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Anusree: Fighting gender discrimination in tech

Marine Engineering was her dream profession, but she did not give it up when she failed to make the cut there. The world, after all, was there to be discovered, and she took to Engineering, something which she liked because it was all about being innovative. And there she proved her mettle, but there were naysayers who doubted her skills just because she is a woman. But finally, she fought every battle and emerged victorious. Meet Anusree, who is a core member of Pehia Foundation, an organization which aims to empower gender minorities through technology and bring together girls with similar interests to learn new technologies.

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I’m really unsure of what to include and not to include in this article. Only thing I’m sure of is, it shouldn’t be another so-called success story (and pardon me if it turns out into one). From my childhood, I love learning a new skill, be it extempore, martial arts, drawing, learning a new language or dancing. The process of learning something new is always worthful in your true journey.

The only thing I was really good at was Math. I wanted to pursue something on the line of pure science which has Math in it. But from nowhere, this strange idea of becoming a Marine Engineer got into my head and literally I couldn’t think of anything else, day and night. I rolled up my sleeves and was ready for the next big challenge and I knew I would get into a premier institute for Marine Engineering. Now I’m s CS undergrad. I went into a deep depression when I couldn’t get into the stream I wanted (because I couldn’t pass physical fitness criteria). So I ended up in a stream that I have never thought I’ll take up because I hated the idea of ending up in a glass cubicle. Nevertheless, from my high school, I loved coding as a hobby, just like kids love to solve a Sudoku puzzle.

So I was totally clueless about what Engineering was as I am the first one in my family to pursue the course. As I didn’t want to turn into a mediocre BTech graduate which is dime a dozen in India, I wanted to explore more into its possibilities. First-year of Btech is a cakewalk for anyone who has prepared for the entrance test. So I had a lot of free time. So I spent time attending various technical events, competitions, conferences, technical meet-ups, etc. From there I got a vague idea of what I must work on to make this degree useful and what my profession would look like if I choose a particular domain. From these exposures, I also got to know about the gender issues persisting in the field of technology. I was totally ignorant about these issues existing in this field because I grew up seeing a lot of women techies on the roads going to work. But these numbers never tell you the true story. How many of these women continue to climb the career ladder? Why are there as many women in the top tier of tech field as there are in the starting phase?

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As a starter, I needed help, a lot of help to be true. And one past experience from my classmate who said straight on my face why a girl should care about these kinds of stuff when I asked him what are the resources he used to learn, prevented me from asking any doubts to my self-proclaimed geek classmates. Now I’m totally indebted to that friend without whom I would never have stepped out of my classroom to seek help and thus found the amazing opportunities outside the walls of the classroom and communities who welcomed newbies.

For me, the first step was to surround myself with people whom I aspire to be. Being a huge Math lover, there was no doubt in choosing my domain as Machine Learning. Using the free resources on Internet, I started developing my skill-set. Whenever I needed help, I never hesitated in asking others for it. Shooting a mail or sending a message via LinkedIn asking for help, connected me with some women who are pioneers in the field. It was one online forum called MuLearn which was of great help to me and helped in overcoming the inertia of learning. Once I make up mind on doing something, I never really rest. Then it is almost like a hibernation period from other activities. I shut myself in my room after college until the thing is done. Internship hunt was one such situation. It is really hard to find a good internship where you are given a live project. The situation was made worse by the current situation in Kerala where students get points for doing an internship and many people exploited the situation by taking money from students offering them “paid”-internships. After a series of technical tests, interviews and case studies, the one year of internship hunt ended up in Techvantage analytics in Trivandrum.

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Helping others to learn is one of my ways of learning new things. Peer-to-peer learning sessions that we conduct as part of Pehia initiatives, a non-profit initiative that aims to empower gender minorities through technology, brought together girls with similar interests to learn new technology. On my journey in mastering something, I have missed many hangouts and weekend trips with my friends (all those missed trips were compensated by a fully-funded visit to Google headquarters, Singapore). But none of them is going to be more exciting than the end result. chaayam_poster

How tough was it to address the issue of gender bias when you first encountered it? How did you battle those days?

Being grown up in a family that gave utmost importance to gender issues, I have never faced any issues as such until I joined college. So it was pretty difficult to deal with everyone around including professors, friends, hostel mates, hostel wardens, all of them in one way or the other who emphasized that there are limitations. There were professors who were preoccupied with the concept that hobby projects and hackathons were for boys, at least in the initial years of graduation. There were no girls that I could find to discuss the out-of-textbooks technical doubts. In my first year, when I asked a boy in our class how he learned web scrapping on his own, he gave me a weird look and asked why I wanted to know these “technical stuff”. He laughed at me and walked away without giving an answer. I was startled at his response. So I was convinced that the present ecosystem in our college was not going to help me build the skills I wanted to develop. I began to attend events and conferences outside of the college, met similar-minded people, talked with them and understood the current industry trends and problems. It was then I noticed, in all these events or competitions the participation of girls was hardly 10%. These competitions would have been a little less intimidating or more welcoming if there were some significant amount of girls. The primary reason for girls not participating in these competitions, at least to my knowledge was that no other girls were going for the same. So representation was an issue. When I look at the current trends, situations have changed a lot in these 4 years where I can see a lot of girls coming forward to learn and participate in all kinds of technical and research-oriented events and a lot of groups and people supporting for the cause. It was in my second year, while I was randomly attending events, I saw a poster of a web development session in my city. What a better way to spend a weekend. When I entered the co-working space which was the venue for the event, I saw a group of girls sitting enthusiastically, radiating eagerness to learn. I was totally clueless about the session and so was the organizers. Finally, I realised it was a peer-to-peer learning session conducted by a tech learning community for gender minorities called Pehia which was inaugurated the week before the event and it was their first program. And that learning group later formed the Pehia core team. Throughout the journey, we had to face many ruthless comments for supporting gender minorities including transgender communities. But all those couldn’t let our spirits down because now we were not alone, we had a huge community supporting each other’s back. Conducting events exclusively for girls was a huge task as the participation was pretty low. Most of the time we had to contact their parents and teachers to ask for their consent to let the girls out of their hostels. One problem that many girls faced was that they were forbidden from using laptops in the hostels after 6 pm while they were no such rules in boys hostels, grotesque. How can we expect computer science students to learn the skills that the industry expects us to have in the final year just by reading books?

chaayam_poster

Tell us a bit about your role in Pehia and the overall work Pehia does?

Pehia had a core team of six students initially. I was looking after the Opportunity wing of the organization. This mainly includes finding job vacancies, internship opportunities, competitions, events, scholarship, etc for the members. It also includes equipping them with the skills needed. These include preparing them for competitive coding, technical and non-technical interviews, etc. For beginners, we conduct opportunity hackathons that provide guidance on the industry trends, resume-building session and application building for various fellowships. And we as a team organize all the main events of the community. In the peer learning sessions, I mentor girls in domains that I’m good at. We have peer-learning sessions for various domains like web development, machine learning, etc. I had also mentored a small group of transgender in basic python. We also conducted a five-day transgender camp that covered from basic to advanced programming sessions. We also take students to hackathons and conferences who are usually restricted by their parents due to the security concerns. These small baby steps give them the courage to pursue forward in the technical field. These are some of the works that I’m involved in. Pehia also has a wing for kids who are passionate about technology.

You talked about peer-to-peer learning sessions at Pehia. Who can attend them and what's the process to be a part of?

Peer-to-peer learning sessions are another version of the “combine study” that we all have done at one point or the other. Mostly, the mentor will be a college-going girl who is also eager to learn that technology. Together, this group learns the new domain using resources available on the internet and we encourage them to do hobby project on the stack they have learned under the mentorship of the person leading the group. This is more effective than attending a workshop as the group includes just 7-8 girls and most of them are comfortable in communicating with each other as they are of the same age group. Whenever we roll out a new peer group, we announce it through our social media handles. Interested students can fill out the application. There are online and offline sessions. Mostly, the sessions are offline conducted in and around Kochi on the weekends. We encourage the participants to form their own peer groups after the session, in their college so the learning network spreads fast. Some peer groups are exclusively for girls while others contain participants of all gender.

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In the article, you said you had a great trip to Google headquarters. Describe that experience for us.

As part of the Google WTM scholarship, I was invited to the retreat hosted by Google at their APAC headquarters, Singapore. It was a fully-funded trip. I have earlier seen various Youtube videos on Singapore office’s amazing architecture situated in MapleTree Business city. But then I never thought that I’ll be able to visit there someday. There were 72 amazing girls from various parts of the world (Asia- Pacific region) for the retreat. Throughout the entire 4-5 days we were surrounded by googlers in the hotel, office, bus, restaurant, literally everywhere. And thus the most important takeaway is the connections that we made with them. They treated us like a friend or a colleague. We were so close that we still ping them for help. And moreover, we call our mentors, Google mommy and daddy because they cared for us like our parents. Now I have some amazing friends from various countries who inspire me to do more not just in the field of technology, but in various other fields that I’m passionate about. It was a fun trip. It was a rare opportunity to interact with the various product teams that developed various features that we use every day. The best one among them was meeting the Google maps team. Hearing the whole story of developing various features of Gmap was awe-striking. You will never expect such world-famous developers squatting on the floor with you and have informal chats about friends, family and work. Each team works like an individual start-up functioning independently putting their own innovative ideas without having to consult a higher tier. The office had free food cuisines from almost every country. From the local idli-chutney and rice soup to Mexican cuisines. Anything you ask you will have that in your platter, anytime. I was amazed when a googler served me jackfruit when I casually told her it was my favorite tropical fruit. If you want junk food like burgers or pizza, you’ll have to walk down three stairs to get it. This is a policy they adopt to reduce junk food consumption and also to encourage the employees to flex their muscles instead of using elevators. Singapore being a port city has a breath-taking view that is clearly visible from the headquarters. One highly informative session was one in which we had a mock Google interview where they taught us how to crack Google interviews. We had a few panel discussions with women software engineers and a few workshops. We had a lot of fun games and activities. One unforgettable activity was the scavenger hunt across the city, visiting most of the nook and corners of Singapore. Finally, everything ended with an exquisite dinner party at the National Art gallery. I realized how unsafe India was only when I reached there. I can stroll down the street at midnight without having to worry about the creepy stares or being followed by a stranger.

chaayam_poster

Also, tell our young readers how was the selection process for that? What should an aspiring student do to get chosen for such big conferences?

The overall process contains an application and an interview. Once you clear them, you are good to go. The scholar will be awarded a scholarship (based on academic merit), a retreat in one of the Google offices and a wonderful community to support your future endeavors. This scholar's program is for students (women and non-binary) working in technology and has demonstrated leadership skills for promoting gender equality in tech. This program was earlier known as Anita Borg memorial scholarship. The application mainly contains 3 sections: 1) the first section mainly contains essay questions proving the applicant’s work in promoting gender equality and our perspective about technology 2) applicant’s academic transcripts and resume 3) project work or research paper. If the application gets selected from the thousands of applications, the next is an interview. Usually, in APAC scholarships, the largest number of scholars are often from India which is usually 20-22 in number. A total of 70-72 scholars are selected every year for the program. And I was fortunate enough to be one of the first scholars from Kerala. Along with me, there were 3 more scholars from Kerala, the same year. As far as the WTM scholar program is concerned, I don’t recommend any kind of preparations (apart from filling up the application form emphasizing your work ) for it. Because it is a program for people who are socially responsible and is quite different from other scholarships.

chaayam_poster

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What, as per you, are those habits of yours (minimum 1, maximum 5) which has helped you reach where you are currently?

  • Always take the leap for things you are passionate about, and the net will appear before you.
  • Once focused, I always isolate myself from all kinds of distractions including social media, functions/parties, and every possible countless diversion.
  • When picking up a new skill, always pay attention to what not to learn first. We are flooded with information and resources these days. So carefully picking up the materials is very important.
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