Championing the women of STEM
As we very recently celebrated International Women’s Day, there is no better time to sing the praises of an incredible lady in the technology industry - Sudha Mani, a business technology speaker, STEM ambassador and tech and digital entrepreneur. Anna Flockett reports.
Beginning her story with a joke, Mani opened by saying: “I basically like computers better than humans, as they don’t talk back.”
On a serious note, Mani added that this is how most tech people work - they prefer missions rather than humans because they are a lot easier to understand. “Tech just makes sense, because it is so logical - it is far more rational than the human side of things.”
Journey in tech
Mani started her career as a tech and digital entrepreneur, along with two friends, after graduating in computer science in India. This entrepreneurial voyage ended because she lost one of her business partners suddenly to illness. Mani then got the opportunity to work for Sun Microsystems on a short-term basis, as a J2EE programmer and project coordinator. Following that, in the year 2000, she moved to the UK to work for British Petroleum as a technical solutions architect.
Mani was only 26 years old and came over with £150 to her name. She came to the UK on a scholarship, with a few other male colleagues, with whom she soon became good friends. “Within a few days both guys had jobs - it took a little while for me to get one - I think that was because I got minimum wage in comparison to the men, and we got paid through an agency who would then charge the companies.”
The pay was still much better than she would have been receiving in India. Mani added: “In India the work culture is so bad - you are expected to work 24/7, and as a female you are expected to go beyond your male counterparts.”
Mani’s journey in tech has been an interesting one, and she would even say strange. She did add however, that she has loved every part of it, even though there were people around her that thought she wasn’t good enough. “Unconscious bias is quite prevalent, not only in this country, but also where I was born in India. Even though there were quite a lot of girls who got into engineering, technology and mathematics, they were not recognised for their skill or as an expert.
“I learnt to morph myself into being male,” she added. “These are the people that growing up, I saw as mentors, as an ideal person that I wanted to be like. I would emulate them, but what comes from that is you lose your individuality.”
When she was younger Mani added that this was something she didn’t always realise and understand: “It is hard to see that you are not becoming the person you think, and are in fact becoming someone you don’t want to be.”
This is exactly why she is so passionate about girls and women studying the subjects that they want to and are not put off of doing so purely because of their gender. Not only that but she added that it is important we retain women in these fields, as often women don’t stay long in these sectors because of the perceived expectations on them.
“For so long I would not consider myself as a woman in tech. It was a horrible situation where I asked myself why I was being put in this ‘women in tech’ category. There is no ‘men in tech’ or ‘men in STEM’ so why are we grouping women based on their gender?
“I believe we are all just human, we should not be labelled as this or that, when we do equal work, we should be considered equal.” As a child back in India Mani used to ask her mother why they separated men and women in school, college, in the workplace – pretty much everywhere?
When Mani studied at college between 1992 and 1995, she was in a class of 57 students, and only around 18 of these were girls. She said: “The sad thing is only three of us girls are still in this field. The boys, however, are all in businesses within this industry in some shape or form. It is really annoying, yet some of my friends still say, ‘I don’t want my daughter to go into computing’.”
When I asked why this was, Mani explained that they think computing is more of a male environment, and that girls who go into it would be mocked. “And even though it has become more acceptable and the numbers have increased, they still don’t want their girls to ‘behave like a man’.”
I thought this was quite an interesting point, and asked Mani if she believed she ‘behaved like a man?’ She explained: “I haven’t worn a dress or lipstick in so long, just so I blend in more. I have learnt to talk computers, cars and cricket. Obviously, computers have always been a massive interest of mine so that was not a big issue, but when it comes to other tech gadgets, you have to learn and it can be hard work.”
There is certainly still an unconscious bias that is very prevalent in the industry. Mani explained that when women start a family, or they just become busier at work, people start asking how they are going to be able to do their job and look after the kids? But why in the 21st century, is this still assumed to be just a woman’s job?
Mani agreed: “The father has got an equal duty towards the children, the home, the cooking and cleaning. What annoyed me even more was that I thought western countries were a lot more advanced than India, but this is not the case.”
Interestingly enough Mani said she prefers working with male bosses, and male line managers rather than women. “Most of the time women will compare themselves to you, and if you are a single person like me, with no children, they expect so much more from you. They think it’s okay to expect you to stay late all the time.”
Mani has always been a science-based person - she studied computer science at school, but she actually wanted to go into medicine as that is considered a more female job role in India. “In our country, boys go into engineering or become lawyers. Girls go into teaching or medicine. In India there is a cultural divide and the cast system, but money rules everything – you can buy a degree if you have the funds to do so.” Based on her grades, Mani’s father said computer science was the degree she would go into.
Being an Indian woman
When it comes to prejudice Mani confessed that it is something she’s always felt and has been aware of. “Racism is still there, and it can be seen anywhere. It is sadly part of society – there are rules, but it does sometimes feel that you can never be an equal if you are from a different country.”
However, as a strong and empowering woman, Mani has made a conscious effort to never let herself feel this way. “Even in India you have to work twice as hard as your male counterparts. I come from a very spiritual family, and they have taught me so much. I have always been taught not to be a limited person, but society does throw in limitations. I do think a lot of it is unconscious bias.”
Mani also believes that women that are British tend to be treated differently to those that are non-British. She visited the US to work for Sun Microsystems on a six-month Visa back in 1999, and said as an Indian woman, not many HR departments wanted to validate her Visa. “I was only allowed over for six months, but I was glad – I’m not sure I would have survived in the US, so I was glad to be back in the UK. There was so much inequality in the tech sector, and that is why in the end, I decided coaching would be better.”
So many are reluctant to go into STEM, and so Mani made the decision that she was better off being a woman helping other women in technology. “It has become my mission to help women and educate them. I had to learn the hard way, but I am just stubborn. I have come from a culture, where you are brought up in a certain way. I fight for and want equality, but that doesn’t mean I need to be labelled a feminist.”