Women’s Day: Microsoft COO Irina Ghose on Women in Tech in India

By Jayesh Shinde | Published 07 Mar 2023 06:22 IST
Women’s Day: Microsoft COO Irina Ghose on Women in Tech in India

Irina Ghose, COO of Microsoft India, has been at Microsoft for 21+ years and is in the process of becoming one of the most senior women leaders in the Indian tech industry. 

I interviewed her over email on the occasion of International Women’s Day, trying to understand some of her insights about Women in Tech in India, and making her words of wisdom accessible to the benefit of all of us in the tech fraternity and beyond. Edited excerpts follow:

Can you describe your journey as a woman in tech? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

In my early years of education, I had a deep appreciation of being in the world of engineering. I did a short stint at Tata Steel and I was both intrigued and energized by an overall way of looking at business impact across industries, segments, and verticals. That's how my journey started into the world of technology. I have been at Microsoft for 21+ years and I’ve done various roles across functions that have built my appreciation of looking at the business from different facets. Over time, industries have gained much more tech intensity. This has helped bring a lot more customer-centricity and be a “trusted advisor” with customers in their digital transformation journeys.

When it comes to increasing one’s own tech intensity, I truly believe that certifications are a great way of gaining, demonstrating, and practising competence. It's never too late to learn a new technology. You continue to move ahead on the journey of staying relevant because of that sense of curiosity and not having the fear of what you don't know. As a tech industry leader, one has to constantly look at solving a customer's business problems instead of going across with the latest technology that one wants to demonstrate or showcase. Having the empathy to understand and solve the customer’s business needs creates a win-win. 

How have you seen the tech industry in India evolve, and what do you see as some of the biggest opportunities for growth in the future?

It is exciting to see the shift from digitization to digital transformation that has happened over the years. This reinforces the increasing customer demand for the cloud as a platform for digital transformation and as the foundation for India’s future, driving economic growth and societal progress. The goal now is to empower employees and help every organization do more with less, leveraging the power of technology. Some of the solutions that are being worked upon currently are not just on a national scale but have a potential impact to transform the planet.

Some of the things that are evolving in the tech industry today are related to generative AI, mixed reality and industrial metaverse, security, sustainability, and green computing. It is amazing to see AI solving some of society’s biggest challenges. The solutions that are being worked upon are on a national and planetary scale with the potential impact to transform the planet. It’s interesting how we can leverage the power of data and AI to think ahead of the curve and make intelligent decisions. By 2025, 10% of all data will be produced by generative AI models. Analytics is moving from back-end processes to being a critical part of organizational workflows. Particularly in India, the opportunities for growth are immense because the tarmac that we've covered so far is not high, hence there’s good headroom for growth. 

What steps have you taken to ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace, and what have been some of the outcomes of these efforts in terms of impact?

First of all, you have to believe in a diverse and inclusive workplace and be intentional about following it up with your entire team so they internalize the value of building diverse talent together. You need to work along with the team, pushing boundaries and getting one more diverse leader into your talent pool and then that leader will bring in three more. So that belief in the multiplier effect works great. The Microsoft India senior leadership team, for instance, has more than 50% women leaders. That helps bring in an inclusive environment for people to contribute and for diverse thoughts. There are others as well who are seeing role models in this.

At the same time, we need to ensure that we hold very high standards of accountability. For every kind of talent without any distinction, at all points of time, there should not be any debate about meritocracy versus diversity. Another important aspect is being equitable and being very mindful that women, through their overall personal journeys, have different phases in which their needs and responsibilities are different. Hence it’s important to understand how the entire ecosystem can lend support to them. For example, hybrid as a way of working is feasible, which also gives a lot of flexibility to women. So, we should take the learnings out of that and explore how we can make this work for women.

What's your approach to mentorship and supporting the development of future leaders in the Indian tech ecosystem? Can you discuss any initiatives or projects you have been involved in to give back to the community?

According to World Bank data, 43% of STEM graduates in India are women but their participation in the workforce remains low, at 14%. Network towards advancing and growing your career so the inflow like one of the points that I said earlier that right now if you go to a computer science college you will find the number of women in a lot of these colleges being higher than the men, right? The inflow is high, but the fallout is also there. Despite their significant contributions, women are underrepresented in STEM fields and face many barriers to participating fully in scientific research and innovation. These range from a lack of female role models and representation in STEM fields to unconscious bias, and gender stereotypes. A 2022 IIM-A study on 200 NSE-listed companies points out that only 5% of women have made it to the top management, while another 7% have made it to senior executive roles.

There’s a big need in the industry at all levels as in how to ensure that women can move from early to mid-career and sustain to leadership levels. So, in an early career, there's a lot of talent inflow that happens, but once they go to mid-career, people need mentorship support to stay the course. I have been associated with various organizations that support mentoring of women as they navigate their career journeys. Also, for women who are aspiring either at the mid-manager level to get across to the leadership level, it is important to have a safe network and look out for mentors. I am also passionate about mentoring female entrepreneurs and SonderConnect is an organization dedicated to discovering, empowering and promoting women founders globally. 

The biggest blocker for underprivileged girls is getting into STEM because it's difficult and because they have no role models. Having said that, once you give them an opportunity and invest in them a little more in terms of getting the fundamentals right, they can change generations. At my philanthropic foundation MyLittleBit, we began by setting up a digital literacy lab for underprivileged girls in a government school and training the teachers on tools like PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. The foundation’s work has scaled since then to cover the entire spectrum from providing scholarships in STEM education to training them and getting them placed in jobs. It’s amazing to see the girls coming in with a spark and being able to do their little bit so that they don’t drop out of the education cycle.

Can you discuss a specific example of how a more diverse and inclusive workforce has helped drive innovation and business success within the company?

We have been on a journey of inclusive design, which celebrates and draws inspiration from people who are often overlooked in the typical design process. For instance, the Xbox Adaptive Controller was created to address the accessibility challenges and remove barriers to gaming by being inclusive to the needs of more gamers. It was developed in partnership with several organizations around the world, and with gamers who have limited mobility. 

How did you navigate gender-related challenges and other forms of bias at work, and what advice would you give to others facing similar challenges? What are some of the biggest myths and stereotypes about women in tech that you've encountered or heard of?

The world today is very different from what it was even a decade ago and it still might not be the same across all industries. We should always find our allies because the minute you have your own allies, that gives a lot of wind beneath the wings. At the same time, one can also think of how they are an ally to somebody. If you feel that there is something in which the sensitivity is not there, you should be vocal and ensure that people understand it because a lot of times, biases can creep in owing to a lack of awareness. Lastly, humour is a great way of diffusing things. Things might not always be as bad as you think. 

We all hear different arguments about how women can’t have it all. For me, it’s all about balance; it’s about not being perfect in everything. I can live with a sense of guilt about everything and lead a miserable life, or I can live with a sense of gratitude that I got the opportunity to do 70% in seven different things and still show up well. I'm good at the latter, hence, having the flexibility and the capability towards doing things in a situational arena works much better than possibly somebody who's thinking serially.

What advice would you give to women who aspire to leadership roles in the tech industry, particularly in India?

The first thing is that you should be vocal and ask for what you want and need. Do not assume that everybody knows about your inherent capabilities. The accountability to alter perceptions and carve your own growth trajectory rests with yourself. Intentionally building and nurturing diverse teams can create a ripple effect on the careers of generations of women. You should always dream big, take unconventional routes, be a constant learner, create vibrant networks and believe in yourself to conquer new peaks.

Jayesh Shinde
Jayesh Shinde

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