Vashuha Prabhala Headspring

Today, women are a growing force in the workplace, with dual incomes and financial independence becoming the norm, if not a necessity. Women’s participation in the U.S. labor force shot from 32.7% in 1948 to 57% in 2017, with the numbers rising an estimated 50% in the last decade. Despite these gains, women are still underrepresented in STEM occupations: The percentage of females in computer science professions has actually declined since the 1990s, dropping from 35% to 25%. So with women making such strides in the work world at large, why are we still trailing behind in the tech world? Is it that the industry isn’t embracing females as openly as it could, or is there something deep in our culture deterring would-be women techstars?

It could be the chicken. It could be the egg. It could be both. Let’s discuss.

To honor International Women’s Day, we explored this issue in a series of interviews with the fiery, intelligent, and inspiring women of Headspring. This year’s #BalanceforBetter theme struck a chord: As a software consultancy, we’re so aware of the importance of bringing diverse voices to the table.

The voice of our Senior VP of Service Delivery, Vasudha Prabhala, is one that resonates throughout the organization—but it’s a voice she says that she’s learned to cultivate. Raised in India as one of two sisters, Vasudha emigrated to the US, not to get married (as is the norm), but to get her Master’s in Computer Science and then her MBA. Rising within the tech field, she went from creating custom software in .NET to product management to consulting and now leads Headspring’s entire technical team. She eventually married and now is raising a 6-year-old son, sacrificing certain things, but also setting her own boundaries along the way.

In her interview, Vasudha talks about the challenges she’s faced and overcome, as well as the ones she continues to grapple with. The conversation shored up some really poignant advice for women on getting our voices heard in a male-dominated industry—whether you’re naturally outspoken or not. “Women are 51% of the workforce and do 85% of the household spending…when are the numbers in tech going to reflect that?” she asks. Vasudha’s story puts a fire under women in tech, and the men they work with, to take a more active role in creating that balance.

What attracted you to the technology field? Was it a passion or a pragmatic choice?

It was more of a pragmatic choice. Math and science always came easily for me. Also, growing up in India, education and livelihood are tied so early on. There’s this pressure to be a “professional” and pursue more practical career paths. My mom was a double math major, so I guess I was genetically predisposed to STEM.

Also, my handwriting sucked.

Did you feel like you were doing something disruptive or against-the-grain by choosing a career in tech?

I was taught to play by my strengths. STEM was my strength. Being one of just two girls, the pressure to represent my family gave me a very non-gendered view of the choice I was making. Back in the 2000s, when the primary reason that girls emigrated from India to America was marriage, I decided to come here to do my Master’s instead. It felt right.

Did you anticipate the challenges of going into a STEM profession?

There wasn’t as big a movement back then around getting women into STEM fields, so those challenges weren’t in the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t until my consulting days, when I was one person managing 50, that I began to feel that gender imbalance. Something I’m always conscious of when walking into a room is that I’m probably the only female.

What was the first time you can remember being challenged because you are a woman?

I once had this report who was doing a poor job and I had to address it. He said to me, “How would you know? This is what happens when they let women into the workforce.” Literally. That’s the first time someone said anything like that to my face.

Have you experienced pay gap realities?

Research shows that the pay gap between male and female engineers does exist. It may not be as protracted as the general pay gap across all sectors, but it exists.

Even if an employer touts equal salaries for men and women, the data may still show gender discrepancies. Why? In STEM, where pay is driven largely by what an employee can command, women usually fail to negotiate and speak up for themselves. Many women stay away from those conversations because they worry that they will see blowback for being assertive and demanding what they’re worth.

I read once that men are promoted for potential and women are promoted for their achievements. This may seem true, even when it’s not. For example, on a project involving two recent hires: The male hire did a good job and pushed for his promotion when the time came. The female hire never spoke up and thought she needed to show more results before asking for a promotion. I told her no, you worked just as hard and did just as much. It was revealing.

Have you always been outgoing and outspoken, or is it something you had to develop?

I still learn on a day-to-day basis. My first reaction has always been non-confrontation, so I’ve had to train myself to stand up. Sometimes I HAVE to take the contrarian point of view. You have to take a stance, even if you don’t want to, just to get your voice heard and get a seat at the table.

Now, I feel the responsibility of paving the path for other women more than I ever have. I think about the people we’re hiring: If I shy away, they shy away. I think, If I don’t do my job to the best of my abilities and make sure people take me seriously, I’ll end up shutting the door to opportunity for other women too.

What would you say to women who want to make it in a male-dominated field?

  1. Don’t find a female mentor, find a male mentor. Two things happen: You’ll understand how a male thinks and why. And because he’s your mentor, it’s in his best interest to guide you or understand you. You’re forced to listen and he’s forced to listen.
  2. If a man shows emotion, it’s passion; if a woman shows emotion, it’s weakness. If you want to be heard, you have to communicate in a way that will get you heard. Be articulate, be very fact-based. You don’t have to be loud. If spoken words aren’t your thing, wait. Think through those thoughts and write them down.
  3. Negotiation is important: Practice negotiating the small things first. Everything has to be practiced, and just because you’re good doesn’t mean you can’t get better.
  4. One of the main things I taught myself as I advanced in my career was to stop asking for permission. Be confident and just do it.

You mention sacrifices you’ve had to make as a mother. How do you navigate those?

Sometimes you want to be at every game, every swim meet, every meal, but you can’t. As a mother, I feel guilt. But there are macro and micro choices that you have to make, and you have to understand you’re responsible for the consequences. Once you’re at peace with the consequences of your decisions, you have achieved balance.

The guilt thing comes naturally to most mothers. We should not be ashamed to seek help and keep our spouses accountable. I’m not ashamed of bringing my child to work, for example. The more we assert the flexibility we need in our own lives, the more the work world becomes more flexible, for everyone.

Why do you think gender balance in the workplace is so important?

Collaborating with diverse groups—be it gender, ethnicities, sexual orientation, or race—leads to enhanced problem solving, and with that comes innovation. Women are a huge economic force to be tapped. There are so many new women-oriented products on the market, which gives us a huge advantage to drive innovation in those spaces.

From a culture perspective, when there are more women at the table, you can talk about issues that haven’t come up. Men are comfortable doing 80 hour weeks, and there’s this perception that women don’t work as much because they prioritize their families. But when more women come in and set boundaries—just because they’re boundaries—more conversations happen. You see both genders setting limits and sticking to them. It creates a better work environment for everyone.

I really think we need more women at the executive level. A lot of women drop off at middle management because the pressure becomes too much, and you do need a balance of family and career. That’s what’s great about Headspring: Regardless of gender, the management team are all really dedicated to their families. The emphasis is on being really efficient with your time, which is good for everyone.

So to achieve that balance in our field, do you think the onus is on business to update their hiring practices, or on culture to support women in STEM fields?

I think both. If we don’t get enough resumes, we don’t have enough female candidates to hire and if there aren’t enough qualified women coming in, creating that balance will be impossible or arbitrary.

In the US, only 18% of Computer Science degrees are earned by women. What’s more interesting is that the countries that mint the most female college graduates in STEM are some of the least gender-balanced countries. The issue clearly isn’t about girls’ aptitude or interest in STEM, but rather one of cultural narratives and expectations. So we, as a global culture, need to tell all women, “If that’s what you’re after, go for it.”

Balance is such an overused word. it’s not going to be 50/50, but let’s try for 70/30, 60/40, let’s move in that direction. We need to create flexible work environments to attract all types of talent. We want more women to go into STEM and write code.

As a female executive with a history in the tech industry, what lessons would you leave us with?

We have to think about how to attract, retain, and support other women in the technology sector. You can’t fall into a trap of forcing women into the field or hiring women just to meet some diversity mark.

Let’s not overcorrect. Let’s fix the grassroots issues. Let’s teach our children not to discriminate based on gender. I’m lucky that I come from a very strong female background. And as a mother, it’s actually refreshing to have a boy. It gives me an opportunity to educate him differently and teach him respect.

We also need to teach girls early on not to make the easy choices. Don’t fill their heads with preconceptions about what they can and should be like. We are very comfortable in our gender roles—that’s what really bothers me. I wouldn’t really blame corporate culture, because it’s the mindset that’s cultivated at home. Balance in the boardroom is correlated to balance within the family.

Stay tuned throughout the month for interviews with other Headspring women who are making strides for all of us in the industry.

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