The ‘glass ceiling’ is in the mind

Last Updated 08 March 2019, 09:11 IST

Some days ago, I had the privilege to conduct a discussion with an all-women panel. These were four women leaders in a rarefied subset of the high-tech industry – chip design, or more broadly, electronics system design and manufacturing (ESDM). The panel was called ‘Women in Tech’. A few days before the event, the panellists sent me an unexpected demand through the organisers – “We don’t want to discuss stuff like the glass ceiling, work-life balance for women, etc. We want to discuss technology and business and what we each do. No ‘soft’ issues.”

Initially, I sought to explain that we had to discuss the ‘soft’ issues, too, because those issues still affected a lot of women adversely and many of them reading our paper would want them to be addressed. Later, however, I saw my panellists’ point and began to appreciate it. They seemed to be saying, “We don’t see any point crying over the same problems of why women can’t achieve what they want to. We want to say to the world, women can achieve whatever they want to today.” Indeed, women can. These four women had, and that was the proof they wanted to put out before other women. It’s another matter, of course, that they themselves brought up some of the ‘soft’ issues during the discussion, but there was no indulging in self-pity over them. Rather, the attitude in their comments was, “well, that’s just the way it is. Acknowledge that and get on with it!”

The women were (1) Chitra Hariharan, a veteran engineer and chip-designer who takes care of operations and product development at SenZopt Technologies, an Internet of Things company that she co-founded. Chitra started her career at ITI’s VLSI Design division where she worked on chips for space and military applications. Today, she builds chips and devices that help buildings run themselves; (2) Swapna Gupta, an engineer and MBA who leads Qualcomm Venture’s investments in early stage tech companies in India; (3) Madhavi Rao, marketing director at Cadence, who picked up technology along the way in her communications role; and (4) Poornima Shenoy, who does not have an engineering background but is a serial entrepreneur in the high-tech space, now on her third venture, The Gain, and a former president of the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA).

“So, the chip design industry is a lot more esoteric and sophisticated than a pure software play, right?” I started out, sort of implying the “is it the place for women?” bias.

Chitra cut in, “Chip design calls for a lot of focus. There’s a lot riding on a chip. You have to do it quickly and get it out to the market, and you have to get it right the first time. In software, you can correct and perfect in an iterative process; with chips, mistakes prove costly for the company”.

Poornima provided the ultimate logic. “Engineers starting out in hardware and chip design earn twice as much as those in software. Why should women lose out on these high-paying jobs!”

Swapna brought in the pride factor. “Google Maps, Uber Eats, etc., all wouldn’t have been, but for the hardware platforms on which they run”. Madhavi added that the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon were all trying to design and build their own chips. “So, that’s a huge opportunity coming up in the ESDM industry and in India.”

I got the message: Women love the challenge of the chip design industry as much as men do; women love the money as much as men do; they feel the same pride in their work, and they now have the same opportunities!

But biases die hard. “Actually”, I started, “I was reading about the history of computing and I believe there were a lot more women in the industry in its early days. Has it become too complicated now?”

Poornima didn’t think so. “We do not see any problem about women getting into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects. More than 50% of the classes in computer science or electronics are girls today; in South India, it’s closer to 80%. But we do need to see more women in chip design.

Said Chitra, “There are women in the industry, but there should be many more. Companies provide all that is required to enable them to work – from transport to flexi hours and work-from-home options. Women bring different kinds of skills to the table. Diversity is important for companies”.

Did these women all set out to be in the chip design industry, or did they land there by accident?
“I actually always had this fascination for electronics. I used to enjoy figuring out how things work. And I was lucky I got into electronics as a discipline and then into ITI’s VLSI chip design team. It was such a proud moment for me when the first chip I worked on was used in ISRO’s PSLV! Those days, there was great pride in doing something for the nation!”

Swapna always loved to tinker and became an electronics engineer. Along the way, I did my MBA and got into the business side of things, but I wanted to return to innovation mode and hence moved to Qualcomm Ventures, where every day I breathe tech, I learn something new and am talking to people who are innovating.

Alright, gender doesn’t matter. It was time to talk tech and business, then, just like with the guys. How do you do chip design in a country that has no state-of-the-art semiconductor Fab? “Oh, the standard thing you hear from most people in the manufacturing industry is about the Fab, that there is no Fab in India. You are not going to get any solutions if you seek out only the problems. We need to get over it, we need to tell ourselves it’s not there, let’s work around it”, Swapna says.

What’s the kind of technology you are working on currently? “At SenZopt,” says Chitra, “we pick off-the-shelf chips and build products out of them by building all the sensors and controllers around them, provide intelligence in the devices we make. So, you need to have Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, etc., capabilities.

And then, we talked about whether silicon-based computing was reaching its limits, about Quantum Computing, DNA Computing, AI and Robotics, and so on. Who said only boys know toys?!

Are there enough women taking to entrepreneurship and seeking out VC money? “Frankly, I’ve seen women who are co-founders. Have they independently taken the lead to start a business. Not sure. The only entrepreneur I have seen in this space (ESDM) is Chitra”, says Poornima. “I don’t think it has to do with gender, it’s a question of whether you have the guts or not. These are people with at least 15-20 years in the field, and it’s not easy to give up a high-paying job and start something that may take 2-3 years to stabilise and get going or may not work at all. And it’s the same for men or women.”

Swapna does point to problems that women seem to face in taking to entrepreneurship or be able to win over venture capitalists. Firstly, women face the “funnel problem”, dropping off from education and from pursuing a career at various stages – marriage, having a child, etc. Even for women who cross these bridges, they have few role models to follow; when they overcome that, too, women standing in front of the VC still tend to doubt themselves even if they are ahead of the male competition for the same money in terms of technology and the business plan, she says.

That perhaps is a bit of hardwiring into women that needs to be pulled out so they can unlearn what has come through not so much nature but nurture.

“I think we should stop telling our girls to be good girls and instead push them to go out and take risks”.

(Published 07 March 2019, 18:41 IST)

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