STEM Research

Anita Borg Institute Examines Characteristics of Technical Women at the Top

Adding career "onramps" and "offramps" for technical employees to follow in the organizations that employ them will help in the advancement of women in technology, according to a new research report. Released in the same week as two other major reports examining the gender gap in science-technology-engineering-mathematic (STEM) fields, this one examines the characteristics of high-ranking women in technology.

Published by the Anita Borg Institute (formerly the Institute for Women in Technology), "Senior Technical Women: A Profile of Success" reported that high-ranking technical women show the same attributes as senior level men; they're collaborative, assertive, moderate risk-takers who work long hours, and they have made significant concessions to advance. The Institute is supported by a number of major technology companies, including Google, HP, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and Intel.

The women in the study were more likely than the men to hold managerial positions; the men were more likely to have "individual contributor positions." This suggests that early in their careers, women moved into the management track, which tends to emphasize group and project outcomes, whereas the men tended to stay in a technical track that emphasized the performance of their own contributions. This trend, the authors said, is a loss for companies, as it represents an absence of diversity of thought in the innovation process.

Also, senior women were more likely than senior men to have primary responsibility for the household and children. Fifty-one percent of senior men report that their partners had primary responsibility for the household and children, while only 24 percent of senior women had partners handling the same role.

The report offered several recommendations for helping organizations to retain senior technical women:

  1. Early on, women excelling as individual contributors need mentoring, networking, and professional development opportunities.
  2. The addition of different points of entry--onramps and offramps--for technical employees along the technical career path help to address a diversity of work lifecycles and family configurations.
  3. Family configurations and responsibilities should be considered in the development of advancement practices to reward accomplishments over "face time."
  4. Managers need to be made aware of unconscious gender bias that can surface in their communication styles, particularly as it affects recruitment and advancement processes.

"This report offers a snapshot of a rarity in technology: senior technical women working at prominent technology companies in Silicon Valley," said Caroline Simard, vice president of research and executive programs for the institute and co-author of the study. "More research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms that lead to advancement for technical women, but we hope to have shed some light on those particular characteristics of women who’ve persisted in breaking down the barriers to reaching higher executive levels. Greater visibility into the paths of success can only lead to a better understanding of how to advance more technical women, increase diversity and, ultimately, the innovation that leads to success for both individuals and businesses."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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