As far as women are concerned, a thought process that is prevalent in the industry is that they cannot handle the added responsibilities that leadership requires as they are also caregivers or have domestic responsibilities. Although this scenario has changed over the years by leaps and bounds, a lot more needs to be done. In a candid conversation with DataQuest, Daisy Chittilapilly, MD, Digital Transformation Office, Cisco, tells us about the reality on the perception towards women in the IT industry, certain initiatives that need to be taken by companies and women themselves, and the secret to her success.
How has the perception towards women in technology changed over the years, or has it changed at all?
Sometimes, you feel it has changed a lot and there are times when you feel it hasn’t changed at all. I think, there are circumstances where you feel every bit an equal, and I often feel that way. I actually have felt that way for most of my career inside the companies I worked for and definitely at Cisco, I feel like an equal every day I walk the floor. I was also very lucky to be at Wipro, where I also felt the same way. Inside the company I feel like an equal, but I have heard from friends that this is not the case in other companies, which perhaps have not been as equitable. I have personally not experienced an internal company environment where I have not felt like an equal, or where I have not felt heard or valued.
What must companies do to ensure that gender bias doesn’t take place?
I think one of the things that people and companies, and even the best companies are guilty of doing is they speak for women. What I mean by this is that companies make assumptions about what a woman’s abilities and interests are. They don’t make assumptions about capabilities because those are quite well displayed and documented, but they make assumptions on interests, wishes and preferences.
For example, they will make assumptions that a young mother will not be available for a strenuous job that calls for odd hours. I would say that the biggest thing that companies and recruiters can do is let women represent themselves.
I had an odd incident a few years ago where there was a discussion regarding a female employee on whether to put her up for an opening in her hometown. It was considered the best thing to do, to move her there because what could be better than moving a woman employee, with a single child back to the city of her aging parents. But when she was asked if she wanted to move, she refused.
This is also the part of the problem of unconscious bias, while conscious bias is very easy to deal with. Unconscious bias lets us believe that we are doing the right thing, and the right intent is sometimes more indifferent.
Firstly, companies must make an effort to find out what women want for themselves. Secondly, due to conditioning, women don’t often think they are ready for the job and this is again, where the power of a mentor or a sponsor in women’s career plays a strong role. More than a mentor, I would say the role of a sponsor is important. If companies are serious about becoming equal employers, they must have strong sponsors for women. Thirdly, take a risk and lean in. While women are 50% of the population, they are not 50% of the workforce and it only starts getting narrower and narrower as they go into leadership.
As far as a comeback after career breaks is concerned, what are the efforts that need to be taken by both women and the companies involved?
Cisco is making an effort to consciously bring women back to work. Maternity is one life event but in societies like India, women are also the primary care-givers and there are a number of other situations, with respect to parents, etc. Therefore Cisco has an active program, where if we have lost a woman from our company because of a life event then that should not be the end of their career at Cisco. We have now created a database or a pool of people who have left us for life events such as these, and we continue to speak to them, both formally and informally.
The reality of our world is that skills are expiring fast, making it incumbent for women to not completely lose sight of their relevance in the market place. It is understood that they will be different and they will be an off rank, but it’s also the responsibility of woman to stay relevant and updated. When women are on a complete break, they can either go back to part-time jobs, contract projects or even learn something new – coding language, program or a certification.
What is Daisy’s secret to success? What made her tick?
I never thought that there is an option where I would resign and sit at home. I never had that world view. Growing up I had the frame of mind that I would have my job as soon as I finished graduation, and when I started working I thought I would always work. There is always a balance and maybe sometimes there is a lack of balance and what I mean by that is some parts of my life will slip, at times and that’s okay. Sometimes my living room is not as clean as it should be, but I made my choice very early on, that some parts of my life will not always be in perfect shape all the time. Some days, I would not give myself 100 out of 100 at work and some days I would not give myself 100 out of 100 at home.
What are some of the other initiatives by Cisco to help women in your organization?
Cisco has always been flexible and we have been known for having a very flexible workplace. The good thing about our flexibility is that, it is a gender neutral flexible work policy. We believe that men also should have flexibility at work and should also be able to avail parental leave; So basically we are not enforcing the stereotypes around the roles of a woman at home. We tell husbands and fathers that you also have the ability to stay home and participate in parenting requirements or other decisions.
Our executive leadership at the company level is now 50% women, whereas 30% of our board is women. The leadership that develops the company does lead to a lot of conversations and soul searching.
We have a network of women which does a lot of best practices sharing within the industry at large, and when I say industry not just the tech but also the other corporate. We are constantly looking at ways and means to figure out how somebody else has undergone a better approach to solving the gender inequality problem. Then we try to learn from them, and we share what we do with them. So we do have a very active network, which is a structured group of people who go out and implement this. We also have a ’Girls in Tech’ event for 13 to 17 year ols, because for girls in particular, being an engineer in some parts of India is not the career to aspire for.
Cisco has a strong mentoring program where I would say that leaders at Cisco love to advocate and they are really successful doing so. From my experience, the good news is that the successful leaders of Cisco love to advocate for women and that is a much softer aspect of the way that individuals have decided to step up to the plate.
We also have a very unique initiative at Cisco called MFI – Men for Inclusion, which consists of a group of men who think about how they can help further the agenda of women’s participation inside Cisco and how they can bring more women to work at the company.