Podcast: An Examination of Bias in the Engineering Workplace in India

In this podcast, Penny Wirsing, SWE FY19 President, discusses SWE’s India Gender Bias Study with lead researcher Joan C. Williams.
Swe Stories – Tales From The Archives Podcast: The Trouble With Celebrating Firsts

The Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) have released results of a study that explores bias reported by Indian engineers largely working for Western companies in India. Almost 700 engineers took our Workplace Experiences Survey and reported on their workplace climates. You’ll find the report on SWE’s Research site.  Listen to our podcast below to learn about the survey from Lead Researcher Joan Williams.

Welcome to Diverse: The podcast of the Society of Women Engineers. SWE supports the advancement of women in engineering and technology. You can find all of our podcasts on SoundCloud and iTunes.

Hi, I’m Penny Wirsing, FY19 President of the Society of Women Engineers, and this is SWE’s Diverse podcast series. Please remember to add this podcast to your iTunes and like or follow us on social media. Visit swe.org for more details.

Joining me now to talk about SWE’s India study on gender bias is lead researcher Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

Thanks for joining us Joan.

Delighted to be here.

So Joan, the Gender Bias study conducted in India was modeled after the Climate Control study conducted in the U.S. in 2016. In both studies, engineers completed online surveys that asked questions relating to four basic patterns of implicit bias. Tell us more about how the study was designed.

The study was designed around the Workplace Experiences Survey which is a simple

10-minute survey that’s designed to give employers an understanding of every major pattern of bias that’s playing out by gender, by race and certain other factors. The Workplace Experiences Survey is based on a comprehensive literature review of 40 years of social science about implicit bias, and so it measures whether those forms of bias are playing out in a given workplace. It measures where they are playing out, whether they’re playing out for example in hiring or performance evaluations. It measures which of the four patterns is playing out in a given workplace and then it measures where the pattern is playing out, is it in hiring for example or performance evaluations, and finally it measures the impact of the bias on outcome measures like sense of belonging and intent to stay.

Interesting, so let’s talk about those patterns of bias for those who may be unfamiliar. I understand there are four basic patterns: Prove it again, tightrope, maternal wall, and tug-of-war. Can you briefly explain what those terms mean?

I can, but let’s first take a step back and have some high-order findings of the study which included both the Workplace Experiences Survey and also some focus groups that we held with women beforehand to help us adapt the survey that was originated in America to the Indian context. We found that bias in India is very high, is reported as very high for both men and women. Gender bias is high women in both the focus groups and the survey comments talked about gender bias. We also found that bias reported by men is quite high and that that bias reported by men appears to be triggered by different things than gender. It appears to be triggered by bias based on the state or region they come from.

So we found very high levels of bias among engineers in India, and to go back to the four patterns, the first kind of bias is what we call prove-it-again bias and it’s basically a report that engineers feel that they have to prove themselves more so than their colleagues of similar education and experience. Seventy-six percent of the Indian engineers who responded to our survey reported having to prove themselves to get more so than their colleagues and we again assume that the women are reporting that they have to prove themselves that they have to prove themselves more than their colleagues whereas the men are more likely reporting that they have to prove themselves more with their colleagues of a different language group or of a different region.

Employers should be concerned that 3/4 of the engineers in these American-owned companies in India are reporting this kind of bias because an increase in prove-it-again bias is linked with decreased intent to stay, decreased career satisfaction and sense of belonging and decreased sense that performance evaluations are fair and that compensation is fair, so prove-it-again bias appears to have a pretty strong impact in the workplace.

The second form of bias we call tightrope bias and that reflects the fact that a wider range of behavior is often accepted from majority men in this context than it may be majority men who are Americans… that is our hypothesis… than others, so this literature comes out of gender bias, but our prior studies have shown that this tightrope bias is also triggered by other factors, other than gender, for example in the United States, it’s triggered by race. So the SWE India study found that 3/4 of the engineers who responded to our survey report that there are a narrower range of behaviors accepted from them in the workplace than in others, behaviors like assertiveness for example, self promotion, and anger they feel are less accepted in them than in others.

Again we would, based on focus groups and some of the survey data, our interpretation is that women feel that they are…there is actually two strong findings…that women are being policed into being less assertive and to playing kind of a more of supportive role rather than a leadership role in the workplace, and again for men, we are picking up biase based on region or language. Increase in tightrope bias also links to outcomes. It links to worse outcomes across the board with intent to stay which is lower, lower career satisfaction, lower sense of belonging and a sense that there is bias in basically every workplace system from hiring to compensation to sponsorship, you name it.

The third form of bias we called maternal wall bias and that is the bias triggered by motherhood. We found in the survey very strong gender role expectations held by everybody. Forty percent of the engineers said that mothers were expected to work less after they had children and 27% said that fathers were expected to work more after they had children, and so there’s this sense people have that men are policed into a breadwinner role and women are being policed informally into a caregiver role. Maternal wall bias links with feeling excluded in the workplace.

And then finally, the fourth pattern of bias is when gender bias against women fuels conflicts among women. We found some robust evidence of that on some of the questions. Two-thirds of the women felt that some of their women colleagues had just turned into men. That was higher than the number of men or the percentage of men who felt that. Three-fourths of the women felt that other women just don’t understand what it takes to succeed in their environment again that was higher than among the men. So you have women there kind of faulting each other for navigating that tightrope wrong and not displaying the optimal combination of femininity and masculinity.Tightrope bias links with lower belonging, higher exclusion, and also less intent to stay although I should mention that some of the women, and this finding was actually smaller in the U.S., was stronger in the U.S. excuse me, some of the women said “Oh there’s not a tug-of-war among women here because where I work there’s basically no other women in sight. My problem is with the boys’ club.’ There were quite a number of comments of women struggling and feeling excluded from the boys’ club or as one of them put it ‘the smoking club.’

Interesting. That’s a lot of information you just proved and I wonder are there any of these findings that particularly surprised you in the India study versus the U.S.?

Yes, there were some really interesting comparisons between India and the U.S. We see high levels of bias for both women and men in India. The levels of bias reported by both genders in India is about the same as the level of bias reported by women engineers in the U.S., but higher than the levels of bias reported by male engineers in the U.S. For example, tightrope, prove-it-again bias in hiring and compensation the levels of bias reported by men and women in India are about the same as women reporting in the U.S. So in some areas the level of bias for engineers in India was slightly higher than women engineers in the U.S. and really a lot higher than male engineers in the U.S. A reported bias in promotions and performance evaluations follows this pattern. This is where we may have been picking up the sense of women by women and men alike in India that if they are Indian engineers working in American companies the deck is kind of stacked against them. And so the the important message I think for Indian companies and we can talk more about what we found in workplace processes but that these companies American companies in India should begin to address some of these challenges through tweaks to workplace processes.

So you mentioned some recommendations. I’m sure some of these companies would be interested to hear what they can do to make a difference.

They are in luck because what we have in the report referenced a website at the Center for Worklife Law which is that we worked with SWE to do this study. It’s the institute that worked with SWE to do this study. We have a website called www.biasinterrupters.org and on that website, we have things individual managers can do to interrupt bias and what companies can do to interrupt bias. Because if you have these high levels of bias being reported, what is probably happening is that you have forms of bias being subtle, some of them not-so-suble, being constantly transmitted through a business’s basic business systems. For example, three-fourths of the engineers surveyed reported bias in assignments, promotions and sponsorship opportunities, and in compensation, and two-thirds of the engineers who responded to our study reported bias in their performance evaluations and half reported bias in their companies’ hiring processes. In the report, we have very concrete steps that companies can, take steps that are evidence-based and metrics-driven, to interrupt bias in things like hiring and performance evaluations and assignments.

Okay, thank you, so again that website is www.biasedinterrupters.org, correct?

Correct, yes.

I see that of the engineers that responded, there was quite a range in terms of years of employment, in their age, and even male and female. It was quite a broad range of people that you were able to reach. Do you have any comments about that?

We were pleased with the broad range, and one of things to point out is that sort of the traditional way to do this kind of study is just to look at gender bias alone, and we feel strongly that it’s important to put gender bias within a context. Where because some people may be deeply affected by gender bias, other people may be deeply affected by other forms of bias. And I think if you study gender bias alone, people often think ‘oh well you’re just asking for special treatment for women.’ First of all, that’s not true. We’re actually just asking for a level playing field for women, but it’s important to recognize that by creating by creating a level playing field for women, you’re also creating a level playing field for men, and that’s really the central message of this report.

Which is very important, so I really appreciate that. Ok, well is there anything else that you would like the listeners to know about the the report itself? I will say that we will be presenting more about this India Gender Bias Study at our State of Women in Engineering session at WE18 which is the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers. It will be October 18th through 20th in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but before we end the recording I just want to see is there anything more that really jumps out at you that you would like the listeners to understand.

Yes, a few points that we haven’t talked about. First of all, there is a government policy in India that is designed to keep women who are at work safe, and we looked into to that government policy. The way it has been implemented is that women are typically required to leave by a certain time in the evening, women but not men, and so from the focus groups we had reason to be concerned that this policy which is well-intentioned and desired to keep women safe might be having negative effects. One person for example in a focus group said that because she had to leave promptly at a certain hour, if she had to take a work phone call after that hour, she took it out on the corner. But I am happy to say that the government policy appears to be, the  widespread perception is that it does keep women safer, and that it is generally working. The perception is, that it does have some negative impacts in terms of opportunities for advancement having to miss meeting, having to stop working in the middle of something, but it’s also perceived to have some positive impacts for women notably on work-life balance. So I think that’s an important finding as well. Certainly, one thing that employers should consider with respect to enforcing that policy if they are having women leave at an earlier time than men are expected to leave, I think it’s going to have a differential impact based on whether the woman has a personal computer to bring home with her.

We also looked at sexual harassment and based on prior studies, we found lower level of sexual harassment than anticipated based on our experience in studying engineers in the U.S. The research on sexual harassment in India suggests that the levels that we find may have been reflected by people’s often reluctance to report sexual harassment in India for various reasons. We did find some but it was considerably less than the incidence of harassment as reported in other studies in the U.S.

That is an interesting finding, and I’m sure there will be more interesting findings that come up and probably additional research to be done both in India and elsewhere in the world I would expect.

Absolutely, I think for American companies it’s an important report to get them to re-examine whether the Indian engineers they have working for them in those American companies feel that they are experiencing a level playing field at work and that their work is being judged by the same standards as others in the workplace.

So Joan, could you tell us about the literature review of gender bias in engineering in India?

Well, there’s some very good news and some not-so-good news when you look at the history of women engineers in India over recent decades. The good news is that women have been earning engineering degrees in India at a much higher rate for example than they were in 1980. Only 1.5% of engineering degrees were granted to women in 1980. That number had increased in 2000 to almost 25%. The not-so-good news, the first installment, is that level has stagnated since 2000 and has not increased very much since 2000. Another bit of good news is that the climate for women engineering students in India appears to be much more positive than women engineering students in the U.S. A bit of bad news is that the unemployment rate for women with engineering degrees in India is very high, five times higher than the rate for men, and the unemployment rate for women engineers in India today is about 40%, yes it’s shockingly high. We tend to assume ‘oh that’s just because they have families and their priorities shift’ and that may be part of the explanation, but I think there are two points that employers should recognize. First of all, if it is part, it’s only part, and what this study shows is that women engineers often find they face in these companies that we studied quite a chilly comment. They feel that they have to prove themselves more than their male colleagues. They feel they have to walk a tightrope between being seen as too masculine and too feminine. They feel that once they have children people assume they lack commitment to their jobs. Sometimes the women are pitted against each other in these companies, typically because there are so few women. So, it’s cause for concern that there is such a, given the high success that India has in no doubt spending a lot of money educating women engineers that it has such a high unemployment rate among engineers.

The final point goes back to the issue of motherhood and that if you design the ideal worker in engineering around someone who has no child bearing capacity and has no responsibility either for care of children or care of parents or inlaws, you’ve really designed the ideal worker around someone with the man’s body and men’s traditional life patterns and that really is not delivering equal economic opportunity to women.

No delivering a diverse perspective on all of the issue that are being addressed by the engineers.

That’s really true, and so what you also have in India is that women in India earn about 60% of what men in India earn in the same jobs. Although in some way the climate for women engineers in India is better than in the U.S., I think it’s important to recognize that, in some ways India too faces some very substantial challenges.

Very much so. Well, thank you.

As I mentioned, we’ll be presenting more about our India Gender Bias Study at our State of Women in Engineering sessionat WE18, the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers. WE18 is Oct. 18-20 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can find out more and register at we18.swe.org.

You can also learn more about research related to women in engineering and technology on SWE’s research website: research.swe.org.

Joan C. Williams is a Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

Joan, thank you so much for joining us.

My pleasure. Thanks for your interest.

I’m Penny Wirsing, for all of us at SWE, thanks for listening.

High Levels of Bias

Indian engineers reported high levels of bias whether they were men or women. Our data suggest that women engineers are more likely to face gender bias, while men engineers are more likely to face bias based on where they come from (both their region and language). It may be that Indian engineers from one region were comparing themselves to Indian colleagues from other regions.

Four Patterns

  • Prove-It-Again bias: 76% of engineers reported having to prove themselves over and over to get the same level of respect as their colleagues.
  • Tightrope bias: 77% of engineers reported that they were confined to a narrower range of acceptable behaviors than their colleagues.
  • Maternal Wall bias: 40% of engineers in India reported bias against mothers in their workplaces.
  • Tug of War bias: 45% of women reported that they have to compete with their female colleagues to get the one “woman’s spot” available.

Key Issues

Higher levels of bias were associated with feelings of exclusion, belonging, and lower intent to stay with one’s employer.

  • Tightrope bias had the most pervasive effect: it was strongly linked to every workplace process and outcome we studied, including hiring, performance evaluations, assignments, and intent to leave one’s current employer.
  • An increase in Prove-It-Again bias was linked to a decrease in career satisfaction and an increase in intent to leave one’s employer.

Clearly, employers who want to retain the women they hire, and want to give them equal opportunity to advance, need to care about workplace bias. In addition, employers need to assess whether Indian engineers from some regions are artificially advantaged over engineers from different regions.

Workplace Processes

  • Three-quarters of engineers reported bias in assignments, promotions, sponsorship opportunities, and compensation.
  • Two-thirds of engineers reported bias in their performance evaluations.
  • Half of engineers reported bias in their companies’ hiring systems.
  • Region- and language-based bias: 44% of men and 30% of women engineers reported bias due to the state/region they are from.

Sexual Harassment

Among survey respondents, 11% of women engineers and 6% of men engineers reported unwanted romantic or sexual attention or touching in the workplace.

Comparison to U.S. Data

For the most part, men and women engineers in India reported similar levels of bias as women engineers in the U.S. Among engineers working for primarily Western companies in India, both men and women report higher levels of bias than do white men engineers in the U.S.

Study Authors

The authors of the study are: Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law, Hastings Foundation Chair, Director of the Center for WorkLife Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Rachel M. Korn, Ph.D., Research Director, Center for WorkLife Law, University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., Senior Manager of Research, Society of Women Engineers; and Peter Finn, Deputy Executive Director & Chief Learning Officer, Society of Women Engineers.

About SWE

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), founded in 1950, is the world’s largest advocate and catalyst for change for women in engineering and technology. The not-for-profit educational and service organization is the driving force that establishes engineering as a highly desirable career aspiration for women. To ensure SWE members reach their full potential as engineers and leaders, the Society offers unique opportunities to network, provides professional development, shapes public policy, and provides recognition for the life-changing contributions and achievements of women engineers. As a champion of diversity, SWE empowers women to succeed and advance in their personal and professional lives. For more information about the Society, please visit www.swe.org.

About WLL

The Center for WorkLife Law (WLL), based at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to measuring and documenting implicit bias in the workplace, with a focus on how bias differs depending on gender and race. WLL works with innovative companies to develop best practice Bias Interrupters, which seamlessly interrupt the transmission of bias in basic business systems (see https://hbr.org/2014/10/hacking-techs-diversity-problem to learn more about the Bias interrupters model). For more information about the Center, please visit http://worklifelaw.org/.


Thank you to Marina Multhaup, Sky Mihaylo, and the entire staff of the Center for WorkLife Law for their support and assistance in completing this project. A special thank you to Neeti Sanan, Ph.D., Indian Institute of Management Udaipur, and Mridul Maheshwari, Ph.D., Indian Institute of Management Kashipur, for their guidance throughout this study and indispensable insight into bias in India. Thank you to Su Li, Ph.D., for her work on our report about the experiences of U.S. engineers, which allowed this project to continue in India. Thank you to Paul Robichaud and Sneha Kumar for their assistance in coordinating and implementing the study. Thank you to Rebecca Wheeler for her help with the logistics of running focus groups in India.

This research was made possible by the generous support of the Society of Women Engineers Corporate Partnership Council.

Author(s) Information

  • Podcast: An Examination of Bias in the Engineering Workplace in India India Gender Bias Study

    SWE Blog

    SWE Blog provides up-to-date information and news about the Society and how our members are making a difference every day. You’ll find stories about SWE members, engineering, technology, and other STEM-related topics.