Whether they are entrepreneurs or engineers, gamers or anime fans, women geeks find themselves up against stereotyping and a silent sexism.
Chetana Sukumar thought she had heard it all. You code like a woman. You sound like a virgin. But when someone wanted to “throttle” her and called her a “f***ing bitch” for playing a female toon on a multiplayer online game, it made her sit up and take note of the derision and misogyny that often follow women on the Web. “It’s as if we are rare birds—wonderful, and for this reason, hunted,” says Sukumar, 34, a hardware technologist from Bangalore who moved to Silicon Valley, California, early this year to be part of a crowd-funded content aggregation startup. She speaks, of course, for Indian women who have made inroads into the predominantly male world of capacitors and motherboards, busted into LAN parties and robotics contests, trawled Internet Relay Chats and programming forums, and played leading roles in multinational technology companies.
Skype-ing late into the night, Sukumar wears a messy topknot and oversized glasses, that totem of geek chic seen on Sabyasachi runways. She remembers the summer of 2006, the year she adopted this look. “Being a female geek wasn’t chic back then. People wondered why a good-looking woman would bury herself in code,” she says. Today, popular culture has glamourised geeks, with sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory bringing them into the mainstream, but Sukumar says this hasn’t necessarily empowered women in technology.
Women’s participation in technology companies in India is now estimated at about 40 per cent at the entry level, tapering off to 20-25 per cent at the middle level and about 10 per cent at the senior managerial level. So when a bunch of successful women technologists got together to talk about the matter at an event held earlier this year in Bangalore, they were in for a pleasant surprise. Of the 250-odd women who attended the Women In Technology (WIT) Gig, most came looking for inspiration to further their careers in technology; some were aspiring entrepreneurs and almost none thought work-life balance was an issue. The organiser, Rashmi Mohan, an engineering manager at Yahoo Labs Bangalore, who also mentors women in technical roles at the company, says she has seen the female workforce evolve through her 13 years in the industry. “Women increasingly want to take up technical roles. They want to be architects and they