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Women, technology, and feminism - reflections from India

Image of Gayatri Buragohain and two girls from her tech center for young girls in India.

Gayatri Buragohain, founder of Joint Leap Technologies and Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT), with two girls from her tech center for young girls in India. Image courtesy Texas Advanced Computing Center.

Gayatri Buragohain, an electronics engineer by education, and expert on information and communication technologies for non-profit organizations, has made it her life’s mission to increase women’s participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Early in her engineering career, she searched for connections between her two passions — feminism and technology — but her efforts proved fruitless.

Not only did India not have organizations focused on female empowerment within technology, but women’s rights organizations, activists, and advocates did not recognize the need for them. Buragohain looked for statistics on women studying or working in STEM. All she found was a single, outdated report on the industry as a whole. “Statistics on women in different layers of STEM scared me," said Buragohain.

She quit her job and started Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) in New Delhi, India, a non-profit organization –  intentionally named to confront more than one taboo about women.

The root of the problem for STEM education

Buragohain says that women receive a number of signals from a very early age that discourage them from entering STEM fields. For many, it comes down to the absence of role models and mentors she argues. “You can't be what you can't see," said Buragohain. However, negative perceptions and stereotypes of STEM as a path for the geeky and unattractive also have an impact. Frequent portrayals in the media only serve to reinforce these views, making girls self-conscious about their chosen paths and undermining their confidence.

Buragohain set out to reverse this trend. With a computer purchased through a Systers Pass-It-On cash award from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (and several others borrowed from friends), she started a free technology workshop in her own house for girls who otherwise would not have access to a computer. Many workshop participants — a large percentage of whom are domestic workers — had previoulsy never seen a computer, did not speak English, and dropped out of school.

FAT provides woment with real-world technical training and vocational guidance for free. This is important because many families retain the earnings brought in by girls and refuse to spend money on their education. Buragohain also conducts additional training sessions— for women by women — in the hope of improving STEM participation for women of all ages. Buragohain says this is important for four main reasons: First, women have equal rights to quality education and the better salaries that STEM provides. Second, the nation is losing out on half of its labor force and talent by not engaging women. Third, businesses thrive when they include a female perspective because women comprise a large proportion of their clientele. And fourth, women’s perspectives can help us all get ahead through the positive impact of diversity in approach.

Societal benefit

The lack of a strong female presence in STEM fields means women have little say in decisions that could make the world a better place, even when they rise to the top of other fields. “A healthy society is one in which men and women work in partnership. It’s not just women who need to have more women in technology—society needs it,” Buragohain said.

It has taken a huge battle to get women out of domestic caretaker roles, help them gain equal say, and get them to recognize the value of their contributions. However, the drastic under-representation of women in technology — an industry that shapes the way we live, work, and learn — could undermine this progress if it is not addressed now.

To increase the numbers in STEM fields, we need to start with young girls. As those girls get married and have children, we need to acknowledge that women tend to assume most of the responsibility for their families. In STEM, that has meant that around half the women who start in the workforce drop out within the first five years. Even worse, only three percent ever reach the top. Buragohain said that those statistics can — and should — change through efforts that balance the modern family and reduce women’s domestic responsibilities. In turn, this can free both women and men from traditional gender roles and create change for a better future.

Ultimately, Buragohain’s feminist approach to technology is about social equality for everyone, and bringing more people into the conversation about technological developments. Buragohain said, Under-representation in STEM is not just a problem for women; it is a problem for larger society. So if you want to bring change, don’t do it for the women — do it for yourself.”

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