Women in Tech Need Personal, not Just Professional, Support

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It's been a little over two weeks since I wrote about Computer Engineer Barbie, a new version of the iconic doll sporting a pink laptop and Bluetooth earpiece that's designed to increase girls' awareness of technology careers. As I noted in that post, while women comprise 46 percent of the American workforce, they hold just 25 percent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs.


I mentioned folks think numerous factors contribute to the relative lack of female representation in tech careers. Among them: a struggling public education system, the tech industry's reliance on H-1B workers from India and other countries, a lack of networking opportunities, and the kinds of ingrained geek stereotypes that toy manufacturer Mattel hopes its Computer Engineer Barbie can help overcome.


In a recent BusinessWeek column, Harvard Law School research associate Vivek Wadhwa cites Kauffman Foundation analysis of Dun & Bradstreet data that found a dearth of women entrepreneurs. Women were primary owners of only 19 percent of the 237,843 firms founded in 2004, and just 3 percent of tech firms were founded by women in that year. Noting that women now outnumber men in universities and that male and female business founders share similar backgrounds and motivation, Wadhwa faults "a societal failure" for the low number of females in tech careers.


Interestingly, according to Cindy Padnos, managing director of Illuminate Ventures, female-led high-tech startups generate higher revenues per dollar of invested capital and have lower failure rates than those led by men, perhaps because of womens' lower propensity for financial risk . Women are also more capital-efficient. On average women start venture-backed tech companies with one-third less committed capital than those led by men, yet achieve comparable early revenue levels.


Wadhwa sees promise in female-led support networks and groups, including Women 2.0 and the Young Women Social Entrepreneurs. While those are important, they won't provide much direct help with child care and other family-related issues. As a working mom, I know that I and most of my female colleagues still shoulder most of the responsibility for child rearing. In my experience, many women still feel compelled to be a bread-maker as well as a bread-winner. A number of women commenting on Wadhwa's article make the same point. Writes a reader named Kristina:

Maybe the reason women in India are getting ahead more quickly than women in the U.S. is because of their extended family networks that help with things like childcare. Professional networks are great, and certainly should help, but if you don't have reliable and affordable childcare, you are not going to have the presence of mind to focus wholeheartedly on business. It would be interesting to ask the men who have been so successful if they have children, and if so, who was primarily responsible for taking care of them.

And from Iyabo Asani, The Entrepreneur Success Coach:

One of the things that you do not mention is that fact that women generally do not have the luxury of being able to singularly focus on their business. Building your business and keeping up with the market requires a tremendous amount of energy and time. Many women have children that they are primarily responsible for. So they do not compete for those positions. However, with the information you have about partnerships, I believe that as more women focus on achieving this goal and partner with others with this goal in mind, they will find success.

Finding a balance between family and business is also mentioned by Denise Coyne, CIO of Chevron and one of the few female CIOs at big companies, in an interview with Forbes. She says female tech executives face challenges similar to those of their peers in other fields. Yet she acknowledges the CIO role is "very demanding." She says:

... And trying to balance all of the different family, children, extracurricular activities in your life with work is a tough juggle. So I think that's one of the reasons that people come to points in their life when they have to make a decision, "Is it going to be work or is it going to be something else?"

Coyne says she got early encouragement from a mentor who let her know it was OK to be flexible and to make lateral career moves. Coyne has paid it forward by mentoring young women entering Chevron's workforce. Just last week, I wrote about a growing recognition of the importance of mentoring in professional development, citing a study from the Aberdeen Group that found nearly one in five companies plan to introduce some type of mentoring or coaching program in 2010 to help prepare employees for leadership roles. Mentoring is probably even more important for women than for men, since there are fewer high-profile women in leadership roles for aspiring female executives to emulate.


Coyne also stresses the importance of females having "a core of self-confidence," which can still be a challenge for many women. (And to be fair, for some men as well.)