Gender Trends and Technology

9 September 2004

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just named Yale University Provost Susan Hockfield as its newest president — the first woman ever to hold that position in 140 years. This is momentous in two ways. In one bold stroke, MIT has signaled its direction in two areas critical to the university: helping resolve past issues of gender discrimination and, with Dr. Hockfield’s expertise in brain science, accelerating initiatives to blend research in life sciences with MIT’s expertise in traditional sciences and engineering.

At first glance, the appointment of a female as a university president may not seem exceptional. Indeed, of the seven top universities in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, three will now be led by women. At my alma mater, Tufts University, both the Dean of Engineering and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences are women. But the appointment is significant for MIT — one of the world’s most prestigious science universities. In 1999, MIT acknowledged past discrimination practices and now makes significant efforts toward improving prospects for young women. At Tufts, one of the main objectives of its five-year plan is to “Continue to recruit and retain women and under-represented groups at the same or higher rates as the last five years.”

Why wouldn’t gender issues be present in science and technology, since they exist in other walks of life? We see them in fields such as religion, law, medicine, civil service, and even national politics. In recent news, the governor of California, home of one of America’s hotbeds of innovation, Silicon Valley, even denigrated his political rivals as “girly-men.” The condescending element of the term clearly isn’t “men,” but the “girly” part. In a startling show of non-repentance, the Terminator Governor even repeated it during the Republican National Convention. What message does that send to young girls?

Schools like MIT provide future intellectual fuel through their graduates. After leaving the enclaves of universities, these individuals will move on to companies and other agencies, driving innovation at the forefront of industry. Places like MIT and Tufts are saying that a future source of this intellectual capital should be women. Right now, undergraduate female engineering enrollment stands at only about 20% nationally. Female faculty are only about 10% (atboth MIT and Tufts, the percentages are significantly higher at 30%-42% for undergraduate women and 17%-20% for faculty).

Andy Grove, chairman of Intel, and one of the founding fathers of the nation’s high-technology industry, recently warned that the US lead in the tech sector is in significant jeopardy, which threatens the country’s economic recovery and growth. Grove believes that part of the solution lies in a partnership between industry (that’s us) and the government (including the “girly-men”) to: boost funding at universities (think MIT and Tufts, which are trying to attract women), adopt policies to attract the best workers, better collaboration between companies on pre-competitive technology (think a blending of life sciences and IT), and raising the hurdle for intellectual property litigation (which he feels is stifling innovation).

While we can applaud moves like the appointment of Dr. Hockfield as president of MIT, we might also consider applying similar measures in ways tailored to our own organizations if we want to create, shift, or reverse trends. Why should we squander a largely untapped intellectual resource by neglecting female scientists in society’s talent pool?

At the same time, by hiring talented women, we stand to draw from attributes often credited toward them when it comes to knowledge work. For example, at the risk of generalizing, some consider collaboration and teamwork to be a particular feminine strength. In software and systems design, collaboration and communication within teams is crucial. This is in contrast to the idea of competition, where individual “winning,” whether it comes to taking a hard stance on a deadline, demanding more for less, and imposing harsh consequences for failure can create more problems than they solve. Some of these more competitive attributes, fairly or unfairly, are often attributed to men. (Some feel that we’d have fewer wars and less killing if more women were presidents of countries.) That being said, none of these attributes is obviously exclusive to either gender. I’ve known many women who don’t work well in teams, along with many men who positively excel at relationships. Working well in collaborative relationships is a great skill for breaking logjams on high-pressure projects caught in energy-sapping conflict.

Another area might be in “thinking” versus “feeling.” Some believe in the notion that women are more fluent in the language of emotion than men. In either case, we’re beginning to recognize that emotional intelligence (EI) might be more important than traditional intelligence in the workplace; that EQ may be more valuable than IQ.[1]

The notion of EI is gaining serious recognition. Beginning with the publication of Daniel Goleman’s first book on the subject in 1995, EI became a hot topic in corporate America. Three years later, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article on the subject, which attracted a higher percentage of readers than any other HBR article in the last 40 years. After reading the piece, the CEO of Johnson and Johnson sent 400 copies to all his top executives. (For more on EI, read some of the groundbreaking work by my fellow Cutter Senior Consultant David Caruso, coauthor of The Emotionally Intelligent Manager, How to Develop and Use the Four Emotional Keys to Leadership.)

I consider EI so important since my consulting work on failed projects often includes understanding how people handle strong emotions that arise on high-pressure projects. Part of my work involves diagnosing how conflicts in relationships are handled on issues like scope change and tight deadlines. A common problem is how these conflicts are escalated by counterproductive negotiation tactics from “macho-type” behavior (perpetrated mostly by men, but sometimes by women). In many cases, these failed negotiations originated from taking a harsh, win-lose stance. That is to say, if one side was perceived to be winning, then the other was seen to be losing. Both sides would then dig-in and escalate project disputes in a hardball, zero-sum game.

Lastly, if we create hostile working environments because of gender bias, we risk losing scores of talented scientists and engineers, sometimes to other competitors. I know this firsthand from my wife’s experience in industry. Connie graduated third in her chemical engineering class with a 3.7 cumulative grade point average. After years of working first in the chemical and then the aerospace and software industries, she finally gave up and left the engineering field when she found it too painful to stay.

I imagine that, whether you’re a university or a corporation, sending a message to your constituents that says you are serious about attracting, training, and retaining talented women is smart business. If a company intends to be competitive in a knowledge economy, it has to attract the best talent in the industry — both male and female — to drive innovation, deal with tough competitors, and read signals in the marketplace.

Companies can’t afford to ignore half of a population’s intellectual capital. Those that recognize this can wind up with a competitive advantage by having twice the number of smart people working for them than the ones that don’t. Besides, working side by side with both men and women is a lot more fun than just being stuck in a roomful of guys.

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

[1] One example of this is the Somerville Study, a 40-year investigation of 450 boys who grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, USA. Two-thirds were from welfare families and one-third had IQs below 90. The study found that IQ had little correlation to how well these boys did at work or in the rest of their lives. What made the biggest difference were abilities such as handling frustration, controlling emotion, and getting along with others (Snarley and Vaillant, 1985).

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