In hard-core STEM domains, bias against women is actually getting worse
Published on : Tuesday 08-03-2022
Dr Tapati Bandopadhyay, Chairman, AISWITCH Technologies Pvt Ltd.
What was the inspiration that prompted you to pursue this career path?
Maths and physics were my biggest comfort zones in terms of studies. Also, as a child I was somehow always much more interested in non-human objects, including my dog buddy who I grew up with, and all the machines that surrounded us. For example, we had a turntable and thousands of old gramophone and LP records. I was fascinated by it, the way it played beautiful music.
When I grew up to become an engineer, I enjoyed our machining workshops the most. Working on the drilling machines and lathes, cutting gears with unique profile specs, out of raw metal discs, on the milling machines, were fantastic experiences.
I still love machines and their inspirations have stayed with me forever, crossing the boundaries of hardware and software. With that lifelong motivation, I had been trained on and been working on machine learning and artificial intelligence, i.e., Smart Machines, for almost three decades now.
Can you recall your early days – say the first few days at work – and anything you would like to mention about that?
When I joined Tata Motors as a Graduate Engineer Trainee, the first training session that I enjoyed the most was when we had to disassemble (and then successfully re-assemble!) a truck engine. Somehow, those simple piston-cylinder mechanisms inspired me more than any lectures or books ever could. Those few hours made me feel so proud of being an engineer – we were the ones who created all these machines and changed the world!
For a woman, it is a matter of finding the right balance between the jobs and managing the home – how do you manage this?
In my experience, we never find this illusive 'right' balance, honestly. If the idea of what's 'right' was right and universally understood and accepted, then this question itself should have become irrelevant by now. Practically it's a fight that we still fight, constantly, both inside our own heads in terms of priorities, and outside – while surviving a still-biased and prejudiced society even if unintentional, on a daily basis.
I had to do my own trade-off calculations, with my own logic and preferences. But I still don't think I have actually been able to 'manage' this fine balancing act of trying to be a good 'everything' for everyone, at home and/or at work. End of the day, we can only try our best, but balancing is a two-way street by definition. So, whether we have been successful at it or not depends a lot on other factors, most of which are outside our purview. Thinking too much about this balancing act only hikes up our stress and blood pressure, in my opinion.
What challenges (or privileges) do women stereotypically face, based on their gender?
Mostly unintentional biases, be it in social interactions, or at work. It becomes worse when women themselves suffer from such biases for example – while dealing with other women – professionally or socially. There is never anything quiet on any front – Eastern or Western. In business and management work-fronts, it is probably getting a bit better for women, thanks to policy interventions and organisational initiatives on equality and diversity management. But in hard-core STEM domains, bias against women is actually getting worse. This is bad for these fastest-growing domains that are really changing the world and its workforce. Rampant gender bias in deep tech fields is also harmful for businesses and societies, across geographies.
Have you ever missed a career opportunity or promotion due to gender?
Not really. But at the same time, I had to work at least doubly or triply harder, both in ways of contributions and sharing of workloads, to get the same level of professional progression that a male colleague would need to put in for. I also never wanted to avail any privilege, for example, benefitting from any diversity initiative, etc., even if they were available. I prefer to play it fair and square, even if it means I need to work doubly harder, because I actually love my work. So I don't necessarily get doubly stressed. But then, these are all to do with the choices I made, e.g., loving STEM subjects and machines, and not availing any advantage just for being a woman. While diversity programs have their value, I feel it indirectly perpetuates the very cause of inequality and unfairness that we are fighting. I feel we need to devise better and smarter ways to deal with the fairness problem. I neither want to take any unfair advantage nor do I want to suffer any disadvantage just because I am a woman. That's my key 'objective' function, pun intended.
Are workplaces today more sensitive to gender issues than say, a decade ago?
In business and management related professional roles and functions, the answer is definitely yes, as per my observations over three decades now. But in core STEM fields and deep tech research, severe gender inequality is still very vividly visible, both as per primary as well as secondary research-based/data-driven observations.
Which women's 'cause' needs to be challenged and changed, first?
That women can make world-changing contributions and innovations in science, technology and engineering fields that require high risk appetite, inquisitiveness, analytical skills and attitude. All humans are born with similar levels of logical and mathematical thinking aptitude.
Hiring more women in support roles and non-core tech roles just to showcase improved diversity numbers is like doing a cosmetic plastic surgery on face to cure a brain problem that requires neuro-surgical interventions. Organisational diversity initiatives are still only skin-deep in most cases, as the underlying general bias that men are better in analytical and technical skills, is seldom challenged directly. That root cause needs to be attacked, as a top priority.
Are there areas at work that still restrict women when it comes to leadership roles?
Absolutely – STEM-focussed roles. I cannot emphasize enough on it. Core tech research – be it in product engineering or manufacturing or even machine learning technologies – have very few women leaders compared to the number of men in such positions. This is actually restricting the thought diversity and value realizable from the analytical imagination and innovation skills of nearly half of the world's potential talent pool.
But this problem needs to be addressed from its roots, at the source-side of the talent supply chain, e.g., while raising girl children, encouraging them more on maths, sciences, and machines. One idea could be to build a government-private partnership-based reward system – for parents and teachers across all strata of society, who motivate girls in their families and social networks to focus on STEM studies and training, from early-age education.
What women-related myths or taboos need to be broken?
Firstly, women have just as great analytical abilities as men, if given the same training, motivation and rewards that the boys often receive as a given.
Secondly, women can also be more open to try out new ideas, experiment more, fail more without the risk of being judged, and thus innovate just as much as men can. All it takes is a switch of attitude and some amount of intended or designed gender-blindness, in the training and rewarding systems.
Do you have a mentor or a role model? If yes, you may state briefly how it inspired you.
My childhood inspiration and an extremely aspirational role model has always remained only one person – Madame Curie. At a relatively young age of around 5-6 years, I remember stumbling upon some of my dad's popular science books on atomic physics. The books were written and illustrated so beautifully, I just loved those diagrams of atomic structures, etc. That's when I learnt about Madame Curie – the only woman ever mentioned in those books. Naturally I started devouring whatever materials I could find on her, for example – a biography of her written by her younger daughter. The tremendous influence I had of her, remains just as intense, even today.
What would be your message to the youth who are just starting their career?
Don't listen to anyone whosoever tells you that as a girl you have better chances of success in non-math, non-engineering subjects. God or nature has NOT programmed the male-female brains differently at source. These are just biases that we embed into our own heads, taking the most damaging subtle cues from our surroundings and society at large. Give yourself a chance, given that STEM fields are not only absolutely fabulous to learn and explore just as much as social sciences and arts subjects, but also because the STEM skills are going to be the most in-demand fields, for professional growth and success.
Secondly, but just as important, take your professional ambitions and career aspirations seriously, no matter what. Everything else works out, eventually. Even if it means you have to work doubly harder, and you may get used to less than four hours of sleep in a day, it's going to be ok if you love what you do.
Describe yourself or your aspirations, dreams in 3 words.
Always-Curious. Forever-Fascinated. Engineer-Inventor.
Tapati Bandopadhyay has been an inventor and practice leader in Cloud & AI, for 27 years. She has been featured in NASSCOM 21 in '21, INDIAai, and has spoken at UN Women Tech Leaders events, global tech events from IBM, Intel, etc., and as keynote speaker at Gartner symposiums & summits @US, EU. She has been a C-level advisor & consultant, as a senior global Director Research@Gartner Core Research & Advisory, from 2010. Then at Wipro, 2017 onwards, she set up HOLMES AI-IA practices & ecosystems. 2019 onwards, as Vice President Research@HFS, she set up & led AI-IA-IoT research globally and headed India research operations. At AISWITCH, she is leading global client engagements in AI practice set-up with 5 patent-filed AI practice frameworks, for world's largest companies including top cloud TSP, FMCG-CPG-Mfg, and APAC's largest Telcos. With AISWITCH being a Research & Consulting partner entity for Frost & Sullivan and ISG, Tapati is also leading US research & consulting projects – on AWS, GCP, SNow, AI, cloud, engineering services, and in end-user digital tech maturity assessments. Tapati built 200+ Gartner copyrighted research incl. magic quadrants, HC, ITScore. She received several Gartner Business Awards, having been consistently rated in Top 20 Advisors worldwide. At Wipro Tapati filed 3 patents on XAI in less than a year and earned a Fellowship in the DMTS (Distinguished Member of Technical Staff).
Since 2001 till date, Tapati has been working closely with world's largest tech & services companies such as AWS, IBM, Accenture, Genpact, Infosys, HCL, TCS, to the global End-User companies in Fortune 1000 in US/EU/APAC, including Citi, BOA, HSBC, UBS, Lombard, Prudential, ING, etc., in BFSI, and in manufacturing and FMCG companies like Honda, Daimler/Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, Bosch, to Unilever, Kelloggs, etc. Tapati had an early start in AI in 1997 when she worked at GEC Marine UK as a Project Engineer, building industry-first expert systems. She has been a DFID Scholar at Strathclyde UK, holds a PhD in AI, and a University Gold Medal in Engineering graduate program from Jadavpur University, Calcutta India.