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Women in Science, Engineering and Tech Leaving ‘In Droves’
Study blames hostile ‘macho’ cultures, scarcity of sponsors

By Dana Wilkie  2/25/2014

Startling numbers of women working in science, engineering and technology (SET)—the same industries that grade schools are urging girls to pursue—are considering leaving those fields because of gender bias, a new report found.

The report by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a global think tank, discovered that, despite high ambition and passion for their work, women in SET fields in the U.S., Brazil, China and India are “languishing in the middle-rungs of their organizations and, as a result, are much more likely than men to report that they plan to leave the industry within the year.”

In fact, 32 percent in the U.S., 22 percent in Brazil, 30 percent in China and 20 percent in India were considering leaving their fields within a year, according to the report, The Athena Factor 2.0: Accelerating Female Talent in Science, Engineering, and Technology.” Among SET senior leaders, 31 percent of women in the U.S., 22 percent in Brazil, 51 percent in China and 57 percent in India reported that a woman would never get a top position at their company, no matter how capable or high-performing.

“As a result of bias, hostile macho cultures and extreme work demands, women’s enthusiasm is being crushed and their feeling of being stalled [in their careers] is intensified,” explained Tara Gonsalves, a report author, in an interview.

The study, however, provided examples of company initiatives that are addressing this gender bias and claimed to offer “road maps for … human resource professionals seeking to correct for some of the inequities that beset this critical talent pool.”

Little Change

The report relied on an online survey in June and July 2013 of 5,685 male and female workers in the U.S., Brazil, China and India who held at least a bachelor’s degree and were employed in SET fields.

A comparable CTI survey in 2008 found that “while the female talent pipeline in SET was surprisingly robust, women were dropping out of the field in droves.” The most recent survey revealed that the pattern is continuing, largely because of four dynamics:

--Hostile macho cultures. “Our study finds that rigid ‘lab cultures’ persist in science, the ‘hard hat’ culture persists in engineering, and tech jobs are permeated by a late-night geek culture,” said Gonsalves, who added that these cultures exclude women and promote bias.

--Isolation. Even though SET women are no longer the sole female members of a team or at a worksite, they still feel excluded from “buddy networks” among their peers and lack female role models.

--Scarcity of effective sponsors. Although SET women have sponsors, they don’t reap the benefits to the degree that their male colleagues do.

--Difficulty with executive presence. SET women struggle to embody leadership attributes, and they receive little feedback to help them change this.

For example, the report noted that engineering tends to be the most hostile of the SET fields.

“Drilling platforms, refineries, and smelting plants are intensely masculine environments, where vulgarities and sexual humor are part of the culture. Furthermore, there’s a stark dichotomy between college-educated employees and hourly workers hired for their muscle, many of whom aren’t used to seeing women in this type of workplace, let alone in management positions.”

But the high-tech industry, with its “frat-boy atmosphere” and “geek culture,” can be just as bad, the authors observed.

Good News and Bad

The report’s good news is threefold: SET jobs will increase by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, a growth rate nearly twice that of non-SET employment; women made up more than half of science and engineering graduates in North America in 2012; and at least 80 percent of SET women in all four countries said they love their work because it’s intellectually stimulating, lets them tackle new ideas and allows them to be on the cutting edge of discovery and innovation.

Regardless, “many of the barriers we documented in our first report continue to daunt and demoralize women as they seek to fill these gaps,” the report said. More than one-quarter of SET women in the U.S. feel “stalled” or “stuck” in their careers, as do 29 percent in Brazil, 23 percent in China and 45 percent in India. This feeling is especially pronounced among women ages 25-34.

“Younger SET women simply don’t see a future in the field,” the authors wrote. “They don’t see role models they wish to emulate; they’ve calculated the costs of an unyielding, unsupportive work environment to their family and personal life, and concluded that the rewards aren’t worth their investment.”

Who’s the Culprit? 

The authors suggest that the nature of SET jobs—not just the men who work in them—may be hindering women’s careers.
For one thing, such jobs involve punishing hours and sometimes-frequent relocation.

“In the lab environment of life sciences, there’s no getting around having to be physically present to run an experiment and harvest the data. In multinational industries, promotions depend on mobility: on being ready and willing to relocate on a regular basis. So a woman in a dual-career marriage or who has family obligations faces a difficult choice: either her entire family relocates or she has to leave her spouse or family behind.”

Women entering SET fields also tend to be older, having had to secure a Ph.D., for instance, to land a coveted engineering role.

“That intensifies the ticking of their biological clock, which in turn pressures them to step up the pace of their research progress,” according to the report. “Women who are pregnant or considering having a child don’t even get asked to participate on a project whose data-collection might impose physical demands or whose timeline won’t permit any absences.”
And the fast-paced nature of such fields means that taking time off for motherhood takes a woman “away from the lab” and “further … from the most recent advances.”

Finally, the inability to succeed can lead to marginalization and isolation, which often make it easier for male colleagues to “denigrate, humiliate and even harass” SET women, the authors wrote. More than half of the SET women surveyed experienced sexual harassment, more than a third have suspected bias in their performance evaluations, and 22 percent were subjected to comments and catcalls when they wore a skirt or used lipstick.

What’s the Antidote?

Among the initiatives that may curtail gender bias in SET industries, the authors wrote, are sponsorship programs.

According to the report, across industries, men are 45 percent more likely to have a sponsor than women. The report suggests this may be the reason that 46 percent of U.S. SET women believe that senior managers more readily see men as “leadership material.” Only 38 percent of women get their ideas endorsed by leadership, compared with 44 percent of men.

The authors wrote that men are more often sponsored because it’s natural for leaders to sponsor people who remind them of themselves, senior men fear that paying too much attention to a female subordinate could be misconstrued, and SET fields tend to have tight-knit and exclusive networks of mostly male graduates from particular academic institutions, labs or projects.

“Women in SET tend to target sponsors that are not very powerful,” Gonsalves said. “They look for collaborative leaders, rather than powerful leaders. Accordingly, companies could help cultivate a culture of sponsorship in which women target more effective sponsors and, in turn, give more attention and time to junior female employees. In addition, companies could help women to develop their executive presence such that they are seen as leaders in the ways they communicate, dress and carry themselves.”

With sponsors, women are 37 percent more likely to ask for a raise and 22 percent more likely to be satisfied with their rate of promotion, the report said.

The authors also pointed out several company initiatives that have encouraged SET women to stay in their careers. For instance, in 2011, American Express formed its Women in Technology program, which provides workshops for women to discuss everything from “taking risks … to accepting requests to be a mentor and seeking sponsorship.” The program involves a six-week tech training class for women preparing for their certification exam. In its first two months the program grew from zero to 1,000 members.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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