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My journey with Google to empower women and #BreakTheBias

This International Women’s Day, Google’s Sapna Chadha shares her journey in tech, how she found a sense of belonging in Singapore, and what we can do to #BreakTheBias and create a world of true gender equity.

By Sapna Chadha | 7 Mar 2022

Sapna Chadha is Google’s vice president of marketing for India and Southeast Asia.

In 1965, my father moved from India to the US with a dream of giving his family a better life. 40 years later, after he had fulfilled that dream, his daughter moved right back to Asia – to the city he grew up in, New Delhi.

People are often surprised that I returned to the land of my ancestors but it’s really not that strange when I look at it through the lens of belonging.

For most of my life, I took pride in the fact that I ‘fit in’ in most places, but I now realise that I was trying to make an anxiety into a strength, and that fitting in is in fact the opposite of belonging. As Brené Brown says, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

(Left) I used to think that my dad (here getting on a plane to the US with dozens of garlands around his neck) was the hero for taking a giant leap, but hey, I have done it too! (Right) Together with my mom, the first woman in tech that I knew

A truly global city

My family moved to Singapore in 2017 when Google offered me a wider role, leading marketing across India and Southeast Asia. Today, my team spans 12 countries and comprises over 100 marketers covering social media, advertising campaigns, thought leadership, and much more.

What sealed the deal for me was learning that Singapore would be a great environment for raising my kids. Growing up in a truly diverse melting pot, with friends that come from all over, their global knowledge and awareness of world matters are strong. Even the holidays observed here reflect a genuine respect for difference.

No place is perfect, but the environment in Singapore allows me to be more in my skin – as an Indian and Asian female – than anywhere else I have lived.

Building an inclusive digital world

For 600 million Southeast Asians, a decade of new possibilities has dawned, one where the region’s internet economy is projected to reach US$1 trillion in value by 2030 (details in our latest e-Conomy SEA report). And as the pandemic accelerates digitalisation, the internet offers “leapfrog” opportunities for women to access knowledge, earn additional income, and increase employment opportunities.

But the path to gender equality is rocky. Asia Pacific’s record remains unsatisfactory, and the tech industry in Southeast Asia still faces a challenge where the proportion of female students is significantly lower (39%) than in other industries (56%).

I’m proud that Google works hard to bridge this divide and build a more inclusive digital world. We not only offer attractive tech jobs, but also empower millions of Asian women to develop skills that are vital in the modern digital world.

Here in Singapore, in partnership with IMDA, we’ve been supporting Code in the Community to help girls (and boys) from low-income families learn basic coding skills and inspire them to explore technology. We also offer the Generation Google Scholarship to nurture female leaders and role models in computer science.

In India, I spearheaded the Internet Saathi (“saathi” is Hindi for “friend”) programme to equip women in rural India with digital literacy training. Over six years, we reached 30 million women through training provided by 80,000 female ambassadors, increasing the proportion of internet users that are women from 10% to 40%.

Inclusivity is crucial in the area of marketing as well. I lead Google’s Asia Pacific marketing team in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), ensuring our work fully reflects our user base. To this end, I penned an article on five inclusive marketing principles to challenge common stereotypes and encourage diverse perspectives. Though it seems like a cause when brands are thinking about inclusivity today, I look forward to the day when it is simply the natural and right thing to do.

Visiting the Internet Saathis in Maharashtra
Presenting on Internet Saathi at Google for India 2017

Encounters with gender bias

While I have been fortunate and experienced strong allyship throughout my career, I have definitely faced gender bias, the simplest example being getting interrupted or talked over in male-dominated meetings. I have learned through experience and confidence-building to not let this get to me and to speak my mind.

When I moved to India and was pregnant with my twins, I overheard former male colleagues say they would never “let” their wives do what I am doing in terms of prioritising my career. And I can’t tell you how many comments have been casually murmured by non-working moms in front of me, suggesting that my kids are not my priority.

My advice to those facing gender bias at work is to speak up if you can. When a former employer’s office space didn’t have a private nursing area (I was asked to use the bathroom, which frankly made me really uncomfortable), I had to explain and push for the office to be upgraded. Though I no longer needed the nursing area, I was glad I could use my voice to impact the experiences of other women.

Additionally, you need to find your cheerleaders and counsellors. Mine include my husband, my mom – who is my role model for women in tech, and who herself broke the glass ceiling – and key allies who have helped me in my career. To overcome bias and move forward, you need a set of confidantes who energise you and have your back, no matter how hard it gets.

3 ways we can #BreakTheBias

At Google, women employees have many avenues to reach out to other successful women in the company. There are vibrant communities that facilitate networking and professional development. I myself have coached young women as a part of the Women@Google network.

Our workplace policies support women in all stages of life (for example, Google recently expanded leave for parents who give birth to 24 weeks), and I’m grateful we have a training called Unconscious Bias @ Work, which has helped employees gain a common understanding and language to talk about unconscious bias.

Yet I believe addressing gender bias goes beyond structures and policies, and has to start from the actions and decisions we make as individuals. Based on my experiences as a marketer, a leader and an ally, here are three specific ways we can all overcome gender bias at work:

  1. Listen to women and their stories. I am a marketer and just like we do market research to find consumer insights, we need to listen to underrepresented groups to uncover insights here as well.
  2. In tech, we need to be more intentional about recruiting women. This includes everything from increasing the number and visibility of female leaders to mentoring and sponsoring women.
  3. Finally, it is important to notice and correct micro-inequities or instances of unconscious bias and make discussions of gender less “risky”.

Each of us has the responsibility to champion gender equity, the ability to impact the culture around us, and the power to #BreakTheBias.

Join us and meet others like Sapna.

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About Sapna

Sapna is Google’s marketing vice president for India and Southeast Asia. As a champion of gender equality, she mentors women in tech and sits on Google’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) council in Asia Pacific. She also spearheaded the Internet Saathi programme, which trained 30 million women in digital literacy.

Connect with her here.

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