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The Science Ceiling

The Science Ceiling | Human Resource Executive Online Women have been leaving the science, engineering and technology fields in alarming numbers. What are companies doing about it?

Monday, December 1, 2008
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Now for the bad news: When it comes to careers for women in science, engineering and technology, the glass ceiling seems to be just as intact as ever. According to a major study published this past June by the Harvard Business Review and authored by researchers at the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank based in New York, women are still facing tremendous obstacles when it comes to advancing in the SET fields -- and, as a result, dropping out in alarming numbers.

The study, The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology, targets the reasons that women have been dropping out of these industries -- and what companies are attempting to do to buck the trend.

Despite the fact that job opportunities in SET will grow five times faster than other sectors between now and 2016 -- a Bureau of Labor Statistics prediction that could, of course, be altered by a further failing economy -- companies are losing a dramatic portion of their talent pool: Over time, some 52 percent of women working for SET companies have quit their jobs as a result of hostile work environments and extreme job pressures, according to the Athena Factor.

"A lot of these companies are distressed about these growing shortages in terms of global talent in SET," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, lead author of the study. "There is a real issue with supply. Employers were assuming they had to look into foreign workers, not realizing that there were all these women in their own backyard, taking off in their 30s."

Hewlett and her team identified several of what they called the antigens in SET corporate cultures. They include hostile macho cultures, created by the male-dominated lab coat, hard hat and "geek" workplace environments, which exclude women or intimidate them through sexual harassment; isolation, in which a woman finds herself as the lone scientist or researcher on a team or site; and the systems of risk and reward, whereby women have trouble taking risks, often due to feeling a lack of support or mentoring.

"All these issues are interrelated," says Hewlett, "and very powerful when it comes to work/life balance issues: These are extreme jobs in which the average working week can be 73 hours, and women are also dealing with home and family issues. I think that cuts women to the core."

Another study published this past February by Catalyst, a nonprofit research, consulting and advisory firm on women's career advancement issues, produced some similar results. The study, Women in Technology: Maximizing Talent, Minimizing Barriers, noted that while technology companies have made some progress for women in recent years -- employee survey data revealed that both men and women were generally satisfied with their work environments -- women in technology were not satisfied with their supervisory relationships, and were less satisfied with their companies' approaches to fairness and opportunities to speak out than their peers.

"Women in technology were less likely than other employees to perceive that their companies had strong approaches to fairness and voice, with such things as advancement, promotion and salary," the study states.

"Almost 40 percent of these women said they lacked role models. Not having mentors and sponsors to champion them were also issues," says Heather Foust-Cummings, lead author of the study. Indeed, both studies cite a lack of mentors, role models and supportive supervisors as major reasons why women were becoming discouraged in the SET fields.

Both Foust-Cummings and Hewlett vigorously agree, based on their studies, that more senior sponsors and solid mentoring programs would make a huge difference in these industries. The good news is that senior management and HR at some important companies in these sectors are listening. Here's what they're doing to help turn the tide.

Efforts at Work

Indeed, several major SET companies have quickly stepped up to the plate to reverse the trend, in areas that range from one-on-one mentoring to more supportive female work environments. At the Intel Corp., based in Santa Clara, Calif., the Women's Engineering Forum has met with great success in bringing women engineers into leadership roles.

"We had been trying to improve recruitment and retention of our technological population for some time and were doing some gender-focused work, so we started by doing very casual brown-bag lunches with our senior technical females," says Rosalind Hudnell, director of corporate diversity at the Folsom, Calif., site of Intel. "We saw that there was a need to bring individuals together who were fairly isolated -- we would have a solitary senior technologist at one site, and she might not know that another one exists at another distant site.

"So we formally established the women's engineering forum two years ago. While the forum is highly technical, during the open Q&A sessions, there will always be one or two questions that are career-focused, balance-focused. And questions also come up about influence, confidence building, selling your ideas. It really helps them build up their confidence when they go in to present to another group, which might be primarily men."

The forums operate roughly on a monthly basis, and are highly technical: There are usually about a dozen presentations by senior women, presenting technical papers, with about 25 percent of the papers covering career development.

The forums are followed by Q&A sessions in which questions can range from work/life balance to what discoveries came out of a specific engineering project. The forums, which started as casual brown-bag lunches, turned into formal forums under Hudnell's leadership in 2006.

Last year, San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. started an Executive Talent Insertion Program to bring in new vice presidents and senior vice presidents, with a focus on female talent. The company now works with smaller, more niche executive search firms to build more diverse slates.

According to Annmarie Neal, vice president of talent strategy and executive development, who works out of Cisco's Denver office, these smaller search companies can get very creative in searching for talent, looking into women's associations and women's networking groups to tap talent, which she feels might bring more diverse candidates to the table than the larger, more traditional search pools; the firms then tap nontraditional databases and reach out to female networking groups.

On top of that, Cisco has added a diversity recruiter in-house to its executive recruitment team. The company also sponsors a number of action networks that operate as affinity groups and a powerful recruitment force for the company.

Most recently, a pilot program developed through Cisco's Women's Action Network brought together coaches for one-on-one mentoring across the organization. If, for example, a woman might be having a problem with her supervisor, or some other career issue, she would be connected, via a teleconference, with a female mentor at Cisco anywhere in the world, to talk the issue through.

"I have 20 coaches committed to 100 hours of coaching per month right now, and we had to shut registration down after two weeks, we were so overwhelmed in capacity with interest [from those wanting to be coached]," says Neal. "The volume and response to this has been incredible."

(Before going to press, Cisco was asked if the recent economic downturn has impacted the company in terms of recruitment efforts. While Neal does admit it has affected certain hiring policies, "our emphasis on top talent continues," she says. Other companies interviewed for this story say they have made no changes to recruitment policies and efforts to bring on talented women, despite the economic plunge.)

While mentoring, coaching and all-women forums and conferences are providing confidence building and support in these companies, other companies are reaching out to talented women who have left the SET field to start families in an attempt to woo them back. Across the globe, at the Bangalore Technology Center of General Electric, Project Restart was designed in the fall of 2007 to search out qualified female scientists and engineers who were going unnoticed in their communities.

"As far as India is concerned, GE realized in the last couple of years that the representation of diverse talent is less than what [it is in] the society as a whole ... ," says Rajgopalan Raghavan, who heads HR for the John F. Welch Technology Center in Bangalore, India. "In realizing that we wanted a more diverse set of employees, we noticed an opportunity we were missing big time in India: The woman always follows the career of the spouse.

"Dual careers are not known here," he says. "Often, a female scientist or engineer would move away to where her husband's job is, or she would leave when she had a baby. When they were ready to go back to work, they probably didn't even know where to go and look for opportunities."

GE started a series of roundtable meetings with its women technologists and discovered some key issues that needed to be addressed: "One was that our flexible work arrangements were not well-publicized and also needed to be enhanced," Raghavan says. "Prior to this, we only had telecommuting; now we have flextime, working up to two days a week from home, or the possibility of part-time work."

Another issue these women brought up was the need for closer parking on the Bangalore campus for pregnant women. "We have a huge campus of 60 acres, and the buildings are well spread out," Raghavan says. "We created special 'mom' parking spots for our pregnant employees and it became a huge hit. It's a simple thing, but we didn't realize how impactful it could be.

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"We also realized that some of our employees have long drives here, and pregnant women -- at some point during the day -- needed to rest," he says. "We created a mom-to-be private relaxation room, available upon reservation, with a bed, refrigerator, fresh fruits, newspaper and television, so they can just take a short nap if they need to."

The Bangalore Center also created a lactation room and built a brand new, spacious daycare center at a neighboring GE facility.

GE also aggressively enhanced its recruitment campaigns to attract women, educating its search vendors on these new, female-friendly changes, as well as offering cash and other initiatives -- iPods and vacations to Bangkok and other parts of Thailand -- to employees who referred good diversity candidates. ("In India, the word diversity means one thing -- women," says Raghavan.)

And on the Internet marketing side, GE partnered with Google and Yahoo! in India to attract female scientists and engineers.

If, for example, you searched in India for "working mothers" on the Web, you would see ads for the GE Restart Program come up on the right-hand page, advertising the fact that GE is hiring "women who have taken a break."

Genzyme, a Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech firm, does not have any formal program in place to retain and recruit women employees, but its statistics are dramatically favorable toward women: 51 percent of its scientists are women and 56 percent of new hires are female.

The company attributes its success in this area with "our core value of compassion, probably our strongest core value," says Joan C. Wood, senior vice president of leadership and organization development. "Our company started by focusing on [creating] therapies to cure rare, genetic diseases, and these patients would contact the company to talk about how we saved their lives; [many would] meet with our employees. It helped foster a culture of caring and compassion from the start that just permeates how we do everything."

That caring atmosphere includes sharing and delegating responsibilities for women who need to be out for family or other issues; providing emergency childcare resources on an informal networking and company-supported case-by-case basis; and meeting with all new employees after six months, asking for their feedback and concerns.

Reversing the Trend

Aggressive recruiting efforts, more support and mentoring, a culture of compassion, more female- and family-friendly offices and programs -- how does it all translate to retaining and recruiting more women scientists and engineers? Is, the brain drain, in fact, being reversed?

The HR executives interviewed for this story seem to think so. "We have gotten a huge amount of resumes over the last few months, and some 10 million hits on our site as a result of these new pop-ups and banners," says Raghavan.

"It seems that the word is out: If you are a woman technologist who has taken a break and wants to get back to work, go to GE."

At Cisco, female hires were at 25 percent, as of July, up 18 percent from 2007; while, during the same time frame, 22 percent of in-house promotions were women, up 15 percent from the year prior.

Though acknowledging that progress throughout SET companies is good news, Intel's Hudnell is cautiously optimistic. (At Intel, female talent is at about 22 percent to 25 percent of the company, depending on the area, Hudnell says, adding she and other business leaders there "obviously want to develop more.")

"There are now visible role models women didn't see before, and greater awareness of our senior women leaders," she says.

"And while retention has been better over the past five years, I don't want to insinuate that we are where we want to be. Our goal is to be at full representation."

Out of all the challenges confronting women in science and engineering, what might be the most compelling to overcome? After conducting four major global surveys and sitting in on 28 focus groups, Athena Factor author Hewlett says she feels the magic bullet, the one that eclipses all others, is support at the top of the corporate food chain.

"The commitment and dedication of these women is palpable," Hewlett says. "Sixty-three percent of them went into the SET fields to heal the planet or save mankind, and they stick it out with great determination until they are about 35.

"More than anything," she says, "these women need senior sponsors, someone who is willing to use up his or her chips on their behalf, who will proactively reach over and pick them up and carry them over the great divide, particularly when these women are in their 30s, and the perfect storm of cultural issues and family issues come together."

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