, who runs Pinaka Interactive, a game design and development company based in Navi Mumbai, says women no longer fall into neat little categories. There are women gamers and developers who love their designer bags just as much as they love their games. I watch romantic comedies and I like sci-fi and fantasy, she says. You shape your own identity. Never mind the chauvinists.

A geek, by definition, is driven by passion, not the need to conform. And if ever there was an anime geek, it would have to be Gargi Dutta. Just 13 when she got hooked to Japanese culture and anime, Dutta has pretty much built her life around her passion. I liked anime so much, I began to learn Japanese and even decided to study animation, says Dutta, 24, who is now a full-time Japanese interpreter and a freelance animation illustrator. It is no surprise that Dutta also founded the first full-fledged anime community in Kolkata the Kolkata Anime Club (KAC). When I first started watching anime, I was the only one in my school. It was such a closet affair because people would tease you, saying they were just cartoons for children, she says. Whatever inhibitions Dutta had are in the past now, and she proudly embraces her inner otaku the Japanese term for those obsessed with anime and manga. Even now, girls are apprehensive about coming out about anime and manga, Dutta says. At KAC meets, the number of boys who turn up is often twice that of girls. Wamika Kapur, 21, a member of the Pune Anime Club (PAC), is quick to rubbish the stereotypes but the numbers tell another story. There are only two women at PAC who are currently active, and one of them is Kapur. The Mumbai Anime Club is the most gender-balanced of the lot, with almost half of the 70-80 members being women.

Most geeks meander into the world of technology very young. Ask 20-year-old Aishwarya Hendre. One of the few girls to have represented India at ABU RoboCon, an international student robotics competition, she has always wanted to know how machines work. A third-year engineering student, Hendre was part of the tech team at the Maharashtra Institute of Technology, Pune, for the past two years but opted to sit out the competition this year to focus on academics. Even then, I spend most of my free time here, she says. Here is a tin-roofed workshop, where a group of young engineers is poring over a machine that looks like a cross between a pedal scooter and a stapler. Four of the 25-strong team are girls. Prajakta Gokhale, a final-year student, says they love robots equally. Gokhale and her teammates often spend all day, sometimes even 48 hours at a stretch, in the lab, when the competition draws near. When we are working on a bot, time seems to fly, she says.

Neha Nelge, 18, is fascinated by circuit board design and development. With her straight black hair falling in bangs and a ponytail, Nelge wears fashionably faded jeans, a black T-shirt and a sweater casually wrapped about her. We work on tough problems in this lab. But we also have fun, discuss ideas and eat out often, she says. In robotics, where so few women venture, girls are not treated any differently, says Ria Deshpande, a first-year student. We have to put in the same number of hours, the same work, she says. She points to an enormous desk and adds: We lugged that from the fourth floor of a building nearby. I am going to chop it and make legs and a platform for the robot." Sukumar dreams of building a platform of a different kind. It will be a cool online space where women programmers can hang out and let their hair down, she says. Code of honour Be a woman.

with Prajakta Hebbar & Debjani Paul