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Firm truths: Gender biases at work hurt all women

Gender biases have taken deep root not just in Silicon Valley but everywhere. And not just one woman, but the entire female gender is kept at a disadvantage, at any company dealing with gender issues, be it Infosys, IGATE, or Wipro.

business Updated: Oct 10, 2015 14:49 IST
Suveen Sinha
Ruchi Sanghvi, former VP-operations at Dropbox.
Ruchi Sanghvi, former VP-operations at Dropbox.(Mint File Photo)

“Looking for engineers,” said the sign at the door. This was on the floor above a Chinese restaurant on Emerson Street in Palo Alto, California. Ruchi Sanghvi walked in to find a few young people in casual clothes. They were working, but hardly looked to be, such was the atmosphere.

Ruchi wanted to be a part of that culture, and became the first woman engineer hired by the company whose office it was — Facebook — in 2005.

She still cringes ever so slightly to hear that description: first woman engineer at Facebook. Here to attend a board meeting of One97, which owns the Paytm wallet and online market place, Ruchi told Firm Truths: “I was not just the first female engineer at Facebook. That was 10 years ago. I have done a whole lot of things since then.”

That she has. She left Facebook in 2010 because there was not much left for her to do. When she joined, there were just about 20 people working at the company. A small number of them were engineers. Ruchi, a computer science graduate from the Carnegie Mellon University, may have been the only one of them to have completed an engineering degree.

In fact, until she walked into its office, Ruchi still thought of Facebook as a college website. She found that it had grown much beyond that, but its homepage was more or less empty. There was no search. One had to go from profile to profile to look at what one’s friends were posting.

Ruchi worked on the product that came to be known as news feed. She created personalised newspapers, about things happening in their (Facebook members’) network. It was perhaps the first true engineering product at the social media outfit. Of course, in Facebook’s language, news means something different from what this newspaper gives you. Ruchi wrote the first blog post on it, whose headline makes her chuckle: “Facebook gets a facelift.”

She also created Facebook Platform, which was re-launched as Facebook Connect, a set of tools that helps third-party developers integrate with various aspects of Facebook. By 2010, the same things, the same challenges were coming back to her in a second cycle. She missed the thrill of new products.

Long story short, she quit to set up her own company, Cove, which she later sold to Dropbox, the highly-valued start-up that lets you store and sync files and stuff. Now, having left Dropbox, she is playing angel and mentor to a bunch of start-ups.

This career graph is as good as anyone’s, enough to make news when Vijay Shekhar Sharma of One97 roped her in as a board member with a small stake.

Yet, when Ruchi meets a company she is mentoring, she asks where the woman engineers are. Things have not changed much from the time she climbed up the steps from that Chinese restaurant to Facebook’s office. There still are not too many women dotting the technology world, even in the Silicon Valley.

Part of the reason for this could be the ingrained gender biases and instances of sexual harassment that continue to this day, with the result that some women fall by the wayside, while some others believe that they have no option but to accept that their male colleagues will rise faster. Those who do neither, those who want what should be theirs by right, get branded as “aggressive”. Ruchi was one.

“I am strong, not afraid to voice my opinion, maybe opinionated, too. I was often viewed by my co-workers as aggressive. Not a perspective I enjoyed.”

The Howard/Heidi case study Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg made popular strikes a chord with Ruchi. Two professors wrote about a real life entrepreneur called Heidi Roizen, who had an outgoing personality and excelled at networking. They made one group of students read the study with Heidi as the protagonist and another group for which the name was changed to Howard. Howard was found to be admirable and likable, but Heidi seemed selfish and undesirable.

Such biases have taken deep root not just in Silicon Valley but everywhere, too. Ellen Pao’s struggles sort of chronicle the gender biases. They hurt not just Pao, not just one woman, but work to keep the entire gender at a disadvantage.

That is what any company dealing with gender issues needs to remember, be it Infosys, IGATE, or Wipro.