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MentorNet News - April 2007

Women and Technology: Creating the Right Fit, by Pam Nesbitt

A recent Gartner Group study indicates the number of women in IT jobs has declined from 42 percent of the workforce in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004 and continues to drop. Worldwide the number of women selecting computer science programs in college is also decreasing.

Although women still account for almost 25% of the U.S. computing and IT workforce, they earn only 10% of U.S. patents granted each year. Despite this, a recent survey of 1000 U.S. researchers showed that nearly half the inventions that demonstrated "once-in-a-generation insight" were created by women! This perceived reluctance by women to protect their ingenuity with patents may be costing them (and their employers) billions of dollars' worth of commercialization opportunities in the U.S. alone.

What's going on? Why are women so poorly represented in IT and patenting? Why are they now leaving the field in droves or failing to enter it at all, when they clearly they don't lack technical ability?

The problem as I see it is thus: while women are gifted, industrious, and creative, they are also very different from men. Society's recent love affair with gender "equality" may be short-changing women by leaving the impression that "equal ability" means "identical ability." Jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields were created by men, for men, and with traditionally male definitions of what constitutes success.

So (understanding that any broad discussion of gender differences involves generalizations), just how do men and women differ?

Men are risk takers. Women are better at social skills and understanding others. Women want to achieve, but they want to do so as a result of accomplishment, not just for the sake of having bested someone else.

Women are born multitaskers – they can remain calm and focused while working on multiple tasks simultaneously. An anthropologist might attribute this to their historical role as caregivers and the inherent need in that role to focus on a variety of activities at once. Perhaps this natural ability to multitask makes it difficult for women to allow themselves to daydream, or to focus a large part of their brains on a single problem. That sort of one-track thinking is crucial in some areas of scientific research and for invention. Recognition of this predisposition might help women see the need to train themselves to focus their thought processes and fully explore a single problem when that type of skill is required.

Women have a tendency to focus on making sure that work gets done. They often fail to "blow their own horn" or to consider their ideas particularly meritorious. They also inspect their creations and credentials more carefully than men do before presenting them, and are therefore slower to take advantage of jobs, patents, and other opportunities.

Women in academia often fail to patent their inventions because of a lack of familiarity with the business community. Thus, for these inventors, the applicability or marketability of their inventions is less clear.

Last year I formed The Women Inventors Community at IBM and was amazed at the response. As a result, I've learned a great deal about why women are not as involved in patenting activities and why women are underrepresented in leadership and innovation positions in high-tech companies. I regularly receive emails of thanks from women who had previously felt they were not "worthy" or talented enough to write a patent. I think this exemplifies the fact that women are not achieving their potential because they assume they must compete evenly with men. The playing field does not have to be level to be fair.

Women excel at multitasking and need to take advantage of this talent. Women also possess an excellent ability to network and manage ongoing relationships. As a result of these two factors, women are overtaking men in management and project lead roles. However, women must also recognize the importance of single-minded focus in certain circumstances and hone this skill to better delve into creative thinking on individual problems.

Women often lack self-confidence and can be overly self-critical. Strong role models, examples, mentoring, and information are essential to the development of career and self-esteem. The women in my invention community appear to be information-starved. Once you show them what and how, they excel.

Full integration of women into the IT and scientific workplace and realization of their potential requires that we acknowledge some gender-specific differences. Increased self-awareness and a better understanding of their makeup will help women to take better advantage of the available opportunities. Providing women with support, education, mentoring, and acceptance will go a long way toward finally unveiling the wisdom and beauty of the female psyche.

Pam Nesbitt is a Software Engineer, Learning Technologist and Innovator for ISST Automation and eDelivery at Tivoli/IBM, and has been a MentorNet mentor since 2004. If you wish to contribute a story or have suggestions for a MentorNet News story let us know.

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