The lack of women in technology will hinder U.S. companies’ global competitiveness, leaving a valuable source of female workers untapped, Cisco Systems Inc. executive Kathy Hill said yesterday at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco.
Companies should overhaul policies starting at the training level to ensure a balance between the sexes, Hill said at the APEC meeting, which was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. APEC represents 21 economies that account for more than 55 percent of global gross domestic product.
“Technology has to play a role,” said Hill, a senior vice president of development strategy and operations at San Jose, California-based Cisco, the world’s largest maker of networking equipment. “Technology makes a lot more money than other businesses, and we’ve got job growth.”
While women hold about half the jobs in the broader U.S. economy, they account for less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering and math positions, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“We need to unlock a vital source of growth that can power our economy in the decades to come, and that vital source of growth is women,” Clinton said yesterday at the conference. “By increasing women’s part in the economy and enhancing their efficiency and productivity, we can bring about a dramatic effect to the competitiveness and growth of our economies.”
The disparity begins in college. More than 31,000 men graduated with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information sciences, outnumbering women by more than fourfold, according to a 2008-2009 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Males who graduated with technological engineering degrees during that period dwarfed female counterparts by almost ninefold, the study found.
Females who start in science, technology, engineering and math concentrations often switch to other fields before graduating, said Marilyn Nagel, chief executive officer of Watermark, a Palo Alto, California-based, 4,000-member organization for professional women. Corporations and universities should make efforts to retain women in those majors throughout the students’ college careers, she said.
That means supporting them when they’re most likely to switch from math to another major — between freshman and sophomore year — and bringing them into corporate environments so they can visualize what they will be doing in their careers.
“It’s a business imperative to increase diversity,” Nagel, 62, said in an interview. “A homogeneous team is not going to be as innovative and is not going to produce the same level of well-thought-out results as a diverse team.”
Design skills also may help women break into technology, said Weili Dai, the 50-year-old co-founder of Marvell Technology Group Ltd., which makes chips for personal computers and mobile phones. The iPad and iPhone have spotlighted the need for practical, elegant designs, she said.
”Technology used to be boring, but now technology is fashion,” Dai said in an interview at the conference.
Companies need to make sure female mentors are accessible to younger employees, she said. That allows women to more easily see themselves in top positions, Dai said.
Just 12 percent of the students majoring in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, are women, said Claire Tomlin, a professor who oversees those majors at the school.
The college is working with middle-school girls to spark interest in engineering at a young age, and it invites females from other schools to the campus for summer programs to cultivate more interest in the field, she said.
Companies in the U.S., where the overall population is 51 percent female, will be more profitable if they foster collaboration between the sexes, Dai said.
“In my company, any function could be done by a man or woman,” she said. “How do we leverage the natural attributes and talents of women?”
–Editors: Nick Turner, Elizabeth Wollman