Skip to content

Sapna Chadha, VP, Marketing, Google India & SEA: In India, as in the rest of the world, one of barriers to achieving gender equity is women’s access to information

Sapna Chadha is the vice president of marketing for both Southeast Asia and India at Google. Currently based in Singapore, she joined Google in 2014 as head of SMB marketing in India. Later, she became the country marketing director of India and moved to Singapore in 2017 when she took on responsibility for Southeast Asia as well. Ella started her career in the US, she moved to Asia more than a decade ago to pursue her passion in and for the region and has not looked back. Sapna cares deeply about making the internet equitable from a gender diversity lens and has been a pioneer of the Internet Saathi program where Google claims to have trained over 30 million women on digital literacy. In an email interaction on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Sapna spoke about her work de ella at Google, the company’s Internet Saathi program and the role that the internet can play in improving gender equality in the country.
Tell us a bit about your journey at Google?
I joined Google in 2014, and lead marketing across India and South East Asia with a team of over 100 marketers across 12 countries. I grew up in the US, my career brought me back home to India for over a decade, and I’m now based in Singapore. One of the key aspects of my role is to lead our team in ensuring our work fully reflects our user base. As a marketer, the expectation is now on brands to keep up, moving inclusive marketing from something nice for brands to do to something brands must do. I’m also incredibly proud of the work we do at Google in building diversity, equity, and inclusion into our workplace, products, and programs.
What role do you think the internet has played in improving gender equality in the country, over the years?
Gender equity is a multifaceted challenge as well as an urgent imperative. In India, as in the rest of the world, one of the barriers to achieving gender equity is women’s access to information that can empower them to be equal participants as men in all spheres of life, including in the workforce. Access to the internet narrows this information divide so that women can move forward towards overall greater participation and prosperity. As more women get the benefit of connectivity, they become empowered to find solutions that their day-to-day lives may not offer easily and they are able to open gateways to opportunity.
What do you think is the single biggest roadblock here? Or something that you think can help improve this barrier?
The issue of gender equity and the digital gender divide are closely linked. Not having access to relevant and helpful information prevents millions of women from making more effective decisions about education, health care and agricultural production, participate more fully in public life, and confront limiting beliefs and bias. And women face several barriers to meaningful connectivity.
In addition to device affordability, in many cases, women aren’t able to access the internet when, where and how they want – even if they own their own device. Many don’t have enough free time, while others don’t have permission. For some, the top barriers are literacy – smartphones can be complex to operate and the internet is still predominantly in English – this then leads to a lack of awareness of the use cases. For instance, a study by the GSMA has found that, in India, in 2020, women used their smartphones for 4.9 use cases versus 6.7 amongst men. Online search, payments, and banking are some areas that women have yet to fully benefit from. In order to bridge the divide, all of these barriers need to be addressed.
We have been investing our efforts in a range of areas. Based on learnings from the Internet Saathi program, and to continue to support women in rural India to pursue their ambitions and improve their livelihoods through entrepreneurship, we’ve launched the Women Will web platform. This is complemented by community support, mentorship and accelerator programs for rural women entrepreneurs.
Google’s Internet Saathi initially started as a digital literacy program, and have now moved to help rural women set up businesses, is this how it was envisaged? Or is it also a courtesy increase in internet penetration in India? Also, you have been a part of the program for since past few years, how do you see this transition?
The Internet Saathi program was conceptualized to help narrow the gender digital divide amongst women in rural India. Over the six years, we reached basic digital literacy and skills to 30 million women across 300,000 villages through training provided by 80,000 Internet Saathis. Today, women make up more than 40% of India’s rural Internet population, up from just 10% when we started Internet Saathi in 2015. But simply getting online isn’t progress enough. Women in India have traditionally been held back from economic participation. In fact, our research showed that 2 in 10 women included in the Internet Saathi program had started something small of their own, earning an average of Rs 3,000 in a month, with many others vying to start their own business. This insight is what supports our commitment to support 1 million rural women to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions through our WomenWill digital skilling platform.
Pandemic has almost forced people to go digital almost across the country. How do you think this has created new opportunities for rural women?
Users in rural India have a shared desire to leverage connectivity for opportunity with their urban counterparts. The Internet Saathi program gave us a tremendous insight into how rural women wished to use the Internet to make a positive impact on their lives, that of their family’s, and their communities by participating in the workforce.
The accelerated digital adoption during the pandemic is an opportunity to also put pace to opportunities for digital entrepreneurship, and underpins our commitment to support one million rural women entrepreneurs through the WomenWill platform.
Q7. Any learning or message you want to share with working women this International Women’s Day?
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. Each of us has the responsibility to champion gender equity, the ability to impact the culture around us, and we need to do it now.