Women, Work, and the Web

July 04, 2019

Women’s participation in India’s labor force has shrunk from 28% to 23% in the decade between 2008 and 2018, according to the International Labor Organization, and is ironically, much lower in urban areas and among women with secondary education. To probe the pitfalls and potential of India’s burgeoning digital industries in providing gender parity at work, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai organized a one-day workshop, ‘Women, Work, and the Web: From Exclusion to Opportunity’ on June 28, 2019.  The workshop addressed key research findings and engaged with initiatives that used digital technologies to create enabling, inclusive and safe spaces for working women.

The introductory panel detailed the status of women’s professional participation in the digital space and larger workforce, including the social and technological barriers that hindered women’s progress in education, employment and beyond.  Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director of Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai traced the chequered history of women’s participation in press, media and digital technology in the backdrop of systemic exclusion of women from education and employment over decades in India.  Pointing to the potential of the digital sphere and its promise of access, interactivity and democratization, she asked whether a moment of critical mass in new digital technologies had arrived and passed without delivering its true potential for women. Anu Madgavkar, partner with Mckinsey Global Institute, presented key insights from a recently published report she had co-authored on the future of women at work in the age of automation. Ms. Madgavkar highlighted India’s poor labor gender parity record and identified gaps in education and skill building, security and mobility, and access to technology, as prime causes of women’s limited participation, significantly compounded by restrictive social attitudes. These barriers were also recognized in the Center for Development and Communication’s study on digital literacy and access among school students from disparate social-economic backgrounds in Pune. Anjali Shenoi, Program Coordinator at the Center, emphasized the importance of early digital education but explained how stark patterns of digital exclusion emerged at a young age along gendered lines. Both presenters on the panel emphasized the tremendous potential across government, private and non-profit sectors in fostering enabling mechanisms for women and girls through education, employment and community initiatives to become equal partners in the future of work.

The second panel engaged with platforms that provided incisive information and resources tailored towards building inclusive and safe spaces for women online. Karla Bookman, Columbia Law School alumna and Founder of the online magazine, The Swaddle, explained the thrust of her platform as journalism by and for women, with concerted efforts to mainstream gender issues and women’s concerns in their coverage. She also highlighted the platform’s focused reportage on women’s workforce participation and discrimination in urban India. Discrimination and harassment at work was also the focus of the panel’s second presenter, Mr. Antony Alex, Founder of Rainmaker, an online tool for trainings, workshops and compliance on the prevention of sexual harassment at work. Based on surveys from offices around India, Mr. Alex described common hindrances to safeguards and accountability around harassment at work, and explained how the offered online tools developed by Rainmaker had been effective interventions and support systems to women in many cases.

The workshop’s final panel shifted focus to platforms and initiatives that enabled and promoted women’s professional participation in the digital space. Gunjan Khandelwal, General Manager at ThoughtWorks India, outlined the company’s signature Vapasi Program that functioned as a specialized boot-camp for re-skilling women re-entering IT jobs after a career break. She also shared the company’s inclusive ethos and other programs that aimed to create diverse and safe workplaces for women as well as LGBTQ employees. The workshop’s last presenter, Sairee Chahal, described the work of Sheroes, a mobile social network for women, where she is Founder and CEO. Initially launched as a jobs and career portal for women, Sheroes’ website and app avtars proliferated to encompass various discussion boards across topics with the aim of being a safe online space for women to share and deliberate.

Each panel was followed by detailed discussions on presented themes and interventions, recognizing the intersecting dynamics that informed women’s professional participation in the digital space, and the best practices to encourage and support their equal participation. The workshop was part of the Center’s Urban Works Innovation Challenge initiative, a design challenge that aims to envision the future of urban workspaces in India. In its second year, the Challenge will address multi-faceted aspects of sustainability and security at work, including gender security.