The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology

by Heather Cassell (San Francisco)

In May 2008, The Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP), a New York-based research organization, released The Athena Factor report, an in-depth examination of women’s career paths in science, engineering, and technology (SET) companies. The research project, undertaken by 43 industry experts—dubbed the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force—included four online surveys, 28 focus groups in global cities, and one-on-one interviews conducted over a two-year period.

“This is the first look at women in SET in the private sector,” says Karen Sumberg, The Athena Factor co-author and CWLP Assistant Vice President of communications and projects. Studying women in science, engineering, and technology isn’t new. What is new, Sumberg says, is that this report is about women in real-life careers in these fields in Corporate America or globally, rather than academia.

The task force found that not only are SET companies facing a serious talent shortage—due to new visa regulations after 9/11 and global competition—but that these corporations are potentially overlooking 220,000 qualified people in the SET labor pool. That doesn’t include the growing number of women currently studying for SET degrees about to enter the labor force.

The goal of the report, according to Somberg, is to “point out there is this huge talent pool that is right under their nose that companies need to capitalize on” and to show that they can do that by mitigating the factors that contribute to female attrition.

Notable findings include:

  • Up to 52 percent of qualified SET women quit their jobs in their mid-30s due to a lack of corporate support for work/life balance challenges
  • Among the serious barriers that compound the situation are: hostile macho cultures, severe isolation, mysterious career paths, systems of reward that emphasizes risk-taking, and extreme work pressures. “If you are not getting that recognition for what you’re doing and there’s a kind of hostile culture surrounding what you do—there’s not a lot of reason to stay,” says Sumberg.

In spite of the hefty challenges SET corporations face retaining qualified women, there is some light:

  • Forty-one percent of the SET talent pool are females on the “lower rungs of corporate career ladders”
  • A significant number of girls begin careers in science
  • Model support programs at companies, such as: WOVEN (Alcoa), Crossing the Finish Line (Johnson & Johnson), Mentoring Rings (Microsoft), ETIP (Cisco) and Restart (G.E.) are blazing paths to boost employee retention and keep women on the career track.

Toni Townes-Whitley, president-elect of Women in Technology applauds the report, saying that anything that is “tangible and quantitative” and that creates a “sense of overall accountability” is good. However, Townes-Whitley believes there is a much larger conversation brewing as markets move onto the global playing field and a new generation of young women who were raised with technology enters the marketplace.

Townes-Whitley points out that the global marketplace and technology demands different questions to be asked and answered. Townes-Whitley predicts that these questions and the shift in the playing field will change current frameworks for how SET corporations support women and women themselves as they climb the corporate ladder.

As if to answer her concern, another report, “Climbing the Technical Ladder: Obstacles and Solutions for Mid-Level Women in Information Technology” will be issued by Palo Alto-based Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in October, says Jerri Barrett, the Institute’s director of marketing. This report will seek to answer the following questions:

  • How do women advance up the technical leadership ladder?
  • What are the key career decision-making issues for women at the mid-career?
  • What are the main structural obstacles to their advancement?
  • How do structural and cultural characteristics of the high-tech workforce contribute to women’s decisions to leave their jobs?
  • What successful strategies increase the retention of technical women within a particular company?

“We have to be sophisticated about the fact, particularly in technology, the next generation—the Generation Y or the Net generation—does not define technology the way that we do in the baby boomer generation,” says Townes-Whitley, who points out that “there are many women who would not label themselves as technologists” because technology is increasingly being embedded into many disciplines, blurring the line around “utilizing and building IT intellectual property around very technology focused areas.”

“Women are definitely considering these careers,” says Sumberg, who points out that the number of women obtaining SET undergraduate and graduate degrees is increasing, so “it’s an issue that they’re leaving.” Ideally, these studies will result in a list of best organizational practices, programs and policies that will help the ranks of women in SET increase in proportion to the talent available.