Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Brainy Barbie: How She Changes Her Climate and Drops the Doubt


“Barbie Hedge Fund Manager or Barbie Archeologist?” I teased my daughter when she named the leggy icon as her birthday party theme. Turns out Mattel has moms like me figured out. Now Barbies not only get married and put on makeup, they also have demanding careers -- like Barbie Computer Engineer.

The New York Times says that while the percentage of computer science dolls has gone up, the percentage of real-live women in computer science has plummeted from 37% to 18% in the last couple decades. Three people sent me this piece shocked by what they read – that in tech (as in all other parts of the economy with lots of money or power) women make up a small fraction of leadership -- and odd things can still happen when women try to change those statistics and strive for the top.

Writing Getting to 50/50 has freed me of the upset I too used to feel – I now know I too need reminders that things don’t magically get any better just by the passage of time. These articles bear out what the social science says clearly: That left unchecked, with complete absence of malice, both men and women (both young and old) discriminate in ways that keep women out of power and keep leadership 85% male.

The research also points to very simple things we can each do to fix things – if enough of us say what we really think (with a sense of humor). Some simple examples:

“Out” the inner doubt.

The NYT cites studies that say women drop out of technical majors if they don’t get top marks – while men are more likely to persist even with average grades.

A woman two degrees from Carnegie Mellon told me about research she worked on – trying to figure out why women drop out of computer science. In the group of students she tracked 3 of the stars were female. But in their self-assessments, these women were all sure they didn’t measure up -- despite their top grades, they didn’t feel like they fit in and that fed their self-doubt.

What would happen if we talked about these facts more openly – that we raise boys, on average, to be over-confident and the reverse for women? (See research on Harvard Business School students where this made a big difference on what women got paid).

Change your own climate.

When I was in the 9th grade, I loved dissecting frogs and imagined my future as a biologist. But what I pictured was a life alone in a lab – or in the company of terribly serious, terribly silent men in white coats. That did not seem so appealing. While science lost nothing by my failure to join, I do wonder where this pre-conception came from. And I wonder if I can help my daughter see her options more broadly - and understand that the social dynamics of mostly-male work environments are not the reason to cross whole professions off the list.

Because workplace environments change when enough women jump into the fray.

The NYT talks about a woman who disliked the isolated work-style of the engineers she worked with. Rather than concluding the field was not for her, she fixed her microclimate so it felt more comfortable: Hired an intern she could talk to and organized a weekly group lunch to create some community.



By Sharon Meers