Musing about inclusion in technology

My thanks to Phillie Casablanca for the delightfully evocative notice above.

I was born a foreigner.

While my hereditary roots were from southern India, I was born and brought up in Calcutta, as was my father before me. And for the first 23 years of my life, I knew no other city. Never lived anywhere else. But my surname gave away my southern roots: I wasn’t a true Bengali.

I am one of five siblings. When we were young, we used to spend a good deal of time every summer in Tambaram, on the campus of Madras Christian College. My grandfather was Professor of Chemistry there. Though I had bloodlines traced back to those parts, my accent gave away my north-eastern roots: I wasn’t a true Tamil.

I was born a foreigner.

A somewhat privileged foreigner, born into a Brahmin family (and an ostensibly well-to-do one at that). A family that took multiple copies of the Statesman so that we could each do the Times crossword on an unsullied diagram. Using a pen, of course. A family that played billiards and duplicate bridge and scrabble and chess. A family that devoured the written word.

So I didn’t really know much about being discriminated against. But, as Einstein reminded us, common sense is the collection of prejudices one collects by age eighteen. And I’m sure I had my fair share of prejudices. With three sisters, a bevy of aunts and a truly matriarchal grandmother, it was somewhat difficult for me to inculcate gender bias into my prejudice collection.

Which was probably a good thing, since the first boss I had was a woman, and since the person who gave me the job, her boss, was also a woman; I wrote about them as part of my Ada Lovelace Day pledge some time ago here.  [Incidentally, some of you may be aware of this recent incident in my life, which somehow made it into the Times City Diary, and thence into syndicated journals far and wide. Including one in Hong Kong. Which led to my getting back in touch with the woman who started me off in my professional career.]

That first job was a great job, and I learnt a lot. A genuine meritocracy; the nearest I came to any form of discrimination was when it came to publicity shots for the firm; a small number of us, foreign in origin, skin or gender, used to get wheeled in for all such occasions. It was done in such a spirit that we didn’t really consider it tokenism.

I soon learnt a little bit about discrimination the hard way, when my skull and forehead made repeated contact with some fairly large Doc Martens belonging to a group of young gentlemen with very short haircuts, and the resultant coma kept me quiet for a short while. But that was a rare and aberrant event, and all of twenty-seven years ago.

When I look back on the last thirty years, I tend to think of the industry I work for as fairly inclusive; perhaps it had more to do with the firms I worked for. BT, where I’ve been for the last four years (how time flies), for example, has an exemplary record on diversity and inclusiveness; people like Sally Davis, CEO of BT Wholesale, and Caroline Waters, director of people and policy, lead by example. Caroline was recently awarded an OBE for services to diversity and equal opportunity.

In many ways, the industry is itself designed to be inclusive: it’s about brains, not brawn. It is possible to work in an office as well as remotely. Shiftwork is possible, and there are opportunities to work in or with many timezones. The industry is just barely old enough to become ageist, so we’ve been able to avoid doing that. The work we do helps people use computers and communicate regardless of  physical or linguistic constraints; in many cases computers can be used to overcome those constraints.

Which brings me to the reason for this post: the recent debates about Women in Tech.  Shefaly Yogendra has done an excellent job in bringing together the different strands of argument and discussion, while providing us with the origins and context of the debate here.

Anyway, a number of people, including @shefaly, @thinkmaya and @freecloud, wanted to know where I stand on this issue.

So here’s my two-penn’orth:

We can all argue about the why, but there’s no disputing the what. Women are underrepresented in a number of dimensions in the tech world, and this is noticeable in conference line-ups and in start-up founder lists. This is particularly odd because there are a lot of talented women in this space: I am privileged to count many of them amongst my friends. There are many possible reasons for this phenomenon, and many possible ways of fixing it.

I think we need to make sure that one possible reason is dealt with, because it’s the kind of reason that could overlook. An anchoring-and-framing kind of reason. Let me give you an example.

Take The Indus Entrepreneurs, TiE in short. Many of you must have heard of them. While TiE is an inclusive network that advises, supports and mentors would-be entrepreneurs, its origins were different. I believe TiE was created to ensure that people of South Asian extraction were given the funding opportunities they were otherwise being denied. There was general acceptance of the engineering excellence of such people, but for some reason question marks were raised about their ability to run companies. Which meant that the “engineers” never got funded when they went forward with business plans.

I think we need to make sure that something similar is not happening here, in terms of unintended consequences as a result of anchors and frames. We need to make sure that we eradicate prejudices that go along the lines of: Women don’t code. Founders must code. So women can’t found startups…..

Generalisations, like comparisons, are always odious. Many parts of the industry are open and inclusive and meritocratic. Nevertheless, the numbers don’t add up, the evidence suggests we have a bias somewhere, and we have to do something, do whatever we can, to correct it. So I’m all for what people like TED and DLD are doing.

Systemic problems often need systemic solutions; awareness-raising initiatives can often provide the quantum energy required to remove historical biases, particularly subtle ones.

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