The Athena Factor

First the good news, 47% of the qualified talent in the areas of science, engineering and technology are women. Now the bad news, 52% of them will leave full-time jobs in the SET sectors before they are 40. So says a brand new report by the Center for Work Life Policy reporting on the reverse brain drain in this sector and reported in this month’s Harvard Business Review. I had the pleasure of attending the launch event for this report last night at the New York Stock Exchange, as I serve on the board on this amazing organization that is committed to helping companies to fully realize their female and multicultural talent. Their fearless, bold, and incredibly smart leader, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is the author of two fantastic books that are a must read for women in the work place – Creating a Life Professional Women and the Quest for Children, and Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Women on the Road to Success.

So, why should we care that thousands of qualified women are leaving the workplace year after year in fields where their talents are so needed? Because the US, and in fact the world, is facing increasing labor shortages in these areas, and in the US in particular we can no longer rely on immigration to meet this need. Reducing the attrition to 25% would add 220,000 SET workers to the economy according to Ms. Hewlett.

This study is the first to map the career trajectories of women in these industries, but the learning’s are applicable to other fields, particularly finance. This research identified a number of antigens and other barriers that help explain the female exodus. “Women are seriously turned off by hostile macho cultures, severe isolation, mysterious career paths, systems of rewards that emphasize risk-taking, and extreme work pressures.” Combine that with the added responsibilities that come with children and aging parents, and it should be no surprise than women choose to leave.

Do companies care? And more importantly, what are they doing about it? John Thain, current CEO of Merrill Lynch ( and my former boss at Goldman Sachs), was the first to provide a response. His answer was basically yes, and a lot. I served on the diversity committee of Goldman Sachs for a number of years, and we had a number of best practice programs, as does Merrill today. Representatives from GE and Johnson and Johnson were also there to share their programs, which are no doubt of value, but are any of these initiatives, collectively, moving the dial? And if not, and that is the answer by the way, why not?

Well, I have a lot of thoughts on this topic and will save those for another entry, but so not to leave you hanging I will say this – at this point in history, the solution lies within women more fully using their resources, and thus power, to create change. Until then, these programs help, and I applaud the Center for Work Life Policy and all the exceptional diversity professionals within the companies that participate in the Hidden Brain Drain Task force that continue to more fully realize the talents and potential of all their employees.

Check out Lisa Belkin’s view on this topic in the New York Times.

Fresh Take / Fresh Talk : Deborah Siegel

This is the first in a series of interviews I’ll be posting with thought leaders on a variety of hot topics. I invite your comments and suggestions on areas of interest to you.

The Challenge: Common ground among women across generations seems lost. Has the women’s movement stalled?

The Take:

Deborah Siegel, PhD is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, co-editor of Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo, co-founder of The Scholar & Feminist Online, and a blogger at Girl with Pen (http://www.girlwithpen.blogspot.com/). She has written about women, sex, feminism, contemporary families, and popular culture for a range of venues. She is currently a Fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

Why did you write a book called Sisterhood, Interrupted?

I wanted to better understand why older women and younger women weren’t always talking to each other—or at least weren’t talking in the same language—when it came to the question of what so-called modern, liberated women these days are supposed to want. I saw a number of clashpoints out there—the alleged “opt-out revolution,” Girls Gone Wild, and now, of course, the election. What it comes down to is that women of different ages often have different understandings of what it means, in this country, to be powerful, or empowered. We often have different ideas of what power is and how to achieve it, of what sexism looks like and how to fight it, and what the word “feminism” itself even means anymore.

Did you find in your research that Generation Y and X women identified with the term Feminism?

A lot of younger women will say “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then go on to finish that sentence with a statement of strong feminist belief or values. What comes after the “but” is important, but I also believe that feminism is a word worth reclaiming. Words give us common ground. Without such a word it becomes difficult to unite in common cause. Words not only express, but shape the way we think. They have the power not just to name, but to change.

Why did Feminism become such a dirty word?

In part, we can blame it on the media, which gave us the oh-so-sexy image of the bra burning man hater—an image many of a younger generation absorbed. But I also think that social movements constantly need to reinvent themselves. Until recently, feminism hasn’t always done such a great job.

I personally feel, and have others comment recently, that that women’s progress is stalled, even moving backward. Do you agree?

There’s been an illusion of progress that is unsubstantiated by the numbers. Women are still earning much less than men, only 16% of Congress is female, the number of women on corporate boards and in state legislatures has gone down marginally…and so on. And yet when you consider that women are over half the population, graduate from college and some graduate programs in rates that match and sometimes exceed men, and make most of the household purchasing decisions when it comes to consumer goods, there’s a disconnect here. Women collectively have such power. But are we using it? Among other things, I think what’s happened is that women are less likely to see our challenges in a larger political context than we were in the past. Tragically, we’ve lost the sense that so many of our remaining problems are shared.

Is it time to make the personal political, again?

Definitely. And I think younger women are starting to do this again. I’ve been traveling to college campuses with an intergenerational group of feminist authors this year, and it astounds me how much activism is going on at campuses these days. Younger women are searching for ways to make feminism their own, and even among the young people I talk to who support Obama, I find that the sexist response to Hillary has lit a fire. Women in leadership are still few and far between, and it’s a real wake-up call. It’ll be interesting to see how her example plays out for women who aspire to leadership positions across the board.

The Take-Aways:

– How do you relate to the word “feminism”? What does it mean to you?
– Do you see yourself as part of any movement for the continued advancement and empowerment of women?
– Does sisterhood have a future?
Take this quiz.
– Read Sisterhood, Interrupted for a historical overview of the fights and frenzies around feminism in America over the past 40 years, and where the movement is today.

Stay at Home Moms Returning to Work

I received this question to PursePundit from a television news researcher – “I’m working on a piece related to the recession and full time moms forced back into the workforce (as husbands lose their jobs or take pay cuts). Could you offer some insight?”

Absolutely this is happening, as intuition would tell us, but the question is are they successful? The likely answer to that is, no.

Overall, unemployment is on the rise, with drastic hits in housing related industries, areas dominated by men. This not only includes construction, but also finance areas like mortgage banking. Finance more generally has been hit hard losing tens of thousands of jobs with more to come. Decreasing consumer spending is leading to broader based job cuts across sectors and across industries. In general demand is not very good, for men or women. Additionaly, the numbers of women that are trying to reenter the workplace is likely not captured in the unemployment numbers we get reported to us, thus understating the unemployement situation.

Women entering the job market, after years of absence, face huge challenges coming back in, even in good markets. There is a proven mommy discount, which researchers like Sylvia Ann Hewlett and others have noted in discussions about ‘on ramping’. I recently read a piece in the NY Times which made me wild. It almost celebrated the big opportunity for employers in hiring women who have been at home because they can pay them up to 40% less then they are ‘worth’ based on their skills and experience because of the time out. The author went on to say that these women were just grateful to have a job, almost at any price.

Leslie Bennetts, in her book “The Feminine Mistake”, highlights the risks that women are taking in making that choice to leave full time employment to full time motherhood, a risk that becomes reality in economic downturns. She advises women, strongly, to weigh these risks very carefully before choosing to leave. Women who have stayed at work, even part time, will be in a much better position to step-up their financial contribution to the family should the family be in need.

So back to the question. How are women doing when forced to return to the workplace after years of absence due to economic need? Most women who are forced back in to the work place out of economic need in bad economic conditions will likely have to take jobs that are well beneath their abilities, and accept pay that is not in the same ballpark of what they earned prior to leaving. Many will find the limited options not doable, and instead opt to downsize their lifestyles drastically. This is clearly already happening and is what contributes to the downward economic cycle. For others, particularly those who have kept their skills current and their professional networks, success is more likely.

Though I was not able to easily find research on this subject a good place to look would be The National Council for Research on Women, a network of over 100 Womens research and Policy Centers.