India got its first three female engineers back in 1943 from Chennai’s College of Engineering, Guindy. They were Lalitha, Leelamma George and P K Thressia. Prior to that, graduation certificates didn’t even have ‘she’ written over them. They had proved that the STEM fields are not for men alone. Today, a large number of women have established successful careers in the field of engineering.
This breakthrough was not easy though. It has taken years to effect this change in society and its moribund mentality. However, in spite of all these massive changes, the STEM fields still lack adequate representation from women. All this despite the fact that more and more women are choosing this field for a career, as the available data clearly shows. On the other hand, there are various stereotypes and societal notions that continue to hamper the growth of women in this industry.
Anupama Raman, Global Head of Software Academy, Continental Automotive in a conversation with SME Futures discusses the current scenario and the state of women in the STEM fields and what alterations are needed to mend the state it is in now. She comes with close to 17 years of experience in this very sector with a master’s degree in computer science & engineering and has over 12 industry approved certifications to her credit in the areas of technology, project management and learning. She is also a public speaker and the author of six books.
Edited Excerpts Why did you choose to become an engineer?
An engineer’s job has always been associated with designing and building something; be it a software, a machine or a building. An inherent interest in this concept of design and build was a strong motivation for me to pursue engineering.
Over the years, how have the STEM fields changed for women? How was your experience when you started? Please share some interesting memories.
According to the UNESCO report, Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM, only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education globally are women. Although STEM remains a male-dominated field, women have geared up and begun to establish themselves better than earlier. Several women scientists have broadened the scientific horizons with their endeavors. According to the World Economic Forum 2020 report, on average, around 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. In a few countries like Myanmar, Thailand, etc., there are more women researchers than are men.
Over the last several years, the perception towards women in the STEM fields has seen a significant change. Today, the number of women junior engineers is equal to men for the same profile in almost every IT company. At the middle and senior levels, the number of women professionals has gradually increased. Several organisations have also begun taking necessary steps to promote women to higher levels. The conscious drive by corporates towards bringing in more women into the workforce and keeping them in the workforce has slowly begun to pay off.
On the other hand, when I started many years back, there were very few women engineers especially in several tier II and III towns in India. When we opted for engineering as our field of study, many eyebrows were raised as to why we wanted to study engineering, since we were not the so-called “breadwinners” of the family.
With the passage of time I can see a very distinct change in this thought process both for parents and for children. The parents of today have a strong determination and inclination to let their daughters pursue their preferred area of study even if it is in a male-dominated field like aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, etc.
What are the stereotypes attached to female engineers in India?
There are many stereotypes such as- engineering is not meant for women, women break faster under pressure as compared to men, women lack the analytical thinking that is required for this field, women cannot take up challenging roles as they have a family to look after, women cannot work for long hours, women are not suited for certain roles, etc. These are a few of the most common stereotypes that women are burdened with.
Fields like mechanical or civil engineering are considered ‘wrong choices’ for women, even today. For women to enter the shop floors and handle physically demanding projects is considered impractical.
To encourage women to break these stereotypes, at Continental, we encourage more women to engage themselves in manufacturing roles and take up more responsibilities on the shop floor. We have women employees handling different roles at different levels at all our plants.
In your opinion, why is it important that more women take up engineering in the near future?
Engineering has developed exponentially over the years and has spawned several new branches like genetic engineering. These new areas of engineering along with the preexisting ones, offer very good study and career options which are now available in India. Gone are those days when Indians had to go outside India to study a newly emerging field in engineering. Now with the emergence of high-quality educational institutions like the IITs and IISc’s, superior quality education in the STEM fields is available right at our doorstep. The same is true for lucrative career opportunities which too are available in India now.
You are heading a software academy globally at Continental. Have you ever been in a situation where you were made to think that ‘women’ and ‘power’ were two incompatible concepts?
Heading a global charter is a very demanding job and not an easy task; it comes with several challenges like handling all time zones, multi-cultural interactions, multi-country regulations which need to be examined and fulfilled, and so on.
There were several instances where I was under extreme pressure at work. However, there is always a constant inner source of passion and motivation which keeps me going and helps me get over all the challenging situations with ease.
Do you still witness sexism and discrimination in the workplace?
Due to the extensive awareness created for women at work through various initiatives like mandatory training on POSH, workplace harassment, etc., nowadays, there has been a lot of reduction in the instances of sexism and discrimination at the workplace for women. However, it will take a few more years before we become completely free even from the isolated occurrences of such instances.
What does the International Women’s Day slogan #ChooseToChallenge mean to you in your work life?
Tough challenges are always a part of my everyday work. I like to walk through them with confidence, explore things differently and emerge from them successfully. It is ok to fail sometimes, provided you have some learning from the failure and decide not to repeat your mistakes. There was a time when challenging jobs had very few women as takers. Now I see a drastic change in this trend and mindset, and I can observe that more and more women are coming forward to take up challenging jobs. This is a very positive change and our industry ecosystem in India should do all that is possible to support and further nurture this mindset.
However, I feel more can be done. Some of the steps forward could be; Provide flexible working hours and other flexible options like work from home so that they can have a good work-life balance. Offer mentor and coaching options to identify and groom women to take up challenging leadership roles.
At Continental, we have a WE-Lead program which maintains a dedicated focus on identifying high potential women candidates and grooming them through a rigorous upskilling program under the guidance of some of the best coaches and experts available in the industry.
There is a significant population of women in the tech space performing junior roles between the age group of 22-30. However, there is a drastic dip in the number of women who occupy mid and senior management roles. This is predominantly due to several factors like marriage, relocation after marriage and childbirth to name the top few reasons.
As per a study (by the World Bank in collaboration with the National Sample Survey Organization published in a leading newspaper), 20 million Indian women quit their jobs between 2004-12. Around 65-70 per cent of women who quit never returned to work at all. The number of women who occupy senior leadership positions in the field of technology is comparatively low.
In my opinion companies in India should make a dedicated effort to break this ceiling by implementing some or all of the following measures—dedicated return to work programs should be offered to women employees aspiring to get back to work after a sabbatical. Mentoring and coaching options should be there for female employees who return to work after a maternity break to boost their self-confidence. Flexible work hours and a conducive working environment should be provided. Fast track career development options should be made available for women.
In a previous interaction, you talked about Continental’s target 2025 towards women. Tell us more about it, what’s the update on that?
At Continental, we have a target to increase the proportion of women in the first two management levels worldwide to 25 percent by 2025. We are continuously working towards this target. The accomplishment of this target might not happen just by simply handing out positions to female employees. The only way to achieve it is to prepare and train female employees to take charge of senior management positions. One of many such programs that we have at Continental is Women@Work. Through this initiative, women early in their careers can connect with senior executives as well as a global network of women from every area in the company.
Moreover, Continental’s Software Academy is providing courses that are futuristic and can be taken up by women to stay up to date. Some of the courses that will help women specifically in the automotive software department are:
Several levels of training in Artificial intelligence Automotive Cyber Security New automotive software technologies like Adaptive AUTOSAR
On International Women’s Day, what is the most important message you want to send out to young women thinking about their careers?
My important message would be: Stay strong, think bold, and act fearless – success is yours and no one can stop you.