Achieving gender equality in technology and innovation:50:50 by 2020?

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Achieving gender equality in technology and innovation:50:50 by 2020?

by Candy Ku on Monday, August 1, 2011 - 8:33am

woman and man scientistsA recent report by the American Association of University Women noted that while women have made significant advances in education and the workplace, women’s gains in science and technology fields have been less dramatic.  This July, the Triple Helix International Conference focused on gender issues in science and technology in a session titled “Achieving Gender Equality in Technology and Innovation: 50:50 by 2020?”  Exploring gender disparities in patenting, entrepreneurship and advancement in the technical workplace, the four speakers at the session highlighted the complexity of the issue as a first step in approaching workable solutions.

Look beyond entry points

When it comes to women in science and technology, a statistic often discussed is the low number of women entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in education and occupation.  But gender gaps in science and technology are neither limited to nor wholly reflective of numbers at entry.  Sue Rosser noted that men earn an overwhelming 94% of U.S. patents in information technology, even though they constitute 70% – a lower percentage – of the workforce.  The gender gap in patenting exists even in fields where women are better represented:  for instance, women earned 49% of doctoral degrees in the biological sciences in 2005, but a study that year on the 1000-plus recipients of National Institutes of General Medical Sciences cell and molecular biology training grants found that only 14% of women recipients, compared to 30% of men recipients, held at least one patent.

Gender gaps in science and technology can also be seen in technical entrepreneurship and advancement in the technical industry.  Michelle Baker cited a 2004 study that found that only 3% of women-owned firms are in the high-tech industry.  Shannon Gilmartin cited key findings from the Climbing the Technical Ladder report, a study on mid-level women in technology conducted by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Clayman Institute in 2008.  The study found that the typical gender ratio in a technical company is 79% men and 21% women, and this gender gap becomes wider with rank.  On average, men are three times more likely than women to be in senior and executive positions.

Educate gatekeepers

What can we do to close these gender gaps?  While women are not entering science and technology fields at the same rate as men, the disproportionate under-representation of women in innovation and leadership suggests that other actions must be taken beyond encouraging women’s entry.  Drawing from her experiences as an entrepreneur, Baker shared her perspective that there are differences in how women and men in technology approach their careers.  Baker noted that women may not see their ideas as marketable or feel that their ideas are not good enough.  Similarly, discussing reasons for women’s lower rate of patenting, Rosser felt that in part, women are less likely than men to consider patenting as a possibility, and more likely to see commercialization as “selling out.”

So on the one hand, we may consider change on a more personal level.  But on the other hand, we need to consider why women and men may perceive their careers differently, or if opportunity is equally accessible to women and men.  Though Baker focused on what the women entrepreneur can do, she also noted that discrimination against women in technology remains problematic.  Delving deeper into this issue, Rosser suggested that the gatekeepers of opportunity need to be involved in ensuring gender equality.  Specific to patenting, for example, corporations and venture capital firms can include women on advisory boards and expand their pool for recruitment.  Technology transfer offices at universities need to be more transparent and more equitable in providing access to the commercialization process to male and female students.

Incentivize companies

Institutional cultures are difficult to change, but some companies are showing how change can be initiated andmade.  Connie Smallwood discussed the changes that CA Technologies has made to promote diversity and women’s careers.  In addition to partnering with the Anita Borg Institute, CA Technologies has established leadership development and mentoring programs to support women’s advancement, and incorporated diversity metrics into their evaluations and reports.  For its work, the company was recently recognized by Working Mother magazine as one of the best companies for multicultural women.

A challenge, though, is how to motivate companies to make and keep gender equality a primary goal.  This may be a tall order, but the Anita Borg Institute is responding to the challenge.  This year, the institute initiated the Anita Borg Top Company for Technical Women Award.  Ten companies participated in this first awards cycle, and they provided data on technical women in their workforce.  The award is given to the company with the highest ratings based on metrics such as women’s representation and retention rates (IBM was the inaugural winner), and all participating companies receive custom benchmarking reports.  By recognizing companies that support technical women, ABI hopes to engage and assist organizations in their efforts to recruit, retain and advance technical women.

Looking forward- unequal progress predicted

What about the answer to the question posed in the session title – 50:50 by 2020?  The speakers reaffirmed that progress will not take a straight and even path, noting that it may be easier to attain parity in some fields (e.g., biotech) than others (e.g., nanotech).  Still, there are signs for optimism, with increasing awareness of gender issues, workplace innovations that benefit women and also other workers, and emerging initiatives to effect change in the industry.  When we will achieve gender equality is an interesting question, but the answer will ultimately depend on our knowledge of why gender inequalities exist and what we can do to mitigate them.


About the speakers and the conference:  Sue Rosser is Provost at San Francisco State University, a noted scholar on women in the sciences, and a 2007 Clayman Institute Fellow.  Michelle Baker is an entrepreneur and Founder of Umbranet, Inc. and President of Intellinet, Inc.  Shannon Gilmartin is Director of SKG Analysis, Consulting Assistant Professor at the Stanford School of Engineering and Research Scientist at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.  Connie Smallwood is Vice President of Innovation and University Programs for CA Technologies.  The Triple Helix International Conference 2011 was hosted by the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Institute at Stanford University (H-STAR) and organized by former Clayman Institute fellows, Dr. Marina Ranga and Professor Henry Etzkowitz.

Responses to Achieving gender equality in technology and innovation:50:50 by 2020?

"Rosser felt that in part, women are less likely than men to consider patenting as a possibility, and more likely to see commercialization as “selling out.”

This is a very interesting remark. What are they selling out? Is science research considered a public service?