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HYDERABAD, India — It’s still dark outside when Ramya Vemuri rises at 4:30 a.m. to get her two sons ready for school. Academic competition is fierce in India, so over milk and upma each morning, her younger child prepares assignments while the older one studies for his entrance exam for the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. Around 8:30 she drives to the office. The commute, roughly 30 miles one way, can take two hours if traffic is bad — and in Hyderabad, the fourth most populous city in India, traffic is almost always bad. Once she gets home from work in the evening, “it’s like being a housewife again for a few hours,” Vemuri says. At night, she often takes calls from U.S.-based clients or answers emails.
Vemuri, 43, is a senior consultant at DataSong, a marketing company headquartered in San Francisco. When the business opened an office in Hyderabad nine years ago, she was the first employee. Now there are 30, and the company plans to move from a small office in the Jubilee Hills neighborhood to Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy City, which bills itself as the largest information and technology park in India. HITEC City, which has been developed in stages since 1998, now houses dozens of major tech companies, including Microsoft, Facebook and Oracle, as well as Indian giants Wipro, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. Soon Google will build its own campus here, the first outside the United States.
Leena Bhai, 30, a senior consultant at the information-technology company Virtusa, recently completed a one-year MBA at the Indian School of Business. She was the careers coordinator for the school’s Women in Business Club. During her tenure, two companies came to campus to recruit women employees: Cummins, an energy company, and Axis Bank. “At Cummins,” Bhai says, “more of their blue-collar jobs were filled by women than men. They felt women’s attrition rates were lower and that the overall culture on the floor had changed for the better with more women. Now, to manage them, they came to ISB to see if they could get some white-collared women managers.” Bhai feels finding entry-level jobs is not difficult for women, but moving up the ranks is. “It is literally like a pyramid. It gets thinner, thinner, thinner.”
Bhai had her first child when she lived in Redmond, Washington, in the United States, while working for Microsoft and last month had her second. She says being a working woman in India brings very specific cultural obstacles. “I was never told in the U.S., ‘Oh, you’re in the eighth month. Now you should be working from home or taking maternity leave.’ ” In contrast, she says, here people did ask her when she’d start her maternity leave. “My answer is, I’ll go when the baby is here! I’m perfectly healthy. I can walk. I can think. I can sit around the computer for long hours. That’s all that’s required for the job.”
Bhai thinks that for many women the commute is too stressful, with cars and motorcycles flying all over the road. “It’s not easy in India, because your heart is literally in your mouth.” She was able to solve that problem by living close to her office, but most women don’t have that flexibility, she says. Family expectations can also be difficult. Women are told constantly to stay home with the baby, while she has yet to find a day care that will take her baby, who will be three months old when Bhai returns to work.
Bhai and her husband have managed child care by coordinating their schedules to be as flexible as possible and hiring a part-time babysitter. Both sets of grandparents are based in distant Mumbai and she sees that separation as increasingly common. “As compared to the last generation, I think this generation has moved cities and even countries in search of better opportunities, partly due to globalization,” says Bhai. Neelima Jinka, 31, senior systems analyst at the telecommunications company Qualcomm, lives with her parents. They are helping raise her son and daughter. Jinka’s husband works in the United States and the family hopes to join him soon. In the meantime, she often gets emails from female colleagues announcing their departures. “I just can’t balance everything” is a common refrain, especially after the birth of a second child, Jinka says.
Facing down sexism
In India, the average age of marriage for women is one of the youngest in the world at 20.2 years. The state of Andhra Pradesh has an even lower average age of 19.9. The majority of Indian marriages are still arranged, although no statistics exist documenting the exact percentage. Seeta Sravya, 23, works in IT at TCS. She would like to wait two or three more years before marrying. “I want to settle in and get some more experience at my job and explore new places, but I don’t have that chance.” Sravya has a younger sister who is 20. Her parents are aging and the cost of a dowry and wedding is an expense Indian families often prepare for by saving for decades. If Sravya doesn’t like whom her parents pick, they will respect her decision and keep looking, she says, but a mate must be found sooner rather than later so her parents can save up for her wedding, then her sister’s, and then for retirement. Sravya plans to continue working after she marries, but says it depends on her husband. “I want to work so I will try to convince him.”
Sridevi G., 21, is a student at Sridevi Women’s Engineering College, established in 2001. She’s studying electrical and electronics engineering and hopes to become an entrepreneur. Sridevi says a family’s finances greatly impact how early a girl marries. “If her parents are insecure economically and they find a good hope for a match, they often choose to get the girl married early.” But she thinks the general mind-set these days is to “give a girl child the freedom to finish her PG [postgraduate] course.”
Vemuri, who has been married 17 years, says there is no such thing as a 50/50 split in marriage. “There are things only a woman can do. At least the perception now isn’t negative for working women, although at home we’re still doing mostly everything.” Mansi Gandhi, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who recently returned to India after 10 years abroad, disagrees. She and her husband are co-founders of DoctorC, a tech start-up that partners with health-care providers to aggregate their services online. Gandhi describes her marriage as an equal partnership. “This is very important because this type of relationship is the only thing that will allow a woman to do anything outside the home.”
Despite the fact that more women are working, Gandhi says Indian women aren’t often expected or taught to be career-driven, independent individuals. “It’s OK if they work. It’s good that they work, but they are meant to be dependent on their husbands.”
Gandhi notices a distinct difference in client meetings if she is alone versus with her husband, Neehar Cherabuddi. “When I go to diagnostic centers and health-care providers, often the only woman working there is the receptionist.” Still, she says, in the boardroom she doesn’t encounter sexism — unless her husband is also present. Then, she says, she is “automatically discounted.” And “anytime it’s both of us — and this was true in the U.S., too, but more so here — they speak to him. Add to that the fact that I’m his wife and automatically people assume I just, you know, have some free time and want to help out at the company.”
Gandhi says Cherabuddi has learned over time to recognize these sexist moments and divert relevant questions to Gandhi. Despite the challenges, Gandhi says, she sees inherent business benefits in being a woman. “In India, because there are such few women participating in external meetings, people pay attention … It’s so atypical they will never forget you.”
According to a safety audit recently conducted by the Shaheen Women’s Resource and Welfare Association with help from other local organizations, there were 3,800 registered crimes of violence against women in the city in 2012. One hundred forty-five of these involved alleged rape. Many of the perpetrators were not convicted, and only about 5 percent of rape victims alert the police, with only 1 to 2 percent of those filing official complaints, according to the study.
Many tech companies take extra precautions to ensure their female employees’ safety. For example, Tata Consultancy Services and Google have asked She Cabs, a cab service for women staffed by female drivers, to add cars to their fleet in order to accommodate women’s increased demand for its services. If it’s after 10 p.m., Bhai’s company has a driver and a male escort accompany a woman home. “The driver [alone] is not safe enough, because he is a contractor, whereas the escort is a permanent employee of my company, a known person,” Bhai explains. DataSong, the much smaller company where Vemuri works, doesn’t provide car service, but its employees are able to work from home. Rajitha Kesa, a DataSong employee, never leaves the office later than 7:30 p.m. After Gandhi was followed home from a gas station by a group of men around midnight a few months ago, she bought a taser to protect herself. “I don’t know if it’s legal and I don’t care,” she says. Sravya was advised to carry pepper spray but doesn’t. She feels Hyderabad is a safe city overall, though Bhai disagrees.
Bhai notes that a woman’s caution over safety matters can be an impediment to her career. Recently a conference call was scheduled for 7:30 p.m. for one of her company’s projects. Women in the office protested. They said they couldn’t stay that late because buses stopped running; they felt being in a group on public transportation was safer than being in individual cabs. “That is a clear example of a woman taking a step back,” Bhai says. That resulted in a male colleague staying behind who “showed a graph of what was happening and the on-site coordinator thought he was the only one working.” Bhai says she often takes cabs when she stays late even though they cost more because this gives her visibility at her company. After concentrating on networking and strategy in business school, she now makes a point of attending parties and team lunches, even if she is the only woman there.
It’s appropriate that in this tech-focused city women are also increasingly using technology to track cabs and drivers. “If I take a cab really late at night,” Bhai says, “my husband knows the driver’s name and vehicle number. There are also new apps like VithU () you can download where you press a button and it alerts three contacts you are in danger.”
Ramya Vemuri feels that companies in Hyderabad are actively starting to favor women employees, who are seen as “patient and reliable,” she says. Yet gender and cultural challenges remain for working women in India, as seen in the sexist statement from Hyderabad-born and -raised Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, a man, who said last month that it’s “good karma” for women not to ask for raises. India has the world’s fifth largest gender pay gap, with an average 24.8 percent difference between the salaries of men and women in the same role.
Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the spelling of Mansi Gandhi's last name.