Sex and the City

Sex and the City

A few of us from NCWIT were in New York City the last week in May to attend a much-anticipated premiere ... no, not the "Sex and the City" movie, but the release of The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, & Technology. The report, published by the Harvard Business Review and lead-authored by Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the Center for Work-Life Policy, looks at the high number of women leaving the science, engineering, and technology (SET) workforce. The report is based on survey data from nearly 2,500 men and women who haved worked in SET fields, as well as focus groups and interviews.

The Hidden Brain Drain

According to The Athena Factor report, the pipeline for SET occupations is primed with women: its survey data show that 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders are female. However, the report also found that a shocking 52 percent of these women eventually leave their jobs, with the peak attrition occuring when women are in their mid- to late-30s.

Antigens and Antibodies

Several causes ("antigens") are suggested for this attrition:

Hostile, macho cultures - "Women described their workplace culture variously as 'lab coat,' 'hard hat' or 'geek.' Not only are they physically excluded, women told us, but they are often pushed away by demeaning or degrading behavior."

Severe isolation - "By the time SET women get anywhere near the top, they are a tiny minority in most companies. One professional at a large engineering firm reported that she had to go down three floors to find a women’s bathroom."

Unclear career paths - "Across science, engineering, and technology fields, we found a surprising lack of clarity around career paths and widespread confusion about exactly what it takes to get ahead. Women ... felt ignored and abandoned by employers who largely failed to lay out clear career paths or provide professional development plans."

Rewards for risk-taking - "SET women described work cultures that encourage a state of crisis and celebrate diving catch behavior that 'saves the day.' These diving catches can provide visibility—and rewards—however, 35% of women perceive that risks don’t translate into success."

Extreme work pressures - "Women in science, engineering and technology are more likely than women in other sectors to be coping with 100-hour workweeks (8% versus 3%), dealing with 24/7 customer demands (36% versus 26%), and working across multiple time zones (54% versus 14%)."

But The Athena Factor report suggest remedies ("antibodies") , too. Profiles of 14 corporate initiatives (including those of NCWIT supporters and Alliance members Microsoft, Pfizer, Intel Google, Cisco, IBM, and MIT) describe on-ramps, mentoring, leadership training, recruitment, and other forms of support that have successfully helped to retain women. If the exodus were stemmed by only 25 percent, say the authors, it would add 220.000 highly qualified women back into the science, engineering, and technology talent pool.

In Their Own Words

Here at NCWIT we sometimes feel like we're preaching to the choir -- our members and supporters know the importance of gender diversity in creating an innovative and competitive workforce -- but at The Athena Factor launch, held at the New York Stock Exchange, it was our pleasure to hear the choir preach to us. Here are some representative quotes from the evening's speakers:

"Our asset is our people. To lose that valuable asset is a tremendous negative cost to us. We compete on talent and people."

- John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch

"Diversity is seeing people who look like me get ahead in the company."

"This has been one of the best investments -- in terms of ROI -- that we've ever made. Without this research we would be losing valuable and innovative talent. And without technical innovation, we cannot grow."

- Deb Elam, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, General Electric

"Apply culture changes to everyone. Operationalize them so that women aren't associated with the stigma. Make 25 percent your tipping point: if you can get 25 percent of your people to do something, it becomes normal."

"Senior leadership needs to move from being committed to this, to being devoted to this problem, in order to create a tipping point."

- Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founding President, Center for Work-Life Policy

Where the Women Were

The following evening some friends and I went to see "Sex and the City" at Times Square. We had great fun observing the queue of women snaking out the door and around the corner, all of them dressed to the nines and wearing their most stylish and uncomfortable shoes, giddy with excitement. Since this is a movie widely touted/panned for its homage to the superficialities of fashion and name-dropping, imagine my surprise when, halfway into the movie, one of the supporting characters -- an African American fashionista with a penchant for designer handbags -- turns out to be a recent college grad with a DEGREE IN COMPUTER SCIENCE. Sure, it may have been a plot device created to provide a practical excuse for Carrie's website to get an overhaul. But it was a terrific example of how pop culture images can help to change the face of technology from geek to geek-chic.