Online Social Networking and the New Indian Woman: Communication to Overcome Frustration

There was a time in the Indian social setting when a working woman was looked down upon. It took numerous assiduous efforts of social reformers and educators to elevate the status of women in India. Where the household was historically considered the mainstay of her existence, today’s Indian woman is empowered and prepared to achieve the heights of professional success. Various governmental schemes, programs, regulations, and laws have come to the rescue of those fighting the ghosts of the bygone era. There is hardly any profession that has not been adopted by the contemporary Indian woman.

Information Technology (IT), with its fat remunerations, has roped in the best brains the world over. Indian women, too, have joined the IT brigade in large numbers. They fill various positions on the corporate ladder. The status of India as a “developing nation” has aided the women professionals in many ways, including preventing the glass-ceiling effect prevalent in developed nations. Instead, Indian women working in IT have come to occupy niche positions in their organizations.

The IT industry is known to remain forever in flux. Rapidly evolving tools and technologies, time-synchronized global projects, erratic work schedules, and stringent deadlines create high-stress conditions that demand compromise of personal time and space. In Indian society, caring for the young and the old, as well as most household duties, is still mainly the responsibility of women, regardless of their professional commitments.

In Indian society, married women—many of whom happen to be the first generation of working women—bear the greatest burden. The patriarchal diktats pull the strings from one side, while the promise of wider horizons beckons on the other. The melee of societal pressures, familial responsibilities, and personal ambitions and desires mould them to become skilled jugglers of the various roles they are made to occupy simultaneously throughout the day.

illustration of a woman checking a laptop in a kitchen

Original drawing by Suneet Kheterpal

The Study

Though hard-pressed for personal time and space, female Indian IT professionals find ways to remain in touch with their family and other contacts. The general belief that women in IT are relatively more techno-savvy and spend more time at their workplace than Indian women working in other fields formed the basis of a doctoral study undertaken in 2009 at CEPT University, Ahmedabad (India), under the guidance of Dr. Binod Agrawal, the director of TALEEM Research Foundation in India. This study explored how social networking tools aid these IT professionals in all spheres of their activities, and how they interact with each other and their family and friends using online social networks.

The survey was administered (using the snowball technique of sampling) to 318 married women of Indian origin, aged twenty-one to forty-five years, working in the field of IT in different industries in different countries of the world. Online and face-to-face interactions were used to solicit responses from the subjects. A response rate of 20.44 percent was achieved. This is in sync with various studies which observe that 20 percent is the expected response when dealing with top managers or professionals. When compared with the global picture, there is a lot of commonality in usage of online social networks by female professionals; however, some findings have been distinct for women of Indian origin working in IT.

Professional Women vs. Official Aloofness

It is widely accepted that women have been at a professional loss because of the impregnable nature of male-dominated workplace social networks. No matter how hard they tried to fit in, women sometimes found that male colleagues simply refused to interact socially with them. Information that flows across the informal smoke breaks or beer evenings provides an insider’s view of organizational events, promotions, and policies. Female professionals, especially those that are married, are almost completely bereft of this information channel.

The study found that in order to overcome the loneliness created by male-dominated workplaces, women are creating and joining smaller women-only groups. Even employers have begun acknowledging the need of women to network amongst each other for various personal and professional reasons. The organizational networks bestow a sense of security to women in their different phases of life, like marriage and child birth, by providing in-house training to keep them up-to-date with the latest technologies, hiring counselors to give suggestions on work-life balance, organizing informal get-togethers for women employees, and so on.

Though the initial seeding of such networks in India was done by multinational companies, the domestic players have also recognized and acknowledged the importance of these networks. A few prominent IT companies that offer online and offline networks for their women employees in India are Accenture, Microsoft, IBM, Infosys, MindTree Consulting, and HCL. Some of the gender-inclusive initiatives undertaken by these companies include facility to telecommute, restrooms,  pick-up/drop-off facilities, in-house daycare for young children, and maternity leave.

Harnessing the Power of Online Social Networks

Indian women are increasingly making use of these networks—online and offline, official and unofficial—to interact with their colleagues, friends, and family. The respondents to this study mentioned using instant messenger services (IM), email, official online social networks, and public social networking sites, though the last option was used nearly exclusively by the younger age group. Most of the women in the forty-to-forty-five age group preferred using email.

Subjects discussed various professional topics ranging from exchange of technical knowledge, career-related discussions, industry-related matters, and better networking with their professional contacts. Their reasons to network professionally outweighed the personal, with only
41 percent saying they had networked for personal reasons. This reflects the psyche of Indian women who still hold their personal life in great privacy. Although they have become more vocal about their personal desires and ambitions, this is only a change relative to previous generations. Online personal networking is done essentially with people known from the physical world.

The topics of personal interactions ranged from seeking opinions in matters relating to the household, relationships, leisure activities, stress-busting, and similar topics, to a small number also taking financial opinions from their personal contacts. Among working mothers, the discussions revolved around children and their well-being. However, fewer mothers expressed satisfaction on using social networks for discussing matters relating to children, since most of their contacts did not have children. This can be correlated to the fact that women with children belonged to the age group thirty and above, which wasn’t very active in the online social networks.

The Respondents

None of the surveyed women had more than two children, reinforcing the view that keeping a small family is directly related to the education and outlook of women.

A little less than half of the respondents were married to partners in the same profession. These respondents expressed that their husbands somewhat understood their need to network online even at odd hours from home. Husbands from different professions were not so considerate in acknowledging this professional requirement.

Resistance to seeing the women go online came from family members other than the husbands. More couples with young children are beginning to live with their parents so that their children are well taken care of in their absence. This puts constraints on the working woman in many different ways, but she is willing to accept (with a pinch of salt) the benefits of such an arrangement.

Interestingly, there was a segment of female IT professionals (21 percent) who felt that because they interacted online, they didn’t feel the need to meet their contacts in person; they felt there was nothing new to discuss or talk about. However, a large number of women (68 percent) felt that online social networking facilitated their offline interactions, especially so when these contacts lived in far-off lands.

Parting Words

Ways and styles in which Indian women in IT are making use of social networks are largely in sync with the global scenario, such that women are becoming more vocal on various issues and are focusing on being an active member of more women-only social networks. Indian women, however, spend less time online, access social networks primarily from the workplace, and typically limit their online contacts to people they know in the physical world—all while keeping the interests of the family tightly balanced with professional requirements, even when that calls for a personal compromise.

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