U.S. faces competitive disadvantage from lack of women in tech jobs

Corporate advancement is often blocked by a lack of access to important business networks

Discrimination against women and minorities is putting the U.S. at a disadvantage in technology innovation, according to the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

Robert Birgeneau said of the top 50 university computer science department jobs in the U.S., not one is held by a woman of color. "How embarrassing," he said. "It's an astounding waste of talent in an increasingly competitive world."

Birgeneau was the keynote speaker at a workshop on women in technology as part of the Emerging Technologies Conference being held at MIT this week.

He said that while the number of women and men enrolling in undergraduate and post graduate technology programs has evened out somewhat, women are far behind their male counterparts when it comes to academic positions.

Birgeneau cited a study released last fall by The National Academies titled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering." The study said that at the top research institutions, only 15.4% of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8% in the life sciences are women, "and these are the only fields in science and engineering where the proportion of women reaches into the double digits."

The study also showed that women will likely face discrimination in every field of science and engineering. "We're at a drastic disadvantage in the United States, which is outsourcing to other countries like India and China, who are working madly to compete with us and who are investing deeply in education," he said.

Karen Vogel, founder of The Women's Congress, a women's business-to-business conference, said one factor contributing to the lack of advancement for women in technology jobs and faculty positions is that women often don't support other women when it comes to workplace advancement. Not everyone agreed.

Ilene Lang, president of Catalyst Inc., a New York-based nonprofit corporate research and advisory organization, said during a conference session on workplace culture that preliminary data from an online survey of U.S.-based corporate women found barriers to advancement mostly include a lack of role models, too few corporate leaders who would champion women and little access to business networks that could plug them into corporate decision-makers.

The survey included two groups of women: those working in nontechnical roles in high-tech companies and those working in technology positions in companies other than high-tech.

Lang said that the same barriers come up year after year in Catalyst's surveys. "One of the key problems women raise is that they do not get direct feedback on how they can improve. Feedback is always indirect and dances around the edges," she said.

She said there weren't major differences in the results between the two groups of women that made up the 471 respondents in the survey, "except women in technology roles said they intended to stay in their roles longer." The detailed survey results are due out some time next spring, Lang said.

Some women at the conference spoke about their personal experiences with discrimination, including a lack of women in high-level managerial and executive positions.

Ying Li, general manager of applied research and data mining at Microsoft Corp., said during a panel discussion that there are few women who are senior technical leaders at her company.

Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, who was the first woman professor of computer science at the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, Brazil, said she was able to advance in her career because she never thought of herself as a woman when it came to her job.

"If you start thinking of yourself as a minority, then you start getting a complex about it," she said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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