After achieving her master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1929, Canadian Elsie MacGill went on to lead Canada’s production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War. Her efforts earned her the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes,” a comic strip, and a position on the shortlist of women under consideration to be featured on last year’s $10 bill. But they didn’t earn her the same salary as her male counterparts; nor would they today, even as the gender-based pay gap for women in STEM slowly inches closer to parity and the technological skills and talents of women continue to be underutilized.
Certainly, the Hurricanes could have been developed and their production led by a man. But they weren’t. What characteristics does Ms. MacGill share with all the women in STEM positions who have come after her that make them uniquely qualified to succeed in their fields?
It’s well-documented that women have the mental and intellectual prowess to succeed in math-based careers like technology and engineering. A recent Toronto-Dominion Bank study reported that female students display a high proficiency in math: “Fifteen-year-old females in Canada, Singapore, Korea, and Switzerland outperform their male peers in the 95th percentile, according to the OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment.”
the idea women are better with ‘soft skills'
Women are generally considered to be sensitive to and champions of soft skills: creativity, the ability to make connections, provide issue resolution, openness to change, and tune in to their surroundings and people’s feelings. They’re intuitive, innovative, sensitive and collaborative, building community and groups in all facets of their lives, not the least of which are what they bring to their work situations.
These characteristics most assigned as belonging to women are exactly what the field of technology demands. The world of work, the business models within which it functions, how work is performed and who performs it, and how products are manufactured and distributed continue to be transformed by technology, which itself is changing and disrupting at lightning speed.
women are champions of innovation, too
A survey initiated by PwC earlier this year found that “women CEOs have a unique approach to innovation and technology. Not only are they more likely to value and see its potential, but they’re also more agile and reasoned in their approach.” They champion agility and innovation but they’re measured and careful about how they respond to ensure positive results.
Women embrace technology and the changes it brings; they see its value and potential but approach it with a more measured, considered response. Their thinking is informed by their ability to apply lateral as well as vertical thinking to planning and problem-solving. That means that, like the adolescent math students, they can be as selective, analytical and sequential as their male colleagues; they also have the capacity for creative, questioning, non-traditional approaches to development and problem-solving. Vertical thinking is analytical and sequential. That makes it important in the field of technology because of the need to organize information and access it easily.
But it’s lateral thinkers who are persistent and entrepreneurial risk takers, who find new ways of doing things and how to start up new companies successfully. In fact, in 2013, The Atlantic reported, "women-operated, venture-backed high tech companies average 12 percent higher annual revenues. They also use on average one-third less capital than male counterparts' startups."
diversity in the workplace is good for business
Women are responsible for about 85% of purchasing decisions. They’re early adopters of technology; increasingly, they download more movies and games and spend more time on mobile phones, Internet, text messaging, e-readers, GPS and social media than men. Who better to understand the characteristics, motivators and technological needs of women than women?
We’ve talked before about the gap that exists between the number of women who enter educational institutions in technology and those who ultimately graduate and find work in the field. Once employed, those women find biased work environments, lower salaries, and lack of support and development opportunities their biggest obstacles.
Tech organizations need to investigate the preconceived ideas and operational processes that impede their ability to attract and retain qualified, talented women to their teams and find ways to help them grow their careers. They need to embrace the qualities and characteristics that are unique to women and see the benefits and value they bring to the workplace. In a world where innovation and change are critical to organizational survival and growth, it’s shortsighted not to make gender diversity a priority.