Murder Of HP Worker Puts Spotlight On India's Growing Female Workforce--And The Risks They Face

A growing number of women are joining India's booming IT industry and working the night shift, which is forcing tech companies and Indian society in general to make changes.
The murder this week of a female Indian worker employed at a Hewlett-Packard office in Bangalore highlights the growing challenges faced by women in India's burgeoning IT sector -- and how their rapid entry into the country's workforce is causing strains in a country where, until recently, women were expected to marry early in life and raise a family.

"Things have changed very rapidly for us in the past five or six years," says Ritu Anand, global VP for human resources at Tata Consultancy Services, India's largest outsourcing company. "Women here were very submissive in the past and were concerned primarily about family life. Now they want to do something for themselves."

In many cases, that means going to college and joining India's booming IT industry. According to the National Association of Software and Services Companies, an Indian technology trade group, women will represent about one-third of India's IT workforce by 2007, up from an almost negligible number several years ago.

But as the murder in Bangalore this week illustrates, many companies, and Indian society in general, may not be moving fast enough to accommodate the changing role of women. In the United States, women began entering the workforce in large numbers after World War II. So American businesses have had decades to create programs -- from on-site day care to company-operated buses -- designed promote a safe and comfortable work environment for women.

Now, Indian companies may have to catch up fast to make way not for Rosy the Riveter, but for Sangeetha the Software Engineer. Personal safety is a growing concern because much of the work that Indian outsourcers perform for their customers occurs at night. That's so they can be on the job during the U.S. business day. As a result, thousands of Indian women are working the night shift.

According to police in Bangalore, the HP employee was raped and murdered by a cab driver, now under arrest, early Tuesday morning after she finished her shift. Her body was discovered Thursday. For the time being, police in Bangalore are asking tech companies operating in the city to provide escorts to and from work for female employees. HP officials were not immediately available to comment.

It's not immediately clear if other major Western companies operating in India will alter their own security policies in light of the incident. A spokesman for IBM, which employs thousands of workers at various locations around the country, would not comment. "We don't talk about our security arrangements," says the spokesman. Officials at Microsoft, another U.S. high-tech company with significant operations in India, also declined to comment.

More broadly, some companies say they're taking steps to ensure the comfort and safety of their growing female workforce. Sierra Atlantic, which provides software development services in Hyderabad, now conducts an annual woman's day event. "There is a lot of role playing and seminars on how women can achieve a satisfying work/life balance and deal with issues that might come up in the office," says Nitya Nivali, senior VP for human resources at the company.

Officials at Indian tech companies say the country's increasingly strained labor market means their future success depends on attracting a steady stream of qualified, female employees. "We won't be in a position to sustain our growth unless women from all sectors of Indian society can participate," says TCS's Anand.

The question is whether Indian companies, and the country itself, can move quickly enough to resolve the many issues, including personal safety, that will continue to arise as women join India's workforce at an unprecedented pace. Some things won't change. Says Nivali, "The fact is, women have to work the night shift because much of our industry operates at night."