Women techies make workplace gains

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Oct. 26, 2004 – First-time mother Frances Ross didn’t agonize about returning to her managerial position at IBM as her maternity leave neared its close in September. Instead she weighed her scheduling options and found them plentiful.

“They’ve been very flexible,” she said of her associates at the Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “After the six-week paid leave, I can really decide at the time. I’ll probably take another month or two after that, and then do some part time, and then ease back into it as time goes on.”

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Ross, the head of a six-person team that specializes in unconventional analytical techniques, may temporarily suspend her research on nanostructures to care for her infant daughter. The team, in the meantime, will focus on refining novel approaches to understand the behavior of nanomaterials without her. But she isn’t likely to find her career permanently placed on hold as a consequence.

IBM and other technology corporations that pin their futures on being at the forefront of innovation appear more willing to accommodate women technologists.

Areas such as nanotechnology require a highly trained workforce that can adapt to the challenges inherent in interdisciplinary and less traditional research. The combination of a scarcity of researchers — both men and women — with those skills, and a growing recognition that a diverse workforce better serves a diverse customer base is prompting some companies to step up their recruitment and retention efforts.

Ross, for instance, brings a rare talent to IBM: She uses microscopy and video recording techniques to track in real time the formation of nanomaterials. The project ultimately may help IBM to rapidly and accurately place large volumes of nanoscale components in products such as integrated circuits. As a manager, she also may have a voice in the development of final products that will be marketed to an increasing number of women consumers.

Many companies and advocacy groups agree that the number of women technologists, especially in leadership roles, remains small. But it is growing, and may even accelerate with the opportunities nanotechnology is creating for junior researchers and future generations of scientists.

“There’s this untapped labor pool,” said Nicole Smentek, author of a 2003 report on opportunities and barriers women face in technology corporations. Smentek is a research associate with Catalyst, an organization that promotes the advancement of women in business.

Women made up 48.4 percent of the general labor force in July, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s statistics bureau. While women scientists and engineers don’t come close to that figure, their position has improved.

Women accounted for 24.7 percent of the nonacademic science and engineering workforce in 2000, up from 11.6 percent in 1980, the National Science Foundation http://www.nsf.gov/ reported.

Sharon Nunes, a 20-year employee at IBM and now its vice president of technology, estimated that the percentage of women at IBM who, like her, hold a science or engineering doctorate has shifted from the low teens in 1984 to the high teens now. “I wouldn’t say we’re where we want to be,” she said. “But we’ve seen progress.”

In the pipeline, but on the sidelines

Several organizations have catalogued the difficulties that women face as they try to advance in male-dominated work environments. Problems include exclusionary cultures, balancing home and work demands, stereotyping and a lack of networks and mentors.

Catalyst found yet another set of barriers when it examined the high tech industry. It argued the pipeline issue — the fact that few girls pursue an educational track suitable for a tech career — was only one contributor to low representation.

Companies that believed they based advancement strictly on merit failed to recognize the role professional relationships played in their decisions, or that women sometimes were excluded from those relationships.

Although women’s numbers in technology corporations may be relatively small, their loss can sting if they get frustrated and leave, Smentek said. They may take with them knowledge and skills learned on the job that their replacement will not have.

“Technology corporations know how expensive turnover is,” she said.

More progressive companies have launched initiatives to help identify, develop and retain talented workers. IBM, for instance, periodically invites hundreds of its women technologists to attend a networking and leadership conference, one of several programs that earned it an award from Catalyst.

The Women in Technology thrust plus other leadership development efforts are paying off. IBM reports that the number of women on its executive team has increased by 400 percent since 1995.

“We’ve done a lot to try to get the women’s technical community together and make them feel they are part of our growth and development, which I think certainly we are,” said Nunes, who is co-chair of the upcoming Women in Technology meeting. “I’ve gotten terrific support, all the way up to (IBM’s chief executive officer and chairman) Sam Palmisano.”

Nunes also argues that women workers help the corporation anticipate women customers’ demands. “If we’re developing products for our customers, and we don’t understand what our customers want and need, then we can be off the mark,” Nunes said. “We’ve said this over and over again, mostly in the last 10 years: We need to have a diverse population working here so we can better serve our customers.”

Ascending numbers

 Industry and government alike appear to recognize that the paucity of qualified women scientists and engineers may put the nation and its high tech industries at a competitive disadvantage. They flag in particular a general downward trend of total students pursuing science and engineering degrees in the United States, and larger proportion of those students being foreigners who may return home after their training is complete.

Federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation have earmarked funding for decades to encourage girls in primary and secondary schools to get involved in science and mathematics, with limited success.

The percentage of women earning degrees in the physical sciences grew from 24 percent in 1981 to 41 percent in 2000, according to a review of graduation figures filed by the NSF. The percentage of women getting doctorates in the field more than doubled. A larger percentage of women received bachelor degrees in biology than men in 2000, and women nabbed 45 percent of the doctorates that year.

But engineering remains problematic. Only about 20 percent of undergraduate degrees in engineering went to women in 2000, and 3.7 percent of the doctorates were earned by women. That’s an improvement over the mere 11 percent for bachelor degrees and 0.4 percent for Ph.D.s in 1981.

IBM launched a program in 1999 to not only help fill the pipeline but to ensure the flow would feed into Big Blue. It organized science camps for middle school girls worldwide to encourage them to consider technology careers.

The Watson center was one of 36 sites involved in this summer’s EXploring Interests in Technology and Engineering, or EXCITE, program.

Nanotechnology, with its potential to contribute in everything from computing to health care, could be a draw for the current and future generations of women technologists, Nunes said.

“A huge number of (women) say I want to do something where I feel I’m making a difference in what I do,” she said, based on her experience helping to establish and direct IBM’s life sciences division.

Nanotechnology also may provide a bridge for women whose education lacked the mathematic underpinnings required in some pure sciences, said Ross, who earned a doctorate in materials science. “My suspicion is that like biology, nanotechnology is going to be of much broader interest as well because it doesn’t necessarily have to be based on the things that seem to discourage women, like having to do a lot of mathematics or physics.”

The interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, and the need to collaborate, may play into women’s strengths. Emphasizing she was generalizing, Nunes said women provide teamwork, collaboration and mediation skills that allow all parties to win. Those traits help interdisciplinary research but also complement IBM’s overall technology strategy.

“We hire people who have very deep technical skills in one area but very quickly ask them and demand of them that they have to learn about multiple parts of the organization and be able to converse and understand the technologies from other parts of the organization,” Nunes said. “I’m not saying women do it better than men always, but it is a strength.”

Yet those same attributes can hinder advancement if the technologist — man or woman — fails to delineate his or her contribution, Nunes said.

“It’s very easy to say the team did this or the team did that, but if I want to convince someone to hire me, I have to say I was the part of the team that did this, but here’s the part that I led, here’s the piece that I did.”

Ultimately, it may be the presence of women like Nunes, also a material scientist but not a nanotechnologist, who as a mentor and a role model has helped attract and inspire younger colleagues like Ross. Nunes managed to build her career while she and her husband raised two children.

“People like her really give some incentive for people to get into this field. You see how successful she is,” Ross said. “It really depends on the quality of the ideas.”


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