On the evening of 18th October, a couple of female students of NIT-T sat down for a conversation with Mrs.Srimathi Shivashankar, the Corporate Vice President at HCL Technologies. She is an alumna of NIT Trichy of the ’90 batch, one of the first batches of CSE department to have graduated from our college.
The event was organized by the Women in Tech community of NIT Trichy. This community hopes to help anyone identifying as a woman and interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields by fostering equity and enabling them to get to places they aspire and deserve. They aim to create an atmosphere where girls can explore tech, help each other, and climb the technical ladder together.
This session gave students an insight into a future in the tech world and a first-hand account from a woman who is currently in the field. Mrs. Srimathi did her schooling in Trichy, following which she secured a medical and an engineering seat. Though her family leaned more towards medicine, she decided to pursue engineering in REC. “Octa was the ‘cool’ place then,” she recollects with a smile. Her decision was a rather bold one considering that CSE departments had not even been set up in the college yet. She spoke fondly of her college memories and how she spent most of her time on the ground playing volleyball and basketball. Her ragging experience in her first year only made her stronger, she said. College seems to have played a significant role in how her life unfolded.
When asked about the gender ratio in the technical line of work, Mrs. Srimathi pointed out that any innovation needs diversity, and diversity doesn’t necessarily mean gender. It’s more about different opinions and different minds. While she acknowledged that women have many inflection points in their lives, she also said it’s unfortunate that they give up their careers and succumb to it. She considers it important for a lady to strike a work-home balance and manage mom guilt as well. She explained how in the early stages of her career, a woman would have to walk the extra mile as compared to her male counterparts. “Nobody is going to help you out. You’ve got to sweat it out for 5-6 years. And then slowly things start getting easier and smoother”, she said. She kept stressing how it’s ultimately our fight and how important it is not to let anyone or anything get in the way. She further described that despite the tech world seeming male dominant, it is not really about a person’s gender. “Any company is result-oriented, and it’s about what you bring to the table and the value you generate for the company. So let your work speak for you”, she explained.
On the topic of women-centric initiatives and affirmative action, she opines that reservations would not help women going forward because it wouldn’t be a level playing field. She pointed out that though it might seem attractive initially, it won’t help women earn respect among their colleagues in the long run. However, she also said that women from economically weaker backgrounds should leverage such scholarships that come their way since boys’ career growth are prioritized in such communities. When asked about the strategies that companies adopt to ensure better diversity in executive positions, she mentioned her experiences as part of the women’s inclusivity network, where she spearheaded various gender-neutral initiatives, which have been more effective at enabling inclusivity than programs targeted at specific minorities. Most importantly, she advised students to be catalysts of change in whatever they undertake, explaining why dictating change by setting down rules forcefully will never help.
When inquired about the role of such a tech community for womxn on our campus, she suggested that the seniors placed in companies around the country should support their juniors and make recommendations to their organizations, thus strengthening the mentor-mentee relationship. Simply put, she said that these groups should encourage and enable women aspiring for careers in technology.
There was also an interactive session with the audience, the first question being about how a woman can handle sexual harassment in the workplace. Mrs. Srimathi emphasized the importance of saying, “No, I don’t like it” the very first time, which would prevent such untoward incidents in the future. She also spoke about the need for self-defense training and physical exercise, which would play a crucial role in helping women if they encounter harassment.
Throughout the session, Mrs. Srimathi focused on women’s individual identity in the industry. When asked if the discrimination is systemic, necessitating a solution from the system itself, she welcomed the question with a pleasant laugh. She summed up her answer in two major points – First, discrimination is people-driven and not systemic. Secondly, it all comes down to how the companies train their first-line managers to do justice to the women intellect (and minority in general, she added) in the industry. With the foresight of a leader, she added that companies are becoming more people-independent and more competency-driven with the advent of automation than ever. While talking about building competencies, she emphasized the importance of women’s networks, diversity and learning forums, and creating one’s own peer group. In the same context, she urged women to understand their leadership style. Debunking the myth that only women with aggressive personalities become successful, she beautifully added that a lioness is as powerful as a lion who takes care of not only her territory but also her cubs.
Following up on the previous question, she was asked whether there’s another way to increase women in STEM other than adopting the draconian style of affirmative actions such as increasing quota, which often comes women’s way of earning respect for their abilities. With a metaphor that even an eagle needs a push, she requested women to focus on using the opportunity rather than being perturbed by the scrutiny. “Focus on the solution, not the problem,” she added.
Mrs. Srimathi’s corporate experience came in handy while answering the next question on whether jumping from company to company comes in the way of reaching the top managerial positions. She was also asked about the advantages and disadvantages of doing the same. Wearing her HR hat, Mrs. Srimathi answered, “If a person has jumped too many companies, I’ll be very disappointed.” She encouraged relevant cross-domain jumps, which are more preferred in the resume. She also advised women to negotiate for their salaries, which she has observed that women do not often practice. Knowing one’s market, assessing salary benchmarks for male and female employees in the companies, and researching beforehand were a few of her many suggestions.
She concluded the session by sharing three mantras that have shaped her life. Her first mantra highlights the importance of focusing only on one’s own track without losing sight of the finish line. Being a woman of a strong will power, her second mantra did not come as a surprise. She emphasized the importance of self-motivation and urged women never to wait to be patted on the shoulder. This, she said, had been her learning from running races with boys during her college life. “The vitamin M of motivation is within you. Get up, wipe your face and start walking,” she added. With her unwavering smile, her third mantra was to always open the door of your home with a smile, no matter how exhausted you might be feeling. She heartily narrated her dog’s story about how he waits for her when she returns home. She embraces him happily despite being tired after a hectic day. She encouraged women to create their own mantras and stick to them. “At the end, only you know what should go into your Biryani,” she added with a laugh.
The session ended with a vote of thanks from the organizers, who seemed to be very touched by Mrs. Srimathi’s pleasant personality, infectious smile, strong presence, and power to motivate others. One of the participants also suggested organizing regular agenda-based meetings of womxn in the newly launched forum. So, there is certainly more to look forward to.
A few FAQs about the Womxn in Tech community:
What’s the motivation behind starting this community?
Over the years that we have spent in our institute, we’ve observed a common trend in how the interest in tech among girls has dropped gradually. There have also been various instances where we have missed opportunities for women in tech only because we were unaware of them. We don’t want that to happen again in the future. We tried to reason out why this happens and found plenty of them. One important reason was the lack of a peer group, a group of like-minded people who face similar issues. Inspired by our seniors’ efforts to make our journey a little easier, we decided to formally launch a community that would help us work together and collectively combat our issues.
What does the community plan to do in the course of the year?
To make the community more welcoming to womxn, we decided to kickstart the initiative with the Alumni Spotlight series. We have several alumni talking about their own experiences and inspiring fellow womxn to fight through the issues they face together while also climbing the tech ladder. We also plan to have AMA sessions to clarify questions related to opportunities such as specific scholarships and competitions and regular scrums to get to know what everyone’s working on and learning from each other. Meanwhile, we plan to rope in more alumni to bring their valuable experience to the table and mentor those womxn in the community who need mentorship in specific areas.
How can womxn of NIT Trichy become a part of this community?
There are no prerequisites to be a part of this community, although we expect womxn who benefit from this community to give back at some point as well. You can be a fresher, an intermediate, or even an expert in any field wanting to help. There are no restrictions at all. All you have to do is hop into the Womxn in Tech Discord server at https://discord.gg/HJn39UHAdP
(answers received from Sandhya Saravanan)
Report by Deepsikha, Pooja and Kratika.