Women in tech should not be scared of wearing bright clothes or having children

Power woman.
Power woman.
Image: Reuters/Phil McCarten
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Earlier this year, India-born Padmasree Warrior stepped down from her position as chief technology and strategy officer at the American networking behemoth, Cisco Systems.

Warrior—who’s spent over three decades in the technology sector—was among the few prominent women executives in Silicon Valley. She began her career at Motorola, where she spent 23 years, and rose to become the company’s chief technology officer. In 2007, the Cornell University graduate joined Cisco and went on to work at the $138 billion worth company for seven years.

Six years later, 55-year-old Warrior was named one of the world’s most powerful women in tech by Forbes magazine. Then, in 2014 and 2015, she has been on its list of the world’s top 100 most powerful women.

In a conversation with executives at Snapdeal’s Gurgaon office on Nov. 19, Warrior talked about what it was like to be a woman executive in the technology industry.

“There were only five women in IIT”

I went to IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Delhi many, many years ago. I did my (chemical) engineering there. I came to IIT from the south; I grew up in Vijayawada, which is in Andhra (Pradesh)… I always tell this story that when I came to IIT, I was very confident. I felt like I was very smart, and I was confident that I would do well. And on my first day at IIT, I realised there are so many smart people there. That was intimidating and challenging at the same time. So, after the first week or so, I called my dad and said, ‘I want to come home. I don’t think I want to do this.’ I was very homesick because I didn’t really speak Hindi… My dad said something that to this day I hold true, and it’s an advice I give to many young people. He said, ‘You’ve chosen your path, now it’s up to you to make the journey interesting.’

There were only five women in IIT in a class of 250. Back in the eighties, it was a very different experience.

When I started working (at Motorola’s semiconductor factory in Arizona), there were very few women in engineering, and in the semiconductor industry, which was a very hardcore, techie industry. It’s very, very alienating and not very supportive of women.

“It continues to be hard for women in tech”

It’s hard, it was hard, and it continues to be hard for women in tech. Whether it’s fair or not, you have to prove yourself at every step of the way. And at some point, you feel like why is that. Why do I have to do that when a man doesn’t have to?

In the beginning, I would try to fit in. Back in the eighties and nineties, women were told that you have to be like the guys to be successful. I was working in the semiconductor industry, and we were told, ‘don’t wear bright colours. Just sort of blend in. Make sure nobody sees you. Just blend into the wall, and nobody would notice you, and you’d be alright.’

I tried to do that. I would wear just grey clothes. But I grew up in India, where we wear colours, and I love jewellery. So I had to hide all that I thought was feminine and tried to be like a guy. Then I realised I wasn’t comfortable doing that. And when you’re not comfortable in your own skin, you cannot perform, and you start to doubt your own capabilities. So, after a while, I said I’m going to break the mould here. I am going to wear bright colours and see what happens, and if anything will crash… And nothing crashed. So, you start to get confidence.

“People remember me because of my last name”

Another thing I tell minorities, like women or if you belong to an ethnic group, is that you get noticed. Like, people now remember me because of my last name, thanks to my husband Mohan (Warrior) for that. (They will remember that) you wore a red dress, or you wore a magenta colour top. Use that to your advantage…

“Have kids”

Can I be a parent and be good at it? Can I have a career and do both? A lot of times you worry about that, and (if I could) I would tell my younger self not to worry so much. I would not have given up on being a mom for anything. If anything, I would probably have had more kids if I had known then what I know now. Sometimes, we underestimate what we are able to do.

One of the things, as you try to balance your work and life, is you’re always guilty about things. And that was true for me. When I had my son (he is now 22), I would feel very guilty of leaving him at daycare, or even with his grandparents. Even as they grow older, middle school, high school, you feel guilty, you’re not at their parents-teachers meeting, or soccer game, or dance practice. And if you decide to compromise and stay home with them, you feel guilty that you’re not in your company meeting, and you feel like I worked so hard on the project, and that’s being presented to the boss, and I am not there, somebody else is doing it, and they are going to get credit for it.

So how do you not feel guilty? I think what I have learned is to be comfortable with your decision, and not second-guess yourself. There are always other things you can do. But the thing to say is that this is something that you have chosen to do and you have done it based on the best data you had. One of the reassurances is that your children will understand, and they grow up to be fine.

My son recently wrote a blog and said, I don’t know what all the fuss is about my mom being an executive at a Fortune 100 company her whole life. But she is pretty normal at home. She cooks, and she used to read bedtime stories to me when I was younger. I think the amount of time you spend with them and how you spend with them is what they remember at the end of the day. So I don’t think about what else I could have done.

“Take time out for yourself”

I believe that you have to be focussed on not just your work and your family, but yourself. And what happens when you’re working very hard and you have young children, you’re either working or spending time with your children. You’re not doing anything for you. That could be meeting your friends, or shopping, or for me, it was painting. I didn’t paint for a long time. So now I am very conscious of that. You should do things that make you happy, things for yourself. I meditate every night wherever I am. And that allows me to be focussed the next day. Otherwise, you burn out.