Last week, the Department of State led a delegation of technology executives from U.S.-based companies to India to explore the challenges we face in fully engaging the potential of women in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector to meet the demands of our global economy. Headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Alyssa Ayres, the delegation visited government offices, universities, local and multinational companies, and industry groups in New Delhi and Bangalore.
In both the United States and India, women are a minority in the ICT professions, and significant barriers remain for women and girls at all stages of the ICT pipeline. Furthermore, the representation of women and girls decreases throughout the ICT career progression.
At the university level, the overall percentage of women studying ICT appears to be significantly higher in India following dramatic growth over the past decade. While the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women remains around 18 percent in the United States, India has made significant inroads in attracting girls to study ICT with reportedly 40 percent or more of degrees awarded to women. Yet, at the elite India Institutes of Technology (IITs), women still comprise only 12 percent of the student body, with perhaps only half that number in the highly competitive computer science programs. Among the theories we heard for this discrepancy were higher career expectations for boys along with parental preference for sending sons (rather than daughters) to expensive and distant coaching centers to train for the notoriously difficult IIT entrance exam.
In the corporate sphere, the number of women initially entering the ICT workforce also appears to be much higher in India than in the United States. Yet, when it comes to career progression, women’s participation drops significantly over time in both countries. According to recent studies, in India , women hold only three percent of senior ICT roles, while in the U.S. the comparably meager statistic is four percent.
Both countries have found that visible role models of successful women in the ICT field can help inspire more young women and girls. Mentors and peer networks are also needed to provide support and guidance at each stage of career advancement. The delegation also discussed best practices on programs such as flexible work plans, transitional internships for mothers returning after a prolonged period out of the workplace, child care leave options beyond maternity, and executive sponsors for talented women.
We need to start shifting cultural perceptions around the world so that ICT is a field as open to women as it is to men and women’s potential and talents in this field are fully utilized. Both women’s empowerment and STEM education have been key priorities for the Obama administration. Bringing the two together by promoting women in ICT is one of the most effective ways we can increase opportunities not only for women, but also for the global economy.
About the Author: Ann Mei Chang serves as Senior Advisor for Women and Technology for the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State.