LEAN OUT

What happened to the women who graduated from IITs in the 90s?

Quartz india
Quartz india

Last year, India passed landmark legislation to fix the abysmal sex ratio in corporate boardrooms—all publicly traded companies needed to put at least one woman on their board. It was a radical law, given that about two-thirds of listed companies in the country had no woman on their boards in June 2014.

The result was chaos. Even a year after the law was passed, one-third of the firms scrambled in the final two weeks before the deadline to find woman directors. Some high-profile firms—including Reliance Industries—simply added the wives of chairmen to the boardrooms. More than 12% failed to find a woman at all. The whole exercise was another grim reminder of how thoroughly men dominate the senior leadership in Asia’s third largest economy.

But it’s not as if there aren’t enough women in India with the education and career experience to hold these positions.

Consider, for instance, the women graduates from the country’s finest engineering schools. Since its inception in 1958, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay alone graduated some 3000 women with degrees ranging from computer engineering to civil engineering, an official told Quartz requesting anonymity. Several hundreds of women have presumably enrolled at India’s other IITs in the past 20 years, although none of these schools keep records of the gender of their students.

Where did all these women go—and why aren’t they leaders in Indian industry today?

Quartz spoke to more than a dozen women who graduated from the IITs and other top engineering colleges in the 1990s about their career trajectories to try and answer that question. Where did all these women go—and why aren’t they leaders in Indian industry today? 

The 1990s were, of course, a period when the Indian economy had just opened up, and the country’s technology sector finally found its feet. Hundreds of young women who might have never considered joining India Inc. a few decade earlier were getting high-level degrees, and then choosing corporate careers and quickly rising up the ranks.

Yet, often after a few years on the job, they pulled back, completely changed their personal career paths, thereby stripping corporate India of a female presence.

Again and again, women gave Quartz the same underlying reason: They were unable to scale the maternal wall.

Here are their stories:

Work much harder than the boys

This generation of women opted for engineering at a time when it was not considered a suitable career option for females. Many of them aced the IIT entrance examination—one of the toughest in the world—in order to gain entry to this rarefied world.

Technology in India—and most other parts of the world—remains a close-knit old boys’ club. But two decades ago, the bias against women was much more blatant and institutional.

When Pooja Goyal, 41, was in high school in the early 1990s, her elite all girls’ convent school in Jaipur did not even have a mathematics teacher. And therefore, it did not even offer the subject to its students.

“Now that I think about it, I am like ‘What discrimination.’ It was cruel,” she told Quartz.

Goyal ultimately studied mathematics for the IIT entrance exam with the help of her brother-in-law, who used to work with the Reserve Bank of India. She cleared the entrance exam in 1992, with an all-India rank of 484. She opted for chemical engineering, and was one of 13 women out of a student body of 300 at IIT Delhi.

But studying at an IIT was anything but welcoming.

“The boys did not know how to interact with girls. There were ten hostels for boys on one side of the IIT Delhi campus, and there was one hostel for girls on the other end. And all the cultural activities took place on the boys’ end,” she said.

Other women IIT students from the same era had similar experiences. “It was a completely male-dominated institution. I felt like a complete outlier.” 

“It was a completely male-dominated institution. I felt like a complete outlier,” said Parul Mittal, class of 1995 at IIT Delhi. Studying at an IIT was Mittal’s goal from her childhood as she was great in mathematics and a “very competitive student.”

“There was no same-sex company to discuss your college life with and it was not a very friendly scenario, because there were very few friendships between boys and girls,” said Mittal, who studied electrical engineering. “If I did not understand something in class, there was nobody I could ask for help. In a way, we girls had to work much harder than the boys.”

After graduation, most of the women Quartz spoke to moved abroad for higher studies and then took up consulting or technology jobs. For almost all of them, marriage was a minor blip in their careers. But having a child was something different.

Post-pregnancy pause

India’s IIT grads of the 1990s who Quartz spoke to kept working through marriages, and even when they got pregnant. Many of them took the minimal maternity leave, devoting as much attention as they could to their careers.

“Your career starts seeing an upward trajectory around your 30s, and this coincides with the time a woman has her babies,” explained Goyal.

She was working in the US with software company Adobe when she first got pregnant, and took nine weeks off after her first daughter was born. She continued her steady rise up the corporate ladder even after her second child was born. But when she made the decision to move back to India in 2007, Goyal found that she had to drastically rethink her career goals.

“When I moved back to India, I did not find good childcare at all,” she said. “I was ready to compromise on anything from cooking to cleaning, but with childcare, you have to be 100% sure.”

Even though domestic help is much more affordable in India than in the US, Goyal said she struggled to find a trained and reliable nanny. On top of that, there were hardly any decent daycare centres near her home. While a section of corporate India has now started opening creches for working mothers, the trend is still in its nascent stages.

At Adobe’s India office, she found the work environment way less flexible and accommodating of working mothers than it had been in the US.

“The boundary between work and personal life is not well-defined in India,” said Goyal, who often had to take work home and put in long hours. Just one year after moving to India, she quit her job and started her own company instead. “When I had a full-time job here, and a young child, I was sleeping just four hours a day.”

Options such as work-from-home are still not common in India. Bosses prefer to see their employees in office everyday and believe that logging in from home will decrease their productivity. “When I had a full-time job here, and a young child, I was sleeping just four hours a day.” 

“In India, face time is still so much more important. And it is still impossible to tell your boss that you have to leave early to pick up your kids from school,” said Shruti Kahlon, who graduated from IIT Delhi in 1998 and worked as a consultant with Deloitte in the US for several years.

Meeta Sharma Gupta, another IIT Delhi alumna who is three years Goyal’s junior, also decided to distance herself from her first career after her kids were born.

With a master’s from University of South California and a PhD from Harvard University, Gupta worked at Bell Laboratories and IBM Research in both India and the US. But after spending more than a decade in research, Gupta decided to start her own venture last year.

“I think the major deviation in career trajectory comes after having kids… I could spend the day at work but not put in additional evenings and nights or weekend hours to continue a steep growth trajectory that some of the men who chose to could do,” said the 37-year-old mother of two sons.

Indian husbands are part of the problem

Indian fathers still leave most of the childcare to their wives, these women also told Quartz.

“Some fathers can completely dissociate (from home) while the mother has to stay more connected whether it is events at school or sick leave for the child,” Gupta said.

“Our culture does not see fathers going to schools to pick up children. That burden always falls on the woman,” said Mittal, who married her senior from IIT Delhi.

Most IIT women interviewed by Quartz are married to men who are not only IIT graduates but also hold high-ranking positions in the finance or technology sector, and the presence of a financially-successful spouse often gave them the flexibility to step back in their own careers. “Our culture does not see fathers going to schools to pick up children. That burden always falls on the woman.”  

“An Indian man’s self-identity is determined by his career. They feel insecure about digressing,” said Goyal, who is married to a venture capitalist. Indian society still does not accept stay-at-home fathers, and men who have been brave enough to choose that option in life often have to face uncomfortable questions and sometimes disdain.

“Some of my women friends have had to make compromises such as staying single or staying abroad in order to advance in their careers. These are compromises a man would not have to make,” Goyal said.

India’s corporate women are falling behind

In India’s technology sector, high-potential men and women start out at an equal footing, with equal pay, according to Catalyst, a not-for-profit research organisation that promotes gender equality in business.

Over time, however, a significant pay gap emerges. Women also get fewer international assignments or other career-enhancement opportunities in the middle level.

“Women [in their 30s] reported earning Rs3,79,570 (approximately $6,000) less than men in their current jobs,” the report said. “Women’s aspirations and overall career advancement are affected by the pressure they face to fulfil multiple (and often competing) commitments at home and at work.”

Sangita Singh, the chief executive of healthcare life sciences and services at Wipro, is one of the most senior women in Indian IT industry. After years of hiring and nurturing countless young women, she agrees with this assessment.

There are three crossroads in a working woman’s life: When she joins an organisation, when she has kids and when she wants to transition to a senior leadership role, Singh told Quartz. Firms will continue to lose talented women, if they do not support, mentor and motivate them during these stages, she said.

Choosing another path, with no regrets

Some of these IIT-educated women simply do not want to measure success in terms of professional life alone.

Kahlon, 39, had ample help from her parents and in-laws in raising children. But working at Deloitte meant she was always on the move.

“For me, work was being away from home three days a week,” Kahlon said, who also holds an MBA degree from the Wharton School. “I chose to step away from consulting because being with my children was far more important to me than professional success.”

She now works with Firmenich, a fragrance and flavour company, in Princeton. “Now, my office is ten minutes from my home.”

While Kahlon found a senior role in a mid-sized company, some IIT women decided to drastically change their careers, and remain completely unapologetic about their decisions.

Mittal, for instance, left her IT career after 12 years and two children, and found success as a writer of love stories. Some IIT women decided to drastically change their careers, and remain completely unapologetic about their decisions. 

“I took a year off to look for flexible work options and that is when I decided to write my first book,” said Mittal, whose first novel is a fictional account of women at IIT. “Chetan Bhagat is my batch mate from IIT, but his first book [Five Point Someone] did not have a single IIT girl. And I thought the world has to know about us.” Bhagat—a former investment banker who has now become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history—began his writing career with a novel on three male IIT students.

Goyal and Gupta, on the other hand, founded startups that were inspired by their early years as a mother.

“When I moved back to India, I realised there are no good pre-schools. So I decided to get into this field,” said Goyal, who now runs a daycare centre in Gurgaon. “My new field has given me a flexible lifestyle and fulfilled my entrepreneurial dream.”

Gupta started a wooden toy business in Bengaluru, and does not regret leaving research.

“I don’t feel bitter about it (leaving research). I think given a woman’s emotional attachment to kids and vice-versa, I feel that the balancing act is required and desired from a woman,” she said. “ Of course, an equally qualified man would not have had the same trajectory.”

“As a woman,” Gupta concluded, “you either make a conscious choice not to have a family, or take your career slowly.”

Younger women make different choices

While Goyal and Gupta took more than a decade to quit their high-profile jobs, Sirisha Gadepalli, 34, did so with much more ease.

After graduation in 2002 from IIT, Gadepalli moved to the US. Incidentally, her batch at IIT Delhi had 40 women students—the highest number ever for the college. Gadepalli later did an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). After two years at the consultancy, she joined an India startup, Freecharge, in 2014.

“Salary has never been an important criterion in my life. I want satisfaction from what I do,” said Gadepalli, who has also worked for the Akansha Foundation, an education non-profit, for two years. “I could have risen in BCG, but growth comes from doing the kind of work you want to do.” Gadepalli is married to another IIT graduate who now works for a private equity firm.

Even though she is going to have a baby this month, Gadepalli said she does not imagine motherhood being a major impediment in her career. “My startup gives me the flexibility to work from home, as long as I deliver.”

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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