Women in science, engineering and technology (SET) are responsible for a plethora of inventions that have made our lives healthier, safer, easier and more enjoyable, some in surprising ways. For the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner (and feline distractor), thank engineer Helen Greiner. Scotchgard, the spray-on fabric protector? Hats off to 3M chemist Patsy O'Connell Sherman. The Apgar test evaluating a newborn's health? It was devised by Dr. Virginia Apgar. Kevlar, the super-strong polymer in bulletproof vests, radial tires, suspension bridge cables and skis? It was discovered by DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek. Pharmacologist Gertrude Elion, motivated by a beloved grandfather's death from cancer, created the first drugs to treat leukemia and aid in organ transplants. Ophthalmologist Patricia Bath, the first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose, invented laser treatment for cataracts. Meg Hourihan helped create the pioneering Blogger web application, sparking the rise of the wildly popular phenomenon known as "Web logs," or blogs.
As we celebrate Women's History Month, let's toast these trailblazing women and raise a glass to others who have blasted open the door to the corner office: Virginia Rometty at IBM, Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin, Meg Whitman at HP, Ellen Kullman at DuPont, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Phoebe Novakovic at General Dynamics.
Yet there's a disconnect between these tales of achievement and another, more disturbing story. Even though more than half of the top 20 women in Fortune's recent "Most Powerful Women in Business" issue occupy the corner office in SET companies, new research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that U.S. women working in SET fields are 45 percent more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within the year. The figure is 29 percent for Brazilian women and a whopping 50 percent for SET women in China.
According to the research, women in SET in the U.S., Brazil, China and India are committed to their work and their careers. Over 80 percent of U.S. women love what they do; in Brazil, China, and India, the numbers are close to 90 percent. Over three-quarters (76 percent) of U.S. women consider themselves "very ambitious," as do 92 percent of Chinese and 89 percent of Indian SET. At the same time, over a quarter of SET women feel stalled, with young women feeling particularly frustrated.
Why are women turning off and tuning out? Powerful "antigens" in SET corporate environments block women from contributing their full potential at work. Gender bias is the common denominator, manifesting in cultures hostile to women: More than half of U.S. women and more in emerging markets work alongside colleagues who believe men have a genetic advantage in math and science.
If that weren't enough to sap ambition, a dearth of female role models and effective sponsors leaves many SET women unsure of what it takes to be a leader: 44 percent of U.S. women and 57 of Chinese women feel that in order to progress they have to behave like a man.
In fact, 46 percent of U.S. SET women believe senior management more readily sees men as "leadership material." Stunningly, a sizable percentage of senior leaders agree, with nearly one-third of senior leaders in the U.S. and more than half in China and India believing that a woman would never achieve a top position at their company, no matter how able or high-performing.
The result: Because women don't look, sound, or act like the alpha male, or because they lack senior-level support, women's ideas and innovations hit a chokepoint. SET men are 27 percent more likely to see their innovative idea make it to market than women. Unable to contribute their full innovative potential, it's not surprising that so many SET women have one foot out the door.
Some women leave to go to smaller companies and start-ups, where their talents will be valued and the culture isn't so calcified that they can't flourish. But others will flee the field -- depriving us of the next life-altering innovation or a leader with a refreshingly different perspective.
There are, however, promising levers for change. One solution: sponsorship. Sponsors help their protégés crack the unwritten code of executive presence, improving their chances of being perceived as leadership material. Most important to the companies employing them, sponsors help women get their ideas heard -- one of the best ways to engender respect and open opportunities to promotion. Sponsorship is especially necessary in SET, where the misogynistic antigens are deeply rooted.
So as we celebrate Women's History Month, let's commit to changing the culture of SET to a more female-friendly environment, through support and sponsorship. To remain globally competitive, every company needs to harness the innovative potential of its highly qualified female workforce. The possibilities are endless.