Meet the IT girls

WOMENS LEADERSHIP FORUM

Meet the IT girls

WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY: (From L-R) Kathy Hill, Vasanthi Srinivasan,Susan Jain and Jignasha Patel at the Cisco Women’s  Leadership Forum held in Bangalore, recently.When Pallavi Arora took up her first job, she was the only woman to walk into what was until then an exclusive male domain. She had to get used to the pungent tobacco odour that constantly hung in the air and watch her male colleagues go out for parties in the evening while she had to head home.

Pallavi didn’t experience discrimination of any kind at work, but wherever she turned, she was reminded of her gender. Her biggest challenge was how to connect with the workforce that shared very few of her habits and attitudes, leave alone gender.

 “I started working in the 1990s, when there were very few women in customer support section of IT offices,” Pallavi, now a Senior Engineering Manager with Cisco, said, pointing at her mostly women colleagues walk through the swing door of the auditorium where Cisco was hosting its annual connected women leadership forum.


“It wasn’t like this in those days. A few years after I joined, there was one more girl in my team, which was kind of a big relief for me. But we were the only two women employees in that department for a long time.”

Her boss Alka Manchanda joins her in watching the energetic group of women and nods in agreement about the increasing numbers in recent years. “This is certainly different from our generation, when we were the first to enter engineering jobs more than two decades ago,” she says. “My dream was to study in the US and when I secured admission for my undergrad course, my dad was not convinced if I could go on my own and manage things in a foreign environment... totally different from how things are these days.”

Both Alka and Pallavi were inspired by their mothers, who were working women of their generation. But that didn’t prepare Pallavi for the unease of being the only woman in her first work place.

 “One day I had to attend to a customer call along with a male colleague. Since I rode a bike, it sounded only natural for me to offer him a lift. He felt embarrassed and quickly declined the offer, saying that in his culture it was beneath men to pillion-ride with women. Since he didn’t know how to ride a bike, all that he could do was to follow me in a rickshaw!”

But as she shifted to a more technical role towards the mid-1990s, the “culture shock” of being the only woman at work never repeated itself. “You need to have better skills to be a tech worker and your gender hardly matters,” Pallavi reasons.
Alka agrees. “I finished my master’s in the US and worked in one company before Cisco. I realised that skills mattered more in the technical domain. Since there was flexibility at the work place, it wasn’t very difficult for me to progress in my career. The real challenge, however, came much later when I was married and had to balance work and personal life.”
Even the seemingly challenging task like managing men, which Pallavi had to do after joining Cisco in the US and returning to India to take up a managerial role, appeared easy as she says her male colleagues respected her position and capabilities. But when it comes to apportioning time for both work and family, she says flexibility at the work place and co-operation on the home front are most important.

“Wipro, where I worked when I was pregnant with my son, was very flexible. I could continue supporting my family and my project team, giving my best to both. Of course there were limitations and that was when we looked up to colleagues in office and husband at home to chip-in,” Pallavi says.

“Getting flexible working hours or opting for ‘work from home’ may be good, but that still means you, as a team member, have to shoulder your side of the responsibilities,” says Alka, who grew from individual engineer to become Director of Engineering at Cisco.
“I did that well and so after I returned to work from maternity leave, I was straight away given a promotion.”

With nearly two decades and more at work, Alka and Pallavi are seeing their roles gradually extend from business heads and managers to that of mentors. With nearly 40 per cent of the IT workforce being women, better work-life balance and exercising flexibility to accomplish growth and contentment have become important even from the organisation's point of view.

“One of my juniors who was aiming for a managerial role became pregnant with her first child and was confused about her choices. As a young mother, she would need time to care for the baby and a managerial role would make that difficult. Though she reluctantly took my advice of delaying her managerial ambitions, she agreed that was the best thing to do when I met her a year later,” Pallavi says.

“Marriage  is probably the most important decision for girls these days,” Alka points out. “Their career progress depends on the choice of husband. The very fact that girls continue to think good husbands are a matter of luck speaks volumes of the pressure women face today. I often tell them to choose a man who respects their work and lets them remain financially independent.”

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