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Our Women Our (S)heroes

Women

What’s common between computer compilers, caller ID, windscreen wipers, space station batteries, dishwashers, disposable diapers, home security systems, solar-heated homes, foot pedal dustbins, bulletproof vests, and invisible glass? The answer is—They were all invented by women!

The field of technology was male dominated for a long time. In India, the barrier breakers were A Lalitha, PK Thressia and Leelamma George from The College of Engineering, Guindy, the oldest technology institute in India.

A Lalitha was our first woman electrical engineer and her life’s journey is very inspiring. She got married when she was just 15, had a baby at the age of 18 and her husband passed away when the baby was just 4 months of age. She had to, as a single mother, stand on her own feet and she enrolled herself at The College of Engineering, where her father was working as professor. Such was the male dominance that Latha was the only girl in the institute and her father had to place an ad in the newspapers to get more women into engineering. Thressia and Leelamma joined the college the same year, and they graduated with Civil Engineering degrees in 1943.

Though Lalitha went on to research electrical devices and work at different companies, she could not reach her full potential at work due to gender-based discrimination. She was however a fighter, and emerged a true winner. She went on to work on the electrical generators project of the Bhakra Nangal Dam and also became a member of Women’s Engineering Society of London and the Institution of Electrical Engineers and Society of Women engineers in the US where she represented Indian women. What I personally learnt from the inspiring story of A Lalitha was ‘Never ever give up, no matter what’.

Today, women have evolved from trying to become engineers, to choosing different career paths such as stand-up comedy, content creation and jobs in many creative fields. While women have come a long way, it is true that today’s woman continues to face challenges given that she has to excel on all fronts. The question now is, what would she need to do, to be able to learn, grow and ace at different stages of her journey?

The early learning: If I were to divide a woman’s learning and career journey into stages, Stage 1 would be the early learning phase when a girl is in her early years; the foundation is still the most important of all. Right from the early stages of her life, a girl needs to be instilled with confidence that she will be accepted with all her strengths and her shortcomings. There should be no expectation for her to be the perfect daughter, wife, mother and so on. I remember that as a child, I had no insight into gender-based discrimination as my parents and school treated me like an individual outside of my gender. This created a foundation for my thought-process of considering myself to not be less than anyone.

Mithali Raj, India women’s cricket team’s ex-captain and also one of the best cricketers to step foot on the ground, said that her father encouraged her love for cricket and she took to it at the early age of 10. Seeding the idea of STEM education as well at this stage provides a girl with the confidence that she will be able to excel in the field of science and technology where women were seen to be in less numbers even until recent times.

The early career: Stage 2, if I may call it so, are the early years of a woman’s career where, post her graduation/post-graduation, a woman enters the workforce. The ecosystem usually is more conducive to learning new things and growing as she is not juggling on a lot of fronts. As has been confirmed through multiple surveys, entry level job seekers often lack basic coding skills or industry-readiness, and women in Tier 2 and 3 cities face increased discrimination. To be successful, women skilling themselves in technical and soft skills are of paramount importance.

The Mid-level career: Stage 3 is the mid-phase of women’s careers where the family ecosystem needs to support their growth and aspirations. Despite commitment from firms to make it healthier workplaces for women, women face issues leading to burnout and negative mental health, which have further increased during the pandemic. Women need to keep upskilling themselves at this stage to stay relevant (even when they take breaks). It gives them confidence to get better jobs/careers or to bring in continuity in their employment. Leadership development and experiential learning for women are also very crucial at this stage. Importantly, they need to be able to have continuity in their employment and reduce dropouts.

The Senior leadership level: During Stage 4 where women are in senior leadership positions, requirements at the home front would normally have shifted from taking care of children to possibly taking care of elders in the family. An ecosystem that supports taking care of elders when they are unavailable or a fair division of responsibility does help at all times. One-on-one coaching, leadership training, cross-country leadership opportunities, opportunities to shadow and be mentored by senior leaders and many more such focused programs help women reach the pedestal of their careers.

I truly believe that skilling during various stages in a woman’s career would help women fight the challenges they face. These would be a) setting a strong foundation of equality, confidence and STEM education during early learning b) technical and behavioural skilling in their early careers c) leadership development to boost their paths and to maintain continuity for employment in the mid-level stage of their careers and d) focused programs in the senior leadership stage of their careers.

With these in mind, IBM has designed technical trainings that can be found on the SkillsBuild platform for everyone in the undergraduate and school segment to upskill themselves for a better career trajectory. Access to IBM cloud and software for downloading have also been made available by IBM for the purposes of research and skilling.

STEM for girls was designed by IBM for a comprehensive approach towards technical skills building, as well as life and self-actualization skills to meet 21st-century challenges. More than 235,000 girls from government schools across 13 states of India are currently a part of the STEM program since the inception of the program in 2019.

As has been wisely quoted by Michelle Obama, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens”. After 75 years of the Independence of India, let each of us vow to support at least one woman in our lives in whichever way possible, to make a difference in the journey of her career.

By Mona Bharadwaj

Global University Programs Leader-India, IBM India

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