Why the narrative of sexism among Bangalore startups needs more nuance and more voices
Couple of days ago, I read Shrabonti Bagchi’s article in FactorDaily about how startups in Bangalore are disrupting everything but sexism. I put my laptop aside to examine once again what was it about the article that disturbed me so much.
Yes, sexism is real. Women are discriminated against in highly subtle ways. I have experienced it myself.
Yes, there is a strong bro culture out there. I have experienced it myself.
But there are other realities out there:
- The fear that women experience when it comes to speaking up is conditioned and has become real because of years of conditioning. At our recent conferences — JSFoo and Meta Refresh — while I noticed a significantly large turnout of women, my colleague Sandhya and I noticed that only one woman asked a question in all the Q&A sessions after talks.
- The only speaker who dropped out from speaking at our recent conferences was a woman because she was uncertain about the situation in Bangalore after the Cauvery judgement and the ensuing ruckus. Whether it was parental pressure or feelings of lack of safety or something else, it disheartened me that she dropped out. The world is somehow more unsafe for women because of the bodies we bear, and the filial ecosystems we inhabit.
- One of the supporters for the conference had an all-women team coming down for the conference. This was brought to our attention couple of times. It appeared to me as if the underlying message was ‘this is a special case. So please take care’. One of my colleagues offered to ferry them from their point of arrival and book accommodation for them. Again, the world is somehow more unsafe for women because of the bodies we bear, and the ecosystems we inhabit which perpetuate the belief that women have to be protected and taken care of.
On that note, my colleagues and I have personally gone to airports, often alone past midnight, to pick up and ferry some of the male international speakers to their hotels because they were ‘afraid’ of navigating a new country/city on their own. We each create our imaginary worlds of fear and inhabit them.
- While fear among women is prevalent, it is also true that our experiences help us traverse the boundaries of courage, pragmatism and boldness. For e.g., as the ruckus and an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty was prevailing in Bangalore on that Monday afternoon when the first incidents of violence broke out, my colleague Vidya Ramakrishnan sat in office patiently, working on preparing for the conferences due in three days. She left only after the rumours and violence had subsided that evening. My ‘female’ and ‘male’ colleagues continued working tirelessly the next few days to ensure that all preparations were smooth and that the deliverables for the conferences were being met. My colleague Jyothsna Vinod drove to office the next day — when people were worried about section 144 issued in Bangalore — to buy in support from food vendors for the food court for our conferences, and coordinate with vendors to ensure that collaterals were delivered on time. These are women (and men) I have seen become effective leaders and owners in HasGeek, from their first days of uncertainties and aspirations.
- Women experience intimidation which is real. My colleagues at the checkin and merchandise counters at the conferences are often harassed for things such as food tokens, t-shirts and sponsor goodies, among others, because participants feel entitled to these things as a matter of having purchased tickets. And perhaps this is not so much of a coincidence that the people manning the front-desk and merchandise counters are women. While we stereotypically distribute responsibilities to women as a matter of the gender roles they occupy, there is a need for women to speak up against such role allocation and for managers and the leadership to listen. It is equally important to learn how to speak to fear and intimidation looking straight into the eye, despite vulnerability.
- Some months ago, I attended a conference in Boston on programming languages. There, I interacted with women coders at a dinner gathering which some of the women attendees organized for us other women attendees. It became clear that economic costs and time-opportunity tradeoffs are factors that drive women’s participation in community events. Some of the women expressed how they attended the conference only because their employer or university supported their travel to the conference and covered the conference registration fees (which was a huge prohibitory factor for these women who would not have otherwise participated).
Some of the women also explained that one of the reasons they take to exploring open source alternative programming languages is because of support from their employer / educational institution. “We don’t have the luxury and time that men have to indulge in hobbyist projects” was the explicit thread of all the discussions on why work with alternative programming languages.
From this discussion, it became clear that as women, we are culturally, socially and personally socialized into organizing our priorities. We see ourselves as bearers of responsibility and caretakers, among other roles. Hence, we invariably set our priorities to take up tasks and work on areas that directly deliver outcomes (and make us seem like productive beings in our eyes and those of our employers, family and society). This then leaves us free to ‘take care of other responsibilities’ and yet achieve our aspirations. In the process, we guilt-trip and rationalize ourselves into believing that participating in social events, community gatherings, speaking at conferences, writing our blogs, etc can be traded off with more important things as shopping for the house, caring for our children, attending to the family.
So let’s get down to the point of what is it that we have to disrupt about the narrative of sexism among Bangalore startups before we disrupt sexism itself:
- We need more women to come out and share their experiences of working in Bangalore startups – what has worked for them, what hasn’t? Why?
- Some months ago, renowned front-end developer Lea Verou wrote about her positive experiences in tech as an attempt to disrupt the dominant narrative of discrimination against women in tech. We need more positive stories — not eulogising the startup culture in Bangalore — but stories that demonstrate to men and women how women have moved beyond the boundaries of fear and self-doubt AND/OR climbed the ladders of aspiration to achieve what they have while working in these startups.
- The fear that women (and men) experience is also the outcome of social, cultural and filial conditioning as much as it is personal. I moved to Bangalore from Bombay in 2006 to pursue a PhD. I used to live in Tilaknagar, Jayanagar 4th T Phase, which was known as a ‘notorious’ area. I chose to live there to be close to my PhD field site. Sometimes, male friends and friends of friends were afraid to visit my home because of the locality (and fear of the geography).
Irrespective of our genders — and especially more and more women — need to travel more and experience more of the world. Attend conferences in different parts of the world! Take a trip to a place in your bucket list! Go to an adventure hike or cycling trip with your friends! Do anything that gets you out of your comfort zones. The world is not as unsafe as our newspapers, television channels and the internet tell us it is.
Simply going to new places, meeting new people and experiencing that which we may not have earlier, opens our minds and lightens our bowels (the gut that courage and shit cohabit).
- At workplaces and outside, let’s initiate closed support groups where women can come out and discuss their fears, insecurities and aspirations. While these HAVE to be WOMEN-ONLY groups to start with, once we are comfortable with our vulnerabilities, we can include men to discuss similar issues.
- Lastly, our marginalization as a gender is both real and perceived. Whatever it is, let’s try to reach out to shy women and men and encourage them to come out, talk about their skills and talents, share learnings with the community, and get going on the way to become influencers and leaders. As an example, see this blog post: https://aakashgoel.com/how-i-beat-my-stage-fright-e3dd07dfb674#.crrhgxgsd
While here is someone who vocalized his first public speaking experience, I know of several others who were exhilarated after their first speaking experience and have thanked me for reaching out to them to come out and speak. I want for more women to come out and share their experiences and vulnerabilities.
We need a new agenda — not necessarily a shiny one, and certainly not one rife with marginalization only – if we are to change sexism in Bangalore startups.
Can we hear more voices?
Can we hear more stories?
Can we see this change, for once?
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