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A Look at Gender Bias in India

In an effort to understand unconscious gender bias in the engineering workplace in India, SWE undertook a study based upon the real-world experiences of working engineers.

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gender bias

In 2016, the Society of Women Engineers released our first research study of gender bias in the engineering workplace, focusing on engineers in the United States and Canada. This study, a collaborative project conducted with researchers from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and led by the Center’s director, Joan C. Williams, J.D., highlighted the impact that unconscious gender and racial biases can have on engineers’ decisions to stay or leave their organizations.

Building on this important work, SWE collaborated once more with the Center for WorkLife Law to understand unconscious gender bias in the engineering workplace in India. SWE focused on India for our first international research study because of the tremendous momentum SWE has experienced there, with growing membership, affiliates, and ambassadors who have helped develop successful networking events in various cities around the country. SWE’s study of unconscious bias in India expands our understanding and involvement in the region, allowing us to identify areas of similarity and difference between the members SWE has historically served in North America and SWE’s newest members in India with regard to the challenges women face in the engineering profession.

WOMEN ENGINEERS IN INDIA

In the U.S., we often point to two indicators that highlight the gender inequity that exists in engineering: (1) that the percentage of engineering baccalaureate degrees earned by women has remained relatively static, hovering around 20 percent for years, and (2) that despite the increase that we have seen over the past few decades of women engineers in the STEM workforce, women still account for only 13 percent of employed engineers. The U.S. has a major problem attracting women into engineering degree programs, and we recognize that as one of the driving factors behind our slow progress toward reaching gender parity in the engineering profession.

If we look at these same metrics in India, we see something quite different. In 1980, women earned less than 2 percent of engineering degrees, but since then, India has seen a growth in the number of engineering degrees earned by women.1 In 2018, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s annual survey of higher education institutions in India found that over 31 percent of engineering and technology degrees awarded were earned by women.2

While not exactly gender parity, this movement in the higher education sector is significant. Studies have found that the “chilly climate” that women engineering students face in the U.S. does not seem to be an issue for women in India. The problems they face really begin after university.

First, it is important to note that the number of employed women across India is decreasing. According to a recent article in The Economist, the most recent employment rate of women in India has fallen to 26 percent.3 The societal expectations for women across all socioeconomic levels keep many women out of the workforce, including women engineers. Only 12.7 percent of working engineers in India are women.4 The unemployment rate for women with engineering degrees in some parts of India is about five times higher than the unemployment rate for men.5 Nationally, the unemployment rate for women engineers in India is about 40 percent.6

Second, employed women in STEM face unequal treatment in the workforce. Few women engineers in the private sector are promoted into higher ranks.7 Few women receive awards or are elected to the National Academy of Sciences.8 It is this unequal treatment of women engineers in the workplace that we sought to better understand through our gender bias research. By highlighting the existence and impact of bias in the workplace, we aim to encourage organizations to address the biases that are causing inequities in the engineering profession.

THE PATTERNS OF UNCONSCIOUS GENDER BIAS IN THE WORKPLACE

Understanding the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace is important, as is understanding and changing the root causes of biased behavior. This is discussed in greater detail elsewhere in this publication (see the article “What Research Tells Us About Diversity Training”). Researcher Margo Monteith, Ph.D., says in the article, “Stereotypes are so ingrained in our culture, they become a habitual way of responding. The role of motivated self-regulation really is about breaking a bad habit.” We all possess these biases, and they influence our interactions, behaviors, and decisions. To address this, we must first recognize that we hold these biases so that we can mitigate the impact that they can have on those we work with and those who report to us.

For the research study in India, we followed a similar methodology and framework as that used in the U.S. study to allow for some comparisons to be made. Joan C. Williams has identified four basic patterns of bias9 that we framed our study around:

  • Prove-It-Again centers on the need to continue to prove yourself over and over again, despite past achievements and level of expertise. Prior studies on unconscious bias have shown that women often have to work twice as hard to be seen as equally competent to their male counterparts. This bias has also been documented in other areas, including age, race, sexual orientation, and disability status.
  • Tightrope describes the need to behave in masculine ways to be perceived as competent, while still being expected to maintain your femininity. Those who experience this bias walk a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent and too masculine to be likable.
  • Maternal Wall concerns the biases that are held against women with children. In some cases, their commitment and competence are questioned, and they are denied access to opportunities that women without children and men (regardless of whether they have children or not) are offered.
  • Tug of War involves the competition that can exist among women in organizations. For those in male-dominated professions, this bias can manifest itself as a fight for the “woman’s spot.”

Given the social science research that has been conducted on gender bias in engineering, as well as reports of gender inequities in India, we expected to find the existence of the four patterns of bias in the engineering workplace in our study of Indian engineers. We were surprised, however, that many of these biases and stereotypes are experienced at similar levels by both men and women engineers in India.

METHODOLOGY

The Workplace Experiences Survey, the instrument we used in the U.S. study to look at objective measures of workplace gender and racial bias, was customized based on feedback from focus groups of engineers in India to allow for applicability for an Indian audience. This survey allowed us to ask engineers in India about their personal experiences in their careers and compare the responses of men and women engineers. Through our growing network in India, we reached out to engineers from across various disciplines and industries. The survey contained questions about workplace processes, including pay, promotions, and performance evaluations, to see if female engineers believe that gender bias has an impact on these decisions and, in turn, their career advancement opportunities within their organizations. The survey also included a handful of open-ended questions that allowed respondents to offer personal examples and feedback about gender bias in their workplaces.

Acknowledging our position as American researchers studying the experiences of engineers in a different country, we recognized the need for local expertise to assist us with this research. In addition to the focus groups that we conducted prior to launching the survey, we invited two academic researchers from India to assist us with the survey development and data analysis.10

Almost 700 engineers working in India for Western companies responded to our survey, with a gender split of about 60/40 (women/men). Engineers with at least two years of experience in the profession were eligible to participate. All responses were obtained anonymously. In addition to demographic questions, the survey included questions measured on a Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree) that we dichotomized to ease comparison between engineers who “agree” and “disagree” with each statement. Most of these questions were categorized under the four bias patterns, allowing us to develop a composite variable (or scale) to report a percentage of people who experienced each bias type. Unfortunately, we were unable to do this for the U.S. study, so comparisons and contrasts between the India and U.S. results are limited. What we could see was whether the difference in reported bias by men and women engineers in India mirrored that seen in the U.S., where women reported much higher levels of bias in the workplace than their white male counterparts.

In addition to the quantitative data collected, we utilized the qualitative data obtained from our focus groups and from the comments left on the online survey. These data allow us to provide context for the quantitative results.

RESULTS

As mentioned earlier, the most surprising finding was the level of workplace bias experienced by both men and women engineers in India (Figure 1). The Prove-It-Again, Tightrope, and Maternal Wall bias patterns were experienced by a large percentage of both men and women engineers. Over 75 percent of engineers also reported bias in promotion, sponsorship and mentoring programs, and compensation decisions, while 67 percent of engineers reported bias in performance evaluations. More than half of respondents reported feeling excluded by their colleagues and not feeling a strong sense of belonging in their organizations.

Figure 1

Why are men reporting high levels of bias in India? We cannot say for certain, but based on the data received from our focus groups and survey, we hypothesize that while the bias experienced by women in India is based primarily on gender, the bias men are facing is based on other factors, such as race, region of origin, language, or nationality. We did ask about these factors in the survey, but our ability to dig more deeply to understand the underlying cause of these bias experiences by men is limited because our survey was not structured to allow for investigation into non-gender-related biases.

However, we were able to look more closely at the four bias patterns in relation to gender.

PROVE-IT-AGAIN

“Male colleagues ask me more questions and wish to detract me more. I have to prove it to them that I know what I am doing and that I have done my homework.”

The Prove-It-Again bias scale included questions that asked about having to prove yourself over and over, or work harder to receive the same level of recognition or respect as your colleagues, and having your ideas “stolen” when others take credit. A high level of Prove-It-Again bias was reported by both men and women engineers in India, with 76 percent reporting experiencing this bias in their workplace. The percentages of both men and women engineers is similar to the percentages of U.S. women engineers who reported Prove-It-Again bias in the U.S. study (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Using regression analysis, we were able to examine the relationship between each bias pattern and workplace processes and outcomes. This allows us to tie the existence of bias in the workplace to retention indicators, which can be helpful to organizations striving to retain diverse talent. An increase in reported Prove-It-Again bias was associated with:

  • A decrease in feelings of belonging at work
  • A decrease in career satisfaction
  • An increase in reporting that they are considering looking for a new job elsewhere

TIGHTROPE

“I never used to speak up so my manager used to take the credit. It felt bad. But when I started to speak up, it was seen as bossing around.”

Tightrope bias typically focuses on gender. Women are often expected to take on specific roles at work: to be submissive, supportive, and nonassertive, which makes them less likely to be seen as leaders. When they act assertively, they can experience backlash for such behavior. The Tightrope bias scale included questions about being interrupted frequently, being delegated to perform more administrative-type tasks, and being able to express anger at work.

While both men and women engineers in India reported similar levels of Tightrope bias as that reported by U.S. women engineers (Figure 3), there were a couple of questions where gender differences were apparent. When asked if respondents felt pressure to play a traditionally feminine role in the workplace, such as office party planner or meeting note taker, 45 percent of women agreed versus 30 percent of men. Also, when asked about whether it is inappropriate for women to argue at work, even if it is business related, 45 percent of women agreed compared with 28 percent of men. This indicates that women feel less able to express certain emotions in the workplace, and men are unaware of this constraint.

Figure 3

An increase in reported Tightrope bias was associated with:

  • A decrease in seeing a clear path for advancement for yourself at your organization
  • A decrease in perceptions that the assignment process was fair
  • An increase in feeling excluded at work

MATERNAL WALL

“Men take pride in boasting about the long hours that they put in, it is viewed as a good thing, but if women say the same it is viewed as being ambitious while compromising on family.”

Survey questions under the Maternal Wall bias focused on the expectations placed on women to be homemakers and men to be breadwinners. Women are often expected to take on the family-care responsibilities, whether caring for children, parents, or the home.

In our study, 40 percent of women and men engineers agreed that there is an attitude in their workplace that mothers should work less because they should be caring for children. Also, 27 percent of women and men engineers said that their colleagues think that fathers should work more after having children. These expectations are in line with traditional gender roles, with mothers expected to be at home with the children and fathers expected to work longer hours to support the family.

When asked about caregiving responsibilities, 71 percent of women engineers and 69 percent of men engineers agreed that those with caregiving responsibilities have a harder time getting ahead. Differences were seen between men’s and women’s responses when asked about flexible work arrangements, with 60 percent of women engineers versus 51 percent of men engineers saying that they would have trouble obtaining flexible work arrangements for family care.

A significant difference between gendered responses was seen in response to a question about people without children. When asked whether they are expected to work longer hours because they don’t have children, 50 percent of men engineers and 39 percent of women engineers agreed. This is the opposite of what was seen in the U.S., where more women engineers than men engineers agreed with this statement (Figure 4). This may be due to cultural differences, as the stereotype in the U.S. about women without children is that they have no other responsibilities, whereas in India, women are expected to care for parents, in-laws, and manage the home. In other words, it is men without children in India who are stereotyped as having no other responsibilities.

Figure 4

An increase in Maternal Wall bias was associated with:

  • A decrease in perceptions that diversity is supported in the workplace
  • An increase in feeling excluded at work

TUG OF WAR

“Women will say that another woman was promoted because of her looks.”

Tug of War bias focuses on conflicts among women in the workplace. This bias occurs when women are judgmental of one another, or compete against one another for a perceived “woman’s slot” in the office.

In our U.S. study, many women did not report experiencing this particular bias. Rather, they felt that the bigger problem was that there weren’t enough women, with some indicating the existence of a “Boys’ Club” environment in their workplace. While this did come up in the India focus groups, what was striking was that only 42 percent of women engineers in our survey agreed that their female colleagues generally support one another.

Figure 5

Delving more deeply, we asked about the Tug of War bias based on age differences. In India, 63 percent of more junior women reported feeling as though more senior women have assimilated to the way men do things and are not doing enough to change things to help women feel more comfortable. On the flip side, more senior women reported feeling like more junior women don’t understand what it takes to succeed as an engineer. These figures were much higher than those seen by engineers in the U.S. (Figure 5). An increase in Tug of War bias was associated with:

  • A decrease in belonging
  • An increase in feeling excluded at work
  • An increase in reporting that they are considering looking for a new job elsewhere

THE SHOPS AND ESTABLISHMENTS ACT

India has a law in place that limits the permissible working hours of female employees. The Shops and Establishments Act (SEA) includes measures to address the safety of working women. Women can work late nights if permission is given by the state. Approval is based on the woman’s employer meeting certain requirements, including providing adequate security and ensuring that women can get home safely at night. For companies that do not provide this level of security, the women who work there must leave by a certain time in the evening.

In our study, 57.5 percent of respondents reported working for companies that require them to leave by a certain hour. In exploring the positive and negative consequences of this policy, we found that women overwhelmingly reported feeling safer because of this policy. However, women engineers did report nonsafety concerns associated with the policy, with 17 percent feeling that the policy jeopardizes their opportunities for advancement, 14 percent reporting that they are forced to miss out on business opportunities, and 11 percent reporting that they feel undermined in front of their co-workers, as some must be escorted off the premises by security at the appropriate hour.

CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

This study is unique, and perhaps the first of its kind in India, because the findings are based on real-world experiences of working engineers. While we learned a great deal from this research, we walked away with more questions. We expected to see high levels of reported bias from women in India, but the high levels of reported bias from men was surprising. After further research into potential causes, we theorize that because most (if not all) engineers in our study were employed at Western companies, and that men are more likely to move for employment than women, the biases reported by men are likely due to regional biases that were beyond the scope of our study.

Women in our study did report more bias based on parenthood than men, and women in India expressed much more conflict among women than that seen in the U.S. Associating bias with workplace processes and outcomes allowed us to show the impact that experiencing bias at work can have on business outcomes for employees. When employees face bias in the workplace, they feel less engaged, are less satisfied with their jobs, and are more likely to consider leaving. We see these outcomes from both men and women engineers in India.

How can companies address these biases that threaten their efforts to develop a more diverse workforce? One way is to ensure that clear policies regarding workplace processes are in place. Employee perceptions of fairness and equity are important, and clear and transparent policies can go a long way toward making employees feel confident that decisions affecting their career advancement are being made based on merit.

Relating to clear policies, companies should also make sure that employees understand that supporting diversity is a priority for the company. This requires a financial investment as well as support staff for diversity efforts, and ensuring that employees can easily participate.

Additionally, organizations can take a systemic approach toward addressing bias in their workplace processes. This approach involves understanding the unique problems that exist in your workplace, identifying the outcomes you want to improve, and taking incremental steps to mitigate bias. Addressing these issues is an iterative process and takes time, but continuous monitoring is required if changes are to be effective.


This research project was made possible by the Society of Women Engineers’ Corporate Partnership Council.


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. For more information about the Center, please visit https://worklifelaw.org/.


Endnotes

  1. Patel, R. and M.J.C. Parmentier (2005). “The Persistence of Traditional Gender Roles in the Information Technology Sector: A Study of Female Engineers in India.” Information Technologies and International Development 2(3): 29–46.
  2. AISHE (2018). “All India Survey on Higher Education 2017-2018.” Government of India: Ministry of Human Resource Development. Department of Higher Education. New Delhi, India.
  3. “Why India Needs Women to Work” (2018). The Economist, July 5, 2018.
  4. Anand, C. (2016). “Number of Unemployed Women Engineers in India Is as High as 40%.” The Hindu, Aug. 26, 2016.
  5. Patel, R. and M.J.C. Parmentier (2005). “The Persistence of Traditional Gender Roles in the Information Technology Sector: A Study of Female Engineers in India.” Information Technologies and International Development 2(3): 29–46.
  6. Anand, C. (2016). “Number of Unemployed Women Engineers in India Is as High as 40%.” The Hindu, Aug. 26, 2016.
  7. WISE (2014). Women in Science and Engineering in India.
  8. Rao, K.U. and A. Prakash (2013). “Transition of Indian Women in Engineering Domains: Opportunities & Challenges.” International Journal of Current Engineering and Technology (Special Issue 1), 65–70.
  9. Williams, J.C. and R. Dempsey (2014). “What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know.” New York, NY: NYU Press.
  10. Neeti Sanan, Ph.D., from the Indian Institute of Management Udaipur, and Mridul Maheshwari, Ph.D., from the Indian Institute of Management Kashipar, provided guidance throughout the study.
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