Female Role Models & Mentors will make STEM Education more Engaging for Young Girls

CXO Experts

Ashima Jain Purohit is a director of engineering with FreshWorks. Her experience as a seasoned professional with over 15 years of IT experience has been focused on driving technical excellence, enhancing operational growth, and developing high-performing teams. She believes that security, proactive monitoring, and continuous delivery are essential requirements for developing resilient and scalable systems.

She had worked in the domains of IoT, AI, and machine learning prior joining FreshWorks. Her previous experience at PayPal includes researching and developing a machine learning-based system capable of scanning any data source and detecting PII and PCI-related InfoSec violations.

Working with global brands such as Staples US, Sony PlayStation Team US, Athena Health, India, Paypal India, and FreshWorks, India, provided her with valuable experience in learning and leading products based on various technologies such as Development Frameworks, DataBases, Cloud computing, Big Data systems, and others.

She is currently responsible for the strategic direction, vision, growth, and performance of FreshWork's core product, the agent portal. Ashima says, “My learnings cannot go without the mention of the mentors who played key role in shaping my professional journey. It’s my time to give back to society and I feel happy and accomplished to be associated as a mentor at Cherie Blair Foundation, Unity PayPal, Women 360 at FreshWorks.”

In a conversation with Women Entrepreneur India, Ashima shares some thoughts on bringing more women into STEM fields, as well as a few technological trends.

Tell us about the formative years of your life. How did you develop an interest in technology and decide to pursue it professionally?

I am from a middle-class household. My father is a retired government officer, and my mother is a housekeeper. We are four siblings who grew up playing and arguing with one another. I am grateful to God for providing me with such a pleasant and positive growing environment, as well as such a caring family. Early learning and care from parents and siblings emphasised the importance of social and emotional bonding, which helped me establish stability and, most likely, confidence to succeed and do well in my job.

My parents were and continue to be my role models, leaving a strong and lasting influence on me during my early years. I recall how my parents continually urged and induced me, even when I failed to do something. They would grin at me, praise and reward my accomplishments, and motivate me to do better. Throughout my childhood, I enjoyed activities such as reading, playing mind games, solving puzzles, debates, and allocution, which helped me build confidence over time. Throughout my academic years, I was competitive, from leading the score board in exams to being an office bearer or house president. Together, I believe that is what formed me to be a hardworking, sincere, and, most importantly, honest person.

I'd always wanted to be a doctor and worked hard to get there. I was convinced that my efforts would be rewarded. But my hopes were dashed. I had lost faith at that time. But my family was supportive and allowed me make my own decisions without any pressure. I accepted the harsh reality and chose to pursue a bachelor's degree in general science and reconsider my employment options. Around the same time, my elder sister, who is only a year older than me, began studying computer engineering. I had been watching her programme, which I found fascinating. Despite having no background in math or computers, I mustered the guts to challenge myself and pursue a postgraduate degree in computer science. This time, luck and hard effort were on my side, but the road wasn't easy because I was in a class full of computer graduates and there was me, who didn't even know how to open multiple browsers at once. I had my moments of embracing. I began to perceive my difficulties as lessons, and I turned my circumstances into my strength. I graduated with an MCA degree and a Merit Certificate in hand. It was a sense of success, and there was no turning back. When one door closes, another one opens, I discovered. We must look for and seize opportunities. Life gives us options: whine and blame or believe in yourself, collect strength, and keep trying.

The number of women in STEM roles remains abysmally low even in today’s times. What is your take on this? How can we bring more women into STEM roles going forward?

The leaky STEM pipeline begins early and continues throughout. Global study on the subject also indicates that gender bias begins early in life and has an impact on future career choices and interests. STEM occupations are frequently perceived as masculine, and instructors and parents frequently underestimate girls' arithmetic aptitude beginning in kindergarten. This frequently results in a "confidence gap" among girls, who subsequently become more critical of their abilities and hold them to higher standards. Even if they pursue and choose it as a career, they will continue to experience feelings of inadequacy and not fitting in throughout their STEM career range. In India, women, in particular, leave their jobs in the middle due to the combined load of juggling work and family commitments, or they decline a demanding chance in their careers claiming family care as a cause. One of the primary causes for the lack of female executives. Women in STEM report encountering minor inequalities in their workplaces as well. According to Key Global Workforce Insights, over 81% of Indian women in STEM experienced gender prejudice in performance reviews, and a sizable proportion believed that their organisations would not offer them top jobs. Women face marginalisation and loneliness in male-dominated workplaces due to a lack of role models, peers, and leaders. Furthermore, a lack of relevant benefits such as travel allowance, accommodation, maternity and post-maternity benefits, and flexibility discourages many people from pursuing STEM careers.

It is critical to work early on to break gender stereotypes in order to seed the proper beliefs, confidence, and can-do attitude through boosting STEM education, particularly for girls. STEM education may be made more interesting and engaging by introducing young girls to female role models and mentors in these fields throughout their formative years. This helps to challenge stereotyped notions by inspiring more girls to select and work in this field. Furthermore, STEM employers should take a top-down, multi-pronged strategy to establishing a more appealing and supportive atmosphere for women in order to enhance female retention rates. Having worked with organisations such as Staples US, Sony US, PayPal India, and now FreshWorks, I can reflect on the positive impact they had on my career growth by providing an unbiased, inclusive work environment paired with support and assistance from inhouse Women Communities such as Unity@PayPal and Women360@FreshWorks.

I'd also like to highlight certain projects I've been a part of that have held diversity recruiting drives, such as the most recent one with FreshWorks. With the Pledge of Equality, we are aiming to close the gender gap at. And as part of that, we want to reach out to talented women who have been overlooked. Career ReStart, a return-to-work programme for women who have been out of work for more than a year, is one example of an initiative and programme that can provide young girls and women with a chance, support, and confidence to pursue professions in technical disciplines. Overall, providing equal chances for women will not only assist to close the gender wage gap in the profession, but will also improve their economic stability and well-being.

Drawing from your vast experience as a software engineer, how would you describe the latest technology trends and innovation in the global software industry? 

According to McKinsey, we will make more technological development in the next decade than in the previous 100 years combined. The Internet of Things, Virtualization, Automation, increasing digital connections, 3D and 4D Printing, Digital Twin (a digital replica of a physical asset or process), Cloud Computing, and Applied Artificial Intelligence are key trends that will contribute to the fast-changing landscape and evolution of technology in the coming decades. The software industry's well-established and rising trends include digital currency, Applied Intelligence, SAAS, and PAAS-based products.

“Change is the only constant,” as the phrase goes in the software industry. Such is the rapid progress caused by the aforementioned technical breakthroughs. Things change quickly, therefore it's vital to keep up, be well-read, study and experiment, and embrace change in order to keep up with and outperform the competition. With the changes and technological advancements in all sectors, whether education, healthcare, finance, or space, I see women emerging as key enablers of the game. Though representation remains low, particularly for entrepreneur, leadership, and executive roles, I firmly believe and hope for an increase in diversity numbers, as well as more women entrepreneurs emerging and contributing to innovation and growth.

How do you foresee digital and technology trends impacting the Indian business landscape going forward?

For a sense of the broad ramifications of next-level tech developments, I believe that in the coming decades, we will witness major changes to the future of work and labour expenses. This will happen as robots get smarter and more capable. Production will become more scalable, and lead times will shorten. Through digitalization of manufacturing, monitoring, and delivery, faster digital connections, IoT, and automation have the potential to generate broad shifts in mobile, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail industries. All of these indications point to improved speed and agility, and so a far better path toward GDP.

I'd like to highlight two more important points here. One is the bio revolution, which I believe will be powered by AI, automation, and DNA sequencing, and which has the potential to alter numerous market sectors, including pharma, energy, and health. Another significant change that this technology trend can bring about is a "greener world" — as technology advances, the cost of clean technology will plummet, allowing industries to go green. Adopting cleaner transportation, energy-efficient structures, renewable energy, and water consumption that is sustainable.

In the light of your robust professional experience, what would your advice be to the young professionals in the tech domain?

In my perspective, every problem has a solution, and every situation has an outcome. You may not have control over your surroundings or the people around you, but you do have power over your own actions and choices. So always have faith in and respect for oneself. Believe in your ability, work hard, and, most importantly, enjoy your experience. You should remember to celebrate both your successes and your setbacks. Continue to put in your best efforts. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.