I started to realize my journey to empowerment at age 17, standing inside Mumbai airport for the first time in my life and getting ready to fly 8,000 miles away from home. I had received a Rotary Youth Exchange Scholarship to study in the United States for my senior year of high school. After going through exit immigration, I turn around and could see my parents waving with tear-filled eyes. As I left, I reflected on how much of a leap of faith they had made.
Although it was almost inconceivable that a young Indian woman would leave her parents’ home so early to embark on such a far-flung adventure, my parents took a tremendous leap of faith and supported me. They saw my potential, wanted me to be unbound by tradition and encouraged me to chart my own path. Their support and unwavering trust are what gave me the confidence to be independent and to step alone into a culture unlike any I had previously experienced, leaving behind family, friends and most of what was familiar at the time. I eventually stayed on in the U.S. and pursued my passion for engineering.
My parents strongly influenced my conviction to empower others, and my belief that helping others find their voice and confidence to reach their full potential is an essential part of my role as a leader.
When women are empowered, society wins
Around the world, barriers continue to keep many women from fully realizing their potential. Conscious and unconscious biases place real and perceived boundaries on opportunities for girls and women. Traditional gender roles and societal expectations have kept women out of the workforce or redirected career paths. Even personally, I experienced moments where I have seen these kinds of bias radically influence decision making, perceptions, attitudes and reactions.
These systemic barriers have heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely impacted roles predominantly filled by women, such as in the service sector, the arts and paid caregiving. Combined with school closures and limited childcare availability, many have had to make the hard choice of leaving the workforce, affecting women from marginalized communities at higher rates. Yet, we know these are not issues for women to tackle alone. It should be the interest of everyone who wants their community to prosper.
History has shown that when women are empowered to fully contribute, society benefits overall. The increased participation of women in the workforce fueled much of the economic growth over the last century. USAID estimates that if the same number of women worked as men did, global GDP would grow by $12 trillion by 2025.
One clear path to empowerment is to get more women into higher-skilled professions, including technology. As the world becomes more digital, all sectors will be recruiting workers with technical skills. Microsoft has long been involved in expanding access to technology for women and girls across the globe. Starting with youth, our TEALS program brings technology education resources to schools, while the DigiGirlz program is in its 20th year of building girls’ passion and skills in tech, impacting more than 65,000 young women in 92 countries. In response to the pandemic’s severe impact on parts of the labor market, Microsoft launched its Global Skills Initiative to help 25 million people worldwide acquire digital skills and certifications to find new jobs. I am especially proud and grateful for Microsoft’s work in India, my home country, to train 2,000 young women toward Microsoft certifications in partnership with NASSCOM Foundation and the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.
Start from a place of empathy
Empowerment can come in many other forms. At Microsoft, we aspire to help people of all genders and backgrounds thrive and create the conditions for empowerment at moments that matter for our employees, customers, partners and communities.
It is vital to foster an environment where all genders can connect with each other and with allies. Often, having a role model, a sounding board or a confidence booster can be deeply impactful to one’s growth. We do this through our Women at Microsoft employee resources group, which organizes executive speaking events, mentorships, leadership development and skill-sharing programs. These efforts equip our employees to support each other and to empower our customers, partners and communities more effectively.
We also recognize the importance of helping the next generation of female technology leaders succeed. Through our M12 Venture Fund, we host an annual Female Founders Competition to support women-led companies with seed funding and mentorship to grow their businesses in the tech ecosystem.
Another form of empowerment comes from employee policies that back up our commitment to advance equality among all genders. The pandemic has highlighted a real need to shift social norms and help all members of a family support their family’s needs. Companywide, we have grounded our managers toward empathy and care, and to offer flexibility. This includes 12 weeks of Pandemic School Closure and Childcare Leave for any parents who need it. When all employees, regardless of gender, are offered paid leave, it counteracts caregiving stereotypes and removes some pressure from women to be the only ones who prioritize family. I strongly believe that empowerment is such an effective way to live your core values.
With the solution set being so vast, every one of us has a part to play to move this needle. As long as we all start from a place of empathy, and commit to taking action, we can give women at every level an opportunity to grow in the ways that are most meaningful to them. Ways to take action include giving time to youth education programs, supporting mid-career technical skilling programs, being a mentor or simply becoming an ally to the women around you.
Women’s History Month is an opportunity to not only look back at what women have achieved, but to look forward at how we can continue to help all women thrive. I was lucky that my parents granted me the inspiration, confidence and freedom to reach my career aspirations, and I firmly believe in paying this forward. If we each do our part to elevate the freedom and confidence of all women everywhere in the world, we can generate tremendous impact and create lasting benefits for our communities and society as a whole. Empowerment enables creative problem solving and exponential contributions to society and the world.
Empowering her empowers all of us.
Find stories of women empowering themselves and so many others at Microsoft.com/WomensHistoryMonth.
Tags: diversity, inclusion, Women's History Month