By Hilary Stout
Women executives with science degrees are now leading some of the world's largest companies.
Ursula Burns is one of three women to be named CEO of a large U.S. company during the past year. But for all the attention being paid to their gender, no one seems to have noticed that the two other chief executives share a similar science background.
DuPont's Ellen Kullman--the first woman to run a business segment at the chemicals giant--is a mechanical engineer who also sits on the board of the Tufts University School of Engineering. Carol Bartz, the blunt-talking new chief of Yahoo, also got her academic training in the so-called STEM disciplines (science-technology-engineering-math).
Bartz, Burns and Kullman are the most visible women scientists who are rising up through the ranks of corporate America, but there are plenty of others, including Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, who has a chemistry degree. It now appears that having a background in science, rather than in business and finance, is a more promising path to advancement for women in business.
Hard Lessons, Greater Enrollment
It's almost impossible to write about science and women without recalling the words of Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University (currently the director of the National Economic Council). In January 2005 Summers addressed a conference of economists on the subject of women and minorities in the science and engineering workforce. It was an invitation-only luncheon, but his remarks went public almost immediately, courtesy of several outraged members of his audience.
Women have achieved lesser success than men in science and engineering fields, Summers suggested, because they have babies and may not be able to work 80-hour weeks. He also maintained that girls score worse than boys on math and science tests because of "innate differences" and dismissed the notion that certain social factors may be responsible for their lesser performance. The controversy was one of the issues that led to Summers' resignation.
Two national reports released recently tossed salt in the eye of Summers. The National Research Council reported this spring that women who earn Ph.D.s in science are as likely to land teaching positions, promotions and tenure at major research universities as their male counterparts. During the same week the National Academy of Sciences reported that girls in the U.S. have now reached parity with boys in mathematical achievement. Currently universities are reporting marked increases in female enrollment in science, engineering and math degree programs.
Prepped for Management
Something more subtle but just as interesting: The intangible benefits of scientific training for women in the executive suites and boardrooms of corporate America.
Sharon Nunes, a vice president in the systems and technology group at IBM, believes that the skills one acquires in the science, math and engineering areas are skills that encourage success in business. "You learn about being analytical, about problem solving. You learn how to work on teams. These are critical skills you need to succeed in today's world. These are all business skills," she maintains.
And there's something else at play here though some don't want to say it: Because the work is empirical and evidence-based, it goes a long way toward blunting the stereotyping of female leaders as being driven by emotion and personal relationships rather than by facts.
"Discipline, problem solving, turning complexity into simplicity, respect for 'time to market' work processes, managing by fact, being dependent on contributions from others to create the greater whole, measuring and adapting--all of these are fundamental attributes of successful engineers and, I believe, successful leaders," says Burns.
Paying It Forward
"If I had one goal, I'd have every young girl that could qualify learn math to the point of college calculus," says Yahoo Chief Executive Bartz. "If you can't pass basic university math, you are closing yourself off to three-quarters of the careers in America," she states.
Bartz is never one to mince words, but she's especially outspoken on the subject of mathematics and women. "I was taking my daughter around to visit colleges, and at one school they said, 'We have a math requirement here--but you girls in the audience, don't worry, we have a course called The History of Math.' The history of math! Even my daughter rolled her eyes at that. I was furious."
Before joining Yahoo, Bartz was CEO of software maker Autodesk and oversaw the development of a Web site and an internship program aimed at encouraging high school girls to think about careers in math and science. "I hear so many girls say, 'Oh, I can only study literature' or 'I can only study humanities.' That's why we have to say, 'If you want to have options later, we're going to force you [to study math] now.'"
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