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Women in Technology: Leaning In and Reaching Back

Friday, June 3, 2016

By Elizabeth Acebu

Despite decades of bias training and organizational change initiatives, women hold only a small percentage of high-level positions in most industries.  Often it is precisely women in these positions (those who have “leaned in” in the immortal words of Sheryl Sandberg) who are best positioned to make a difference and increase those numbers in the future.  The difference they make is not just in their personal or career high achievements at their companies or in their fields of technology and engineering, but also in terms of making a difference in the workplace for women who will follow in their footsteps. 

For example, we are proud to have Dr. Kyle Lewis, Professor of Technology Management at UC Santa Barbara associated with our program, who is making efforts to change the situation for women in technology.  Dr. Lewis recently served as the local host for a conference of the Bias Interrupters Working Group Project that is led by Joan Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

The Bias Interrupters Working Group meets semi-annually to develop research studies aimed at "interrupting" biases in organizations.  More than 30 researchers and practitioners came together from fields as diverse as behavioral economics, organizational behavior, and experimental social psychology to examine how biases play out in work organizations. The event provided a platform for the exchange of research and ideas, and resulted in innovative models and business practices for addressing workplace bias.

Whether due to workplace biases or other factors, the field of Engineering has long faced a challenge of training, recruiting and retaining female engineers.  High attrition has been widely reported, with as many as 40% of women leaving the field or never even entering the profession after gaining their undergraduate degrees.

Indeed, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, female engineers account for a small fraction (~14%) of engineering jobs held and only 7.6% of engineering management jobs held.  The good news is that the numbers of women employed in the field have risen over the past several years, and the younger generation participates in engineering careers at higher rates, with approximately one quarter of all engineers under the age of 25 being female, as compared with only 5% of engineers over age 49. This age discrepancy reflects women’s recent movement into engineering within the past few decades. 

Some specializations are particularly appealing to women and lead to greater participation.  According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the disciplines with the highest percentage of female engineering graduates are environmental (44%), biomedical (39%), chemical (33%), and biological and agricultural (31%).   According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most popular field for employed female engineers is software engineering (21%). 

Management is a great next step for female engineers and scientists, whether they have been working in the field previously, or are recently graduated.  The career opportunities are diverse, from startups to established companies, and the work offers greater breadth and depth of experience than traditional engineering, calling upon a need for not just technical expertise but also business acumen and people skills. 

As  more females take on leadership roles at companies, they will have the opportunity to be change agents by sharing viewpoints and participating in conversations about structural and organizational changes to create more inclusive workplaces and employment policies that can change the story of female engineer attrition.  Changes from within, are precisely what is needed to result in greater numbers of females being hired and retained (from inclusive, non-macho job descriptions (no more “tech ninjas”, please!) to reducing unconscious biases or creating family-friendly work environments and family leave policies). 

These kinds of efforts--by both males and females--can create a virtuous cycle of evolving workplace cultures that boost the numbers of female engineers and scientists finding lasting and satisfying employment in the field, feeding the numbers of female technology leaders who will then continue to pave the way for those who come behind them.


--The Master of Technology Management (MTM) program at UC Santa Barbara is designed to catapult engineers and scientists into leadership positions — within both startups and established companies. This 9-month, intensive program is designed to teach the frameworks, skills, and techniques you need to be a successful technology manager. No fluff, no filler.  The MTM degree will get you further, faster.