October 16, 2012

Building the Future of Ladies in Science

By Helge Seetzen

The issue of women in entrepreneurship and technology has been a bit of a preoccupation for me in the past few months, largely because despite our company’s commitment to diversity, we get very few female applicants.  Where are all the ladies who want to build businesses and work with cutting edge technology? For whatever reason, at the intersection of VC investment and tech women are underrepresented.

And so, as the academic type that I am, this weekend I had the good fortune to find myself at the McGill Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine Symposium in celebration of Carrie Derick, who became Canada’s first female professor.  The event seemed all the more a propos given the recently published US study finding that both male and female scientists rate CVs with a female name lower than the same CV with a male name on applicant’s perceived competence, hireability, and mentorability. The starting salaries respondents would be willing to offer the CVs with female names were also significantly lower. Ouch.

But I think the challenge for everyone, in and outside academia, is to understand how to tackle these largely unconscious biases we all have.  Because ultimately, in the words of NSERC President Suzanne Fortier, “The future is not for us to imagine, but for us to build.”

The female scientists who spoke at the symposium generally did not feel actively discriminated against, and all of them felt they were able to have successful personal as well as professional lives.  But, if I dare lean on the anecdotal science of Julie Payette (Astronauts are the best), the struggle is no longer for the top 10%, it is for the majority of people of average aptitude, and it is for the very definition of ‘normal’.  Our prejudices (gender or otherwise) actually have a whole lot to do with what we have learned from experience is ‘normal’. Until we approach gender parity in any group, our idea of the ‘norm’ for that group will be biased towards the dominating characteristics. The further a person is from that model of the norm, the more questions will be raised about how well they fit into that group, whether those differentiating characteristics are relevant to goodness of fit in that group or not.

Diversity has to be part of our reality before we will fully overcome our biases.  For those of us with influence over norm defining decisions (hiring, for example), that means we really need to be on our toes if we are going to create this kind of diversity. And why shouldn’t we?  There are very real benefits to diversity, from more intelligent organizations, to access larger talent pools.  We also need to prepare each other for the reality that overcoming these biases means work.

What appears to be the biggest problem for women in the more male dominated science and engineering fields right now is that while those females who make it into an undergraduate program tend to drop out along the educational trajectory at roughly the same rate as male students, very few enter into undergraduate degrees in technical fields to begin with.  You can’t help but wonder what that says about what girls are experiencing in the formative years leading up to their higher education decisions, and what inadvertent biases lead girls and boys to have very different learning experiences and opportunities. Things like recruiting boys for robotics, without approaching any girls (Don’t worry young Katie’s like me will butt in and volunteer themselves, but they’re not the only ones that could benefit from the opportunity)?

An especially poignant moment for me during the question and answer period following Payette’s talk, a young woman in the audience asked her how she dealt with self-doubt.  Payette’s response was one I never expected any human being to give; she said she never doubted herself, she just focused on her goal.  She largely credited this self-confident to very supportive parents.

That’s the self-confidence I want every child to grow up to have, so that they can take the risks achievement in business or academics requires, accept failure as part of the learning process, and spend their energy where it matters most – on being awesome (as an astronaut or otherwise).

Oh yeah, and make sure your daughter is proud of her grade 1 science project, even if she doesn’t get 1st place.  She was more interested in kaleidoscopes than competition anyway.

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