Saturday, May 31, 2008

The "Macho Culture" of Science and Engineering

Earlier this month the Harvard Business Review released a research report titled "The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology". Their stats that for the basis for the report:

* 41% Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) professionals are female at career lower-rungs
* 52% quit SET jobs, peaking at 10 year career mark
* 5 major factors contribute to mid-career SET female attrition
* 13 companies share initiatives designed to keep women on track with SET careers
* 25% reduction in female attrition adds 220,000 to qualified SET labor pool
I haven't read the actual report ($295 is a bit beyond my budget, even with a money-back guarantee), but the contents have been widely reported in the mainstream media. So what did the they find? Tara Weiss summarized the issues for Forbes:

So why are women leaving? Many said they're often the only women on a project team or on a work site, amid a pervasive macho culture that's hostile and excludes them. Since so few are in the upper ranks, there aren't female mentors to shepherd women through challenges and support them for promotions.

In many cases they said they didn't even know how to get to the next level--it seems like a hidden code. And since these are jobs that require long hours--some experiments require scientists to take samples at regimented times 24 hours a day, seven days a week--it's nearly impossible to manage raising a family or caring for elderly parents.

Of course men have children and elderly parents too. What she didn't say - what's just assumed - is that the burden of raising a family and taken care of elderly parents falls to women. And it's not just not having a second job at home that's the problem, it's lack of respect from their male colleagues, as the New York Times reported*:
The 147-page report (which was sponsored by Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Pfizer and Cisco) is filled with tales of sexual harassment (63 percent of women say they experienced harassment on the job); and dismissive attitudes of male colleagues (53 percent said in order to succeed in their careers they had to “act like a man”); and a lack of mentors (51 percent of engineers say they lack one); and hours that suit men with wives at home but not working mothers (41 percent of technology workers says they need to be available “24/7”).
Be sure to read the article for the story of Josephine/Finn. Women who didn't participate in "locker room stuff" were also excluded from important information shared by their male colleagues - and networking and inside information are important for advancing your career.

Despite those problems, women don't seem to have a problem with the actual work performance:
They also do well at the start, with 75 percent of women age 25 to 29 being described as “superb,” “excellent” or “outstanding” on their performance reviews, words used for 61 percent of men in the same age group.
So it doesn't seem likely that the reason why women leave is that they are unable to perform their duties.

And biotech companies are better at keeping their female scientists, which is not that surprising, considering that women receive a much higher percentage of graduate degrees in the biological sciences than in the physical sciences or engineering. As the Chicago Tribune reported:
Of note is Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme, where 51 percent of scientists are women, as are 42 percent of senior managers. The publicly traded company has about 10,000 employees worldwide. The company's list of core values provides a clue. It includes principles common to many entrepreneurial companies—innovation, collaboration, drive—but topping Genzyme's list is compassion.
I'm not sure it's necessarily "compassion" that is their secret, unless that refers to an atmosphere where "macho" behavior is discouraged.

The bottom line is that it's an issue of economics. Companies are concerned about the brain drain of their experienced female employees, so Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Cisco (among others) have begun to institute programs that they hope will help retain women scientists and engineers. The Genzyme example demonstrates that it certainly is possible for a successful technology-based company to include women at all levels of its work force. Only time will tell if other companies can replicate their success.

Sean at Cosmic Variance has some thoughts about the article (and a story about Richard Feynman's sexist behavior). See also Jake's post at Pure Pedantry.

* Apparently this article ran in the "Fashion & Style" section of the Times, rather than business section, which only really makes sense if you assume that anything having to do with women is a "fashion" issue.

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Unknown said...

What I particularly like is the point that requirements for "raising a family or caring for elderly parents" fall automatically to women.

Men *do* raise families and have elderly parents... almost exactly the same percentage as women - obviously.

These are not good excuses and actually highlight a wider sexism that still effects all women, not just scientists.

dubaxango said...

Thanks for a useful article and a very insightful blog. We are pormoting women in social leadership and this is exactly what needs to be widely published.
Servane Mouazan

William Wren said...

very revealing blog

LeCinQBlog said...

Speaking of Sexual harassment at work, Incidentally, Just yesterday, I posted a blog entry about sexual harassment on my "An antidote to anger" blog.(link is on my profile, if you want to check it out)
I kinda posted a personal account of being subject to sexual harrasment there on the blog.Just had to get it out of my system.
BTW,I am not sure how to add a blogroll module to my blogs( i have five of them ,LOL) and I ask this here coz i was wanting to add your blog to my blogroll-(If i manage to create the blogroll soon,that is ).I tried using the links module for that, but it won't show on my blog , no matter what.
I agree with nicholas on the 'family and elderly parents' issue.
As soon as i read that sentence on the blog , I thought " yeah, so , don't men have a family or elderly parents?"
Good job on the blog.Keep it up and hugs from me to you .

Rita said...

Nice and enlightening write up.

Keep up the good work.

abby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
abby said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I really thought the hostile alpha male culture was unique to my company - we're damn good at what we do, but we suck at the people management part of things. When I was promoted into my current position, there were 3 other female managers (amidst about 30 male ones). Now, all 3 of them have quit and you just can't help but wonder if you must be insane being the only one left sticking around.

When I read your quote about so many women leaving because of a pervasive macho culture that's hostile and excludes them... well, I guess misery loves company. But, it's helpful to know it's not just my company...


Darwi said...

Well, this is true. I work in male dominated area and had all those experiences mentioned in the article.

Robert said...


Women are equal in every way!
Short & Sweet!


Peggy K said...

nicholas: This definitely is a sign of wider sexism. And the sexism can affect men too, since they aren't expected to want time to take care of their families.

Le cinq blog: Thanks for the hugs, and right back atcha.

Abby: sometimes it helps to know that you aren't the only one experiencing it. But it would be better if your company did something to make the environment less hostile to women.

darwi: I never really experienced much "machoness", but that was probably because I was in the biosciences in which there are a lot more women. I didn't realize how fortunate I've been.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a strong macho-culture in science indeed. Some time ago I have written in Nature an essay about these behavioral patterns. It provoked a few reactions (you need access to the Nature's  web site to be able to access these reactions).

Colleagues hardly reacted and it still goes on, as you have demonstrated.

Darwi said...

Dear Lagendijk,

problem is not that competitiveness you described in your article. Yeah there is that in my area too (astrophysics). One of the stereotypes is assumption that females are not competitive. We are, as much as males. Competitiveness is not gender related. And not a problem.
The bigger problem is exclusion from the `inner circles` in which advices are passed to the younger colleagues. I learned what I need for advancement in job from staff training courses, not my older colleagues.
And almost always I have to be careful not to arouse any sexual interest in my colleagues because if I do all hope for intellectual conversation is gone, and sometimes that opens the door for sexual harassment. Those are problems which chase females from physics. Not competitiveness.