Women in technology share experience in rising to the top

Image credit: Hillebrand Steve

Women overall are poorly represented in higher professional positions. However, they are better represented in some top fields like politics, civil service, and law than in technology and engineering. Women scientists especially in the later stage of their career are less likely to attain a distinguished professional position than their male colleagues.

This can be due to family pressure and personal choice, or to a cultural bias of science and technology as a male profession.

Jeanine Long, Head of MIS operations at Thomson Reuters, said, “Women take breaks off work mainly because they are caretakers of children and older parents”.

If these women do not keep on top of developments in their field while they’re away, it can be difficult for them to fit into their role when they resume work.

In most cases, it is women that go on parental leave and not men, Long noted. “Most men have their partners take care of things while most women do not really have”.

A 1999 report on women faculty in science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found there was an unequal distribution of resources between male and female faculty in every variable that was measured: in lab space, salaries, proportion of university funding, and nominations for prizes. That marginalization experienced by female faculty members is one of the visible impacts of bias against women in science.

To attain high ranks, women in science must overcome these barriers, but it can be done. Women can assist themselves by networking – keeping in touch with other women in their profession and not isolating themselves. “Men see networking as part of their career while most women see it as something they do after work or outside their job,” Long says.

In addition, women could benefit from being more comfortable talking openly about their achievements.  Farrow Louise, Lifecycle Maintenance & Support  consultant at Royal Bank of Scotland, said, “One thing I learnt in taking my second degree in the USA was to sell myself, which is not very British.”

Zoe Cunningham, Operations Manager at Softwire Technology, agreed. “Women need to believe more in themselves and make others believe them,” she said. “Basically everything is possible; anything that has been done before, you can do it.”

To hear more from Long, Farrow and Cunningham about their career experiences, listen to the audio clips below.

Gender inequality in science

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Gender inequality has been one of the barriers making it difficult to retain women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Several studies have shown the existence of gender inequality in sciences.

According to a study by Steffens, Melanie C (2010), On the leaky math pipeline, published by American Psychological Association, implicit gender stereotypes are an important factor in the dropout of female students from math-intensive fields.

Another study by Jacobs, J. E. and Simpkins, S. D. (2005), Mapping leaks in the math, science, and technology pipeline, also suggested that girls are more likely to drop out of mathematics and related courses and less likely to aspire for a career in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than boys after primary school.

I interviewed Andresse St Rose, who is a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a co-author of Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics on what gender inequality in science entails and how an end can be put to it.

When we talk about gender inequality in science, what do we mean?

Inequality incorporates a number of different concepts, including the underrepresentation of women and girls  in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields especially in computer science and engineering in the US. Additionally, women are underrepresented at the highest ranks of faculty in fields like biology where women now earn the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and half of the doctoral degrees awarded. Although some argue that women are less interested than men in certain STEM fields and that gender gaps in participation are due to personal choices; there is evidence that bias and discrimination play a role in shaping women’s experiences in STEM.

Why do we still have disparity in equality in science?

AAUW’s research shows that social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation
of women in science and engineering.  These include societal beliefs about science being a “male domain”,  negative gender stereotypes about female ability in math, erroneous beliefs about innate abilities, the culture and climate of STEM departments at universities that can still be “chilly” for women, and gender bias that continues to limit women’s progress in STEM.

What steps have been taken to ensure there is equality for women in science?

Change needs to happen at multiple levels of education, government and society to ensure gender equity in STEM. There is a federal law – Title IX – that prohibits gender discrimination in education and applies to all programmes that receive federal funds.

Many colleges and universities have taken action to increase the number of women and underrepresented minority students who study and earn degrees in STEM.

Colleges and universities have also made changes to improve the climate for female faculty in STEM by integrating early career female faculty better into the departments through mentoring, and by instituting and promoting policies that support better work-life balance, which is important to women who are often pursuing careers and the bulk of household/caregiving responsibilities in families.

And even at lower levels of education there are efforts to introduce more girls to science in and out of school by exposing them to successful female role models, and promoting hands-on activities to build confidence and interest.

Are there policies to ensure equality in science? If so what have they been able to achieve?

In the US, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” (20 U.S. Code § 1681).

Title IX covers nearly all colleges and universities. To ensure compliance with the law, Title IX regulations require institutions that receive any form of federal education funding to evaluate their current policies and practices and adopt and publish grievance procedures and a policy against sex discrimination.

When Congress enacted Title IX, the law was intended to help women achieve equal access to all aspects of education at all levels. During the last 40 years, however, Title IX has been applied mostly to sports.
A US government report in 2004 examining the effect of Title IX in STEM disciplines found that federal agencies need to do more to ensure that colleges and universities receiving federal funds comply with Title IX.

In response to these findings, federal agencies, including NASA and the Department of Energy in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, have begun to conduct Title IX compliance reviews more regularly .


Having a successful academic career as a woman in science: Q&A with Jennifer Sheridan

Image courtesy: photo.news.wisc.edu

Women still find it difficult to have a successful academic career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

I interviewed Jennifer Sheridan, the executive and research director of Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), on how women can have a successful academic career in science and break through the glass ceiling.

How can women have a successful academic career in science?

They need to do what every other person needs to do to get hired as a professor–publish & get grants!  Of course, there are some additional hurdles that women might face compared to men during the hiring process (e.g., unconscious bias), but on the whole, if you have a good research record we are finding more and more equity in landing that first faculty job, at least here in the U.S.

One question that women here in the U.S. have increasingly begun to worry about is when to have their children.  Some women are opting to have them in graduate school, while at the other extreme women wait until after they have achieved tenure to have their kids.  Most of the advice I hear is that there is no good time to have your children, each stage of the scientific career has its benefits and challenges.  The key is to look for institutions that are supportive of women at all stages.  Before you choose a graduate school, postdoc, faculty position–find out what the policies and practices are at that institution around these family-formation issues.

How can women break through the science glass ceiling and be at the top of their career?

As in so many areas (law, medicine, politics, business)–women have the training, the years of experience, the skills, and the expertise to be leaders in the field (partners in the firm, department heads, elected officials, CEOs), but somehow are not filling those positions in proportion to their numbers in the pipeline.  Some people see this as a “glass ceiling”, but some researchers (Alice Eagly) prefer to characterize the problem as more of a “labyrinth.”  This is because it’s not one single thing that is keeping women from taking their place at the leadership table, but rather a multitude of smaller obstacles that get in their way.  Policies that work against women, especially in their family-formation years; biases (both conscious and unconscious) that tend to reward men more often than women for their achievements; negative stereotypes about women leaders that portray them as unlikeable even as they display the same leadership qualities that men do; lack of role models and mentors….there is a lot in the way.  Yet, at least in academia, there is an increasing awareness of these issues and the dedication of many universities to work on these issues.

What could be done to encourage more women to have a academic career in science?

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how early we have to start if we want to get more women into science & engineering.  Messages about what girls are good at and what jobs they should consider get implanted very early.  Messaging about what different occupations are like are also important.  In the U.S., for example, Engineering as a discipline is working hard to change the stereotypes about engineering as a male discipline that is for geeks who like to work alone with machines.  The National Academy of Engineering has a messaging campaign going on that is trying to transform Engineering into a “helping profession”, by emphasizing the ways Engineers solve big world problems (the “Grand Challenges”).  The idea is that this kind of messaging will appeal to a broader set of people (especially women), who will then consider engineering as a profession that might be a good fit for them and their talents.

Of course, we also need to work on the women who are farther along in the pipeline–those who are in high school and considering their college majors, or those undergraduates who are choosing a major and trying to stick with a course of study.  Mentoring, role models, attention to classroom climate, excellent (and unbiased) advising, attention from a faculty member, direct messages from faculty to stay in the major and continue on with graduate training–all of these things can be especially encouraging to women.

How would women having a academic career in science help in the sustainable development of the society?

Science & engineering have a crucial role to play in solving some of the “grand challenges” of our society.  If the people working on those problems come from only a narrow segment of society, we will not have the full range of ideas and experiences that can influence the solutions we come up with.  The solutions will be less-than-optimal because those providing the solutions are not diverse enough.  To find the best solutions to our pressing problems, we need to incorporate ALL of the talent the world has to offer.