Posts Tagged ‘Gender Differences’

The Exodus…elephant in the room

My post about the exodus article generated quite a few conversations.  I thought I’d follow it up with some more thoughts.

When you read the article, you can’t help but think there is an elephant in the room that no one is talking about – women having babies.  It’s hard to say that women having babies is the reason for so many leaving the technical/engineering work force because women in all career fields have babies and we don’t see similar exoduses.

What is interesting about the age range where women start leaving en masse, mid thirties to forties, is they have usually already have a few children.  The study doesn’t call this out, but I can speak to what I have experienced and seen during my time working ,  listening to results of similar studies as well as anecdotal stories.

Most technical women do return to work after their first child.  I think most come back after their second as well.  What I’m not sure about is whether the drop off happens due to the number of children- once you get to two or three children balancing the demanding engineering company lifestyle starts to wear on you.  Or is it not the number of children, but the age of those children.  At some point they start getting involved in extra-curricular activities and require more help in getting them to after school events.   Once again, balancing the demanding, fire-fighting, long hour engineering life style becomes increasingly more difficult.

Society makes it ok for women to step out and stay-at-home.  Whether you like it or not, there are many more societal pressures on men to continue working when they have families vs women.  At some point women decide the work of switching off and trying to maintain a sense of balance is not worth the stress.  It is easier to change the job environment you are in- either by staying at home, changing industries, or even taking on entrepreneurial ventures.   With these other choices, women have much greater flexibility in the hours and times they work.  The family balance becomes much easier.

I also believe that a majority of women engineers and scientists are actually talented in more than just math and science.   Most women who pursue these careers are very well rounded.  As a result it is easier for them to do non-engineering jobs as well.  They are not one-sided, but multi-talented.  We can spend 10-15 years doing a highly technical engineering job, then take on a second career as a teacher, and maybe a third 10 years later as a real estate agent.

I believe that one of the keys to understanding the exodus lays around children, not just having children- that’s not the issue, it’s more around balancing life as your family grows and diverges.  It is amazingly difficult to get part time engineering jobs.  Until women feel there are more options, and see other women using those options to remain technical and continue to advance, the exodus will continue.

Barbie as a Computer Engineer?

I was forwarded this earlier today.  As an avid player of barbie dolls when I was younger, I am excited to see that there could be a computer engineer barbie!  Maybe I would have decided to become an engineer before I was 18. 🙂

Do your part to encourage the next generation, and go vote for computer engineer barbie!

The Exodus

Courtesy of the Harvard Business Review

I volunteer a lot of my free time to organizations focused on encouraging women of all ages to pursue & stick with technical engineering and science/technology related endeavors.  (one of the reasons I started this blog)  I was recently invited to an invitation-only luncheon with some senior women in my group at work.  The goal is to get us networking with each other and talking to the GM.  It made me think about an article I had read awhile back by the Harvard Business Review about the Exodus of Women in Science & Engineering fields.  A quick google search later- and an article to share with you, which I think is still relevant today, even though it was written a year and a half ago.

I find the article to be pretty much spot on from what I’ve heard and experienced during my 7 years working as an engineer.

The article argues that there is a lot of science and engineering talent already in the US that is underutilized because they have dropped out of the technology arena.  Who is this enormous pool of talent?  Women in their mid-thirties and beyond.

HBR’s research showed that 41% of young engineers, scientists, and technologist are women, but that over time 52% of these women quit their jobs.   Instead of quiting on a slow linear scale as they get older, women tend to hit a key turning point in life and leave.  I can tell you from my experience- this is true.  It is not hard at work to find women engineers in their twenties.  Pretty much every team has a few.  By contrast, it takes quite a bit of effort to find experienced women who have stuck it out, especially for any length of time after having kids.

Why?  Let’s go through the articles reasons, with some comments from what I’ve experienced…

  1. Machismo & the hostility of workplace culture. I don’t really agree with this point.  Most of us with engineering degrees have been friends with and interacting with groups of men for long time.  We’re used to their comments, their machoism.  In my mind it comes with the territory.  I feel like it’s a victory of acceptance when they don’t change their mannerisms or language when I’m in the room.  I’m accepted as just another guy.  That’s not to say I act like them.  It’s important to be genuine and authentically you.  To be accepted as you are.  I find the unhappy women- the ones who complain about always being around guys are typically attempting to act differently around them.  I think if you’re you and you don’t let their machoism mannerisms bother you much, then this should not be any reason to leave the work force.
  2. Dispiriting sense of isolation that comes when a woman is the only female on her team or at her rank. I can tell you I’ve felt this isolation.  I’m a very competitive person by nature.  The first few times I found myself in room of men, typically the most junior in the group on top of that, I felt the adrenaline rush of success.  “ah ha, here I am, representing women.  I’m so smart & capable that I’ve been invited into this group of more senior guys.” Most of the time, I am the only woman in these groups of men.  I stopped recognizing I was the only women.  Periodically I’ll be on a team with another women, or even a few other women, and I’ll feel this amazing sense of connection and relief.  “wow, another woman!  Cool, ok we’re going to make eye contact, encourage each other, support one another’s good ideas” I didn’t think it affected me so much, but it does.  You can only sit in a room with people dissimilar to you so much before you start to wonder if you really do belong.  Having other women there, even a few, really does make a big difference.
  3. Strong disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the risky “diving catch” and “firefighting” behavior that is recongized and rewarded in these male-dominated fields.I never thought too much about the firefighting behavior in which I work until reading this article.  For me, this one is probably number one item driving my daily frustrations.  I seem to work in an infinite loop of reactively dealing with issues and problems.  I work day in and day out against this tide- focusing on risk management and planning.  More often than not, I feel I’m the only one leading the team away from this behavior.  Sure, my peers pay lip service to it, but at the end of the day, they still do the diving catches themselves and reward each other for addressing issues only after they occur and thrashing the team around.  It is almost solely this behavior which makes me consider leaving and taking on a different career.
  4. Long work weeks & punishing travel schedules  (esp because most women in two-income families still bear the brunt of household mgmt) I have had jobs where I travel alot and some where I travel little.  In pretty much all of them, I’ve worked some pretty long weeks.  When I look up the ladder at women who are foraging a path ahead of me, I see a lot of travel and long week.  I’ve had long talks with many female co-workers about what these senior women go through in their jobs.  Most of us agree we would not want to slave away like that and do the constant travel.  It just takes you away from family too much.  The few women that I do see who take these vice-president paths have amazing family structures and support.  Some have stay at home husbands, others have mothers, sisters, and in-laws who live with them and take on many household responsibilities.  It is certainly a trade off, and one I think only a few women are willing to take.
  5. The mystery around career advancement, lacking sponsors, and being unable to discern the pathway that will allow them to make steady upward progress. This is a big reason for the discouragement that many women feel.  I go to many conferences and listen to lots of panels with highly successful men and women.  Almost all of them will comment about how a few key people sponsored them and mentored them through the ladder to the positions they hold today.  Most will also talk about their career plans, how they set specific goals to hold particular jobs, attained them, and consequently moved up.  It all sounds great until you try to do it yourself.  How do you find a sponsor?  How do you make a job-jumping plan that will work?  How do you execute this plan?  It is a mystery.  I believe it is a mystery to both men and women though.  I know plenty of men stuck in the same situation.  This one is a numbers game- more men out there, a few of them will get into “the club” and get sponsors & pulled up.  It’s a proven fact that people are attracted to those similar to themselves.  By default men at the top will pull up other men.  With fewer women up top, fewer women are pulled.  Sometimes men will sponsor women, but it doesn’t happen at the same rate as men sponsoring men.

At least companies are become aware of the exodus phenomenon.  Awareness is the first step to putting a solution in place.  It’ll take time and effort on the part of the companies and women both.  I have faith we’ll get there.

Are Women the Key to Improving Societies?

A dear friend of mine, Marne, won an award this week for her involvement and leadership in teaching basic computer skills to once-homeless women at the Women’s Empowerment Center here in Sacramento.  The center is part of Loaves and Fishes and provides a an intensive 8 week skills building program to get homeless women back to work and off the streets.  I have volunteered at the center to set up computers and assist in the computer class.  It is amazing to be part of the transformation of these women.

All women must prove they are clean and sober for entering the program.  They learn lots of skills, computer basics being one of them.  It is amazing the range of women in the program.  Some have been on the streets for awhile and struggled with drugs, never completed high school…what you might expect.  Other women are college graduates who got stuck down a wrong path.  Most have limited computer experience and it is great to see them blossom through the weeks and learn how to get online, write resumes, enter data in excel.  The class gives them the knowledge to go out and get office jobs- ones that pay enough to get them off the street and back on their feet.  One women recently left the class and is going back to college to become a network administrator at age 46!

I have read a few articles, as well as the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson who claim that educating and enabling girls and women is the key to improving societies.  The time I’ve spent at WE and the impact I’ve seen has made me think he might be on to something.

I think in general societies are better off with a more well educated population.  They are better able to resist coming under the influence of dictators, war lords, gangs etc.  Educated people have the knowledge to get jobs, hold jobs, and even be entrepreneurial.  They understand how to get information through reading and filter information, ultimately enabling them to support themselves and their families.

So why does it matter if it is the men or women who are educated?

While both should be educated, I think it’s more important to ensure the women are.  (maybe this is because they tend to be the lesser educated ones, so there are more of them in need of skills)  Women are usually the care takers.  More often than not, they raise children, both boys and girls, and spend the most time with the younger generations.  Educated women see the importance of learning and gaining these skills and will ensure their children follow suit.

At WE, I see women who come in that are just struggling to put food in their children’s mouths.  They are not teaching their children how to get out of the cycle of poverty.  Instead they are teaching their offspring to survive and work within the system.  Once these women complete the program and realize that they can get jobs and get into housing, they speak differently to their kids.  I hear them encouraging their kids to stay in school, to learn, to dream about going to college.  These women can now stand on their feet and support their children.  Their kids see it is possible to be gain confidence and self-respect.  (even when situations turn dire, they see it is possible to break out of it with knowledge)

The computer engineer side of me especially loves that I can support the computer skills part of this transformation.  There is so much information and potential available with the help of the internet.  Computers are the key to unlocking potential.  Everyone can tap into the endless possibilities and find people with similar interests to connect with all over the world.

Here’s to the Marnes and Gregs of the world who are helping educate those who need it most…

We Wanted to Hunt Too

A friend of mine went back to work on Monday after having her first baby.  It was quite the day for her.  She dropped off her baby at day care, worked until about 3:30, then picked her up, went home, made dinner, washed bottles, re-filled bottles, and cried all night.  Her husband was not quite as supportive as he should have been on this first day back, partly because he had gotten used to her being home all day for the past 4 months.

I was talking with a mutual friend about the situation and she asked me “whatever happened to the days where women took care of the kids and home base and the men went hunting?  It seems like that would be such a simpler,  lower stressed lifestyle.

My response?  “Women decided they wanted to go hunt to”.

I imagined one day the men came back with less meat than expected.   Or maybe a few women got bored with their care taking and decided they wanted to  go out and explore the land.  So those women strapped babies to their chests and went out with the men.  The first career women.

Ok, so maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that.  I think throughout history small groups have women have run with the men.  Only in the last 40 years has it truly become main stream.

In the seventies and eighties it was all about being like the men- playing their game.  Women wore suits and ties.  They were true “career” women who typically put climbing the ladder a priority over other family obligations.  The younger generation followed these role models, but decided they had deviated from traditional family & mother roles too much.

In the eighties and nineties the mood changed a little.  Most women were attempting to achieve super woman status- trying to balance career and family.  I go to numerous conferences and talks and panels each year and “work life balance” is always a big topic.  I think the concept generated from these super women.  They tried to do it all.  The younger generation following these women saw the super women burning out.  The constant strive to do everything left little time for sleep and self-rejuvination.

So now in the first decade of the 2000 I see career women making trade offs.  They start off on a career track.  Then when it’s time to have a family they’ll step off the ladder a little, focus on building their families.  They build up an infrastructure of support, and when ready, step back on the ladder for a bit.  I see them climb on and off the career progression depending on how their family is doing.  I also believe this generation may be the one where we see more men coming on and off to and taking on the lead for family responsibilities.

Hopefully we’ll learn to take turns hunting, rather than trying to drag the homestead with us.

Innate genetic differences and men without filters

One of the things that gets me fired up on a regular basis is when I hear the name Larry Summers.  (which incidentally happens often since he is the Director of the National Economic Council for Barak Obama)  I’ll sometimes hear his name brought up on NPR on may way to or from work and it’ll get my mind zooming through all sorts of scenarios.

Before I get too deep into why, let me fill you in on some Summer’s background.  Back in January of 2005 Summers was the president of Harvard University and speaking at a conference organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research.   The issue under discussion was underrepresentation of women at the upper levels of physical science and engineering.   Summers offered the following three explanations, in descending order of importance for why there is such an underrepresentation:

  1. Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers;
  2. Innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end;
  3. Discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education.

Now let me say a few words about Summers as the person, because I’ve worked with several men like him.   I have found that there are some very smart men who have impressed companies (or in this case government & academic institutions) over time with ideas and theories that were game changers. People are always impressed with someone who can predict an event, invent a product, or produce a theory that most of us, even the smart ones, didn’t see coming.  The thing is, out of 100 ideas that come out of their mouths, only 1 is anywhere near accurate.   I like to refer to them as “filterless smarties”.

The filterless smarties have realized that people will not focus on their 99 bad ideas, but continue to be amazed by their 1 good idea.  As they get older, they continue to say more and more outrageous things, because they’ve earned these reputations as “provocative, out of the box thinkers”.   Now don’t think I dislike fitlerless smarties.  I think they have a very important place in companies and academia as consultants.  The ideal is to surround these smarties with a logical, capable team of people who can help identify the 1 good idea, work out the details of implementation, and execute to it.  If you put the smartie in charge, you’ll end up following him into countless dead ends, pissing off the team working with him, and no progress will be made.  You want a filterless smartie as a consultant, not the leader in charge.

Now this is where Harvard made a mistake making Summers the president and where I believe Obama has made a mistake making him the director.  With these titles behind his name, he’s no longer free to make these outrageous statements that got him the reputation as genius and out of the box thinker.  When he says something crazy, a whole organization thrashes with the statement.  He ends up pissing off most of the country and no progress is made.

Back to his comments about why women are underrepresented in engineering…

His three reasons are certainly nothing new and original.  They have been brought up before in countless articles, research, grant proposals, etc.  The real outrage at him saying them was that he seems to believe they are truths (and he was saying them as the President of Harvard University, not as Summers- Armchair Thinker).

Let me make a few comments about each and then wrap up this post as I know I’ll be commenting much more on these three themes throughout this blog….

  1. Women want to have children, and as a result they don’t put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers
    • It is true that most women want children, though not all.  Just because a woman has children does not mean she feels some overwhelming urge to relinquish all career goals and drop down to a 9-5 (or less) job.  I work with and know lots of technical women.  They have all sorts of family structures to raise their children- extended family, stay at home husbands, babysitters, nannies…  I also think it’s very short sited to believe that only women would want to cut back on working hours to raise their kids.  Society pressures make it “ok” for women to stop working and “ok” for men to miss out child rearing for more hours at work.   I know alot of men, including my father and husband, who would do just about anything to work less and see their family more.
    • One other note on this one…I think it is ridiculous to assume that only by working 80+ hour weeks can you get ahead in the world.  We all need to focus on working on the high priority, biggest impact items, and dropping all those “should do” tasks that eat up time.  Athletes and musicians, who make millions, focus all their energies on the few things they do well- and manage sleep every night.
  2. Innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end
    • There are innate differences between every single person on earth.  It is what makes us unique.  I am genetically similar to my sisters and brother but can guarantee you we think differently.  I think it is outrageous to assume you can just group men and women into two groups and stereotype them as thinking similarly because they are genetically male or genetically female.
    • Ever look at a list of the different types of engineering and science fields?  There are dozens of them.  You can be wired to think and excel at biomedical engineering but only be marginal at nuclear physics.  What I think is a more interesting study is to look into what types of engineering and science women tend to lead.  I think that may say more about our interests and innate ability than blanketly claiming we’re not as good at any of it.
  3. Discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education
      • I think this is the most interesting statement that Summers made.  Is there discrimination in the corporate and academic world discouraging women?  I think there is.
      • I believe that in the last forty years there has been alot of awareness brought to this discrimination.  As a result there are countless organizations, studies, grants, and awards pushing for change.  I believe as a result the discrimination has lessened, at least in certain pockets.
      • My goal in this blog is to share with you my journey as an engineer and the discrimination (or lack of discrimination) I encounter.  I don’t believe there is enough documentation out there about the thoughts and daily lives of real women engineers.

    Here’s to the beginning of a new decade….Happy 2010!