Mythbusters: Who Says Women Can't Do Math And Science?

Hilary Stout 09.16.09, 6:00 PM ET
One day back in 1975 a senior at a New York City parochial school named Ursula Burns went to the library on a mission. She was a very good student--a whiz, in fact, in science and math, but as she looked toward college her teachers at Cathedral High School were offering little encouragement for a future in those disciplines. They wanted her to pursue a career in education.

Burns, the daughter of a single mother who ironed clothes for a living, had different ambitions. She wanted--she needed--to make good money. So she lugged some career directories down from the library shelves and thumbed through their pages for professions requiring math or science degrees. Engineering fit. She delved further and learned that the field with the highest starting salaries was chemical engineering. Mission accomplished. She would become a chemical engineer.

It turned out college chemistry wasn't very interesting to Burns. But mechanical engineering was next highest on the salary list and it clicked. A few years later she graduated from Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, went on to get a master's in the subject from Columbia University and--most fortuitously--landed a summer internship at Xerox Corp. in the process.

Last spring Burns was named CEO of Xerox.

Her appointment marked a number of demographic milestones, all of which were trumpeted by the media. She was not only a woman running a huge industrial company but she was also a woman who was succeeding another woman. (The baton was passed to her by Anne Mulcahy, who is now Xerox's chairman.) But Burns wasn't just a woman succeeding another woman; she was the first African-American woman to run a large U.S. corporation.

Burns' personal identity, however, is intrinsically tied to a third demographic: She's an engineer. "I am an engineer by heart and by trade, and I still love being part of an engineering community," Burns said in an e-mail exchange shortly after she was named chief executive. "I drive my researchers and engineers crazy during operation reviews because I still enjoy tinkering 'under the hood' and understanding the complexities of how they get from A to Z in developing a product or service."

Who's On Top
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). One of only two girls to take physics and advanced algebra in her rural Wisconsin high school, she holds a computer science degree from the University of Wisconsin.

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. Lynn Laverty Elsenhans, chairman and CEO of Sunoco (B.A., mathematical science), and Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo American (B.S., geology), have risen to the top of the oil and mining industries. Virginia Rometty of IBM (B.S., computer science and mechanical engineering) is seen as a contender to be the next CEO. Lila Ibrahim of Intel (B.S., electrical engineering) runs the company's emerging markets platform group and has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a "young global leader." And outside of the tech industry, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, has a chemistry degree.

Stack this up against, say, Wall Street, where the lawyers and M.B.A.s who became the industry's highest-ranking female executives--Morgan Stanley's Zoe Cruz and Lehman Brothers' Erin Callan, for example--have been fired, demoted or made into scapegoats in recent years. 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. A biologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology walked out of the talk and said she felt like throwing up. Headlines and angry op-eds ensued.

Summers defended his statements saying that he was purposely aiming to be provocative to address a question that reflected an indisputable reality: Women are underrepresented in science and math. But his remarks diminished some very real progress. Just a month before he made headlines, MIT had named its first female president. 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 (though there are still far fewer of them than men) 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. Engineering is now one of the most popular majors at the all-female Smith College in Massachusetts. (The college graduated 20 students from its new engineering program in 2004; today it enrolls 135.) Half of all MIT undergraduates are now women. And last year at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh women made up 30% of undergraduate students in mathematics and science, up from 17% in 1986.

The Ivy League's Brown University, which has had a highly regarded mentoring program called WISE (women in science and engineering) for more than a decade, has noticed a striking increase in female applicants who are interested in pursuing science degrees. The number of women intending to enroll in physical sciences increased about 40% from the class of 2010 to the class of 2013. Brown is also is making a concerted effort to hire more women for its science faculty, according to Katherine Bergeron, a dean of the college. Toward that end the university recently received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support women in the sciences.

Prepped for Management
None of these indicators, however, looks at something more subtle but just as interesting: the intangible benefits of scientific training for women in the executive suites and boardrooms of corporate America.

"For women like me, who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, you were probably the only woman in your science or engineering class," says Sharon Nunes, a vice president in the systems and technology group at IBM. "You didn't have a whole lot of confidence. You had to learn to be confident, to speak up for your ideas. You had to be a leader to be heard," she explains.

Nunes 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.

Burns recalls her transition from her technical work as an engineer to a broader management role: "My experience in engineering project management was a plus. I was used to analyzing the details, tooling and retooling, testing and measuring--all under a disciplined timeframe and defined work process," she says. "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."

Paying It Forward
Lila Ibrahim is nearly a generation younger than Nunes and Burns, but she also remembers feeling like an outsider in her freshman engineering class at Purdue in 1989. In 1994, as a new engineering hire at Intel, she put her hair in a bun, bought fake glasses and took down the pictures in her cubicle because, she says, "I thought I had to be like the boys, be more serious."

That act lasted for just a few days. "I was miserable," says Ibrahim. "I realized how important it was to just be myself." But Ibrahim, who was inspired to go into engineering by her engineer father, says she has had only two female mentors during her career, and one left to start a family shortly after Ibrahim began working with her. "While I admired that a lot, I wasn't at that stage and I found it a little discouraging," Ibrahim recalls today.

It wasn't until two years ago--nearly 14 years later--that she found another female mentor.

In an effort to fill that breach for fledgling scientists, Ibrahim returns to Purdue once a year to teach a class to female freshman engineering students. She spends time chatting with them after classes and says she's noticed a change since the time when she was a student. The engineers of her generation went into the field "because that's where the jobs were and it could lead to a good career," she recalls. "The current generation, from the feedback I'm getting from women students, is in engineering because they want to change the world."

While that may sound like a typically "female" motivation, Ibrahim says she understands that kind of thinking. Nine years ago she took a two-month sabbatical from Intel and spent that time bringing computers to the Lebanese orphanage where her father grew up. Now she is based in Shanghai and is the head of an Intel initiative to bring computers to schools in the developing world that are specially tailored to those children's needs. (Intel does the research and development for these ventures and then sells the design to local personal computer makers around the world.)

"To be able to have an impact on socioeconomic development while contributing to business growth is a pretty incredible experience," she says.

"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.'"

"Success Breeds Success"
Earlier this year Susan Desmond-Hellmann, an oncologist and president of product development at Genentech, announced that she was leaving the business when Roche, the pharmaceutical giant, acquired the company. Desmond-Hellmann, who'd presided over the development of numerous successful cancer drugs at Genentech, has since been appointed chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, one of the country's foremost medical sciences campuses. In her new role, she will be in a strong position to nurture an upcoming generation of female physicians and medical researchers.

"At Genentech, I've been saying goodbye to many colleagues and friends and have been so struck by how many women--and men--have said, 'There are so many things about your career that inspire me,'" she says. "I think that's terrific, because when I was younger I didn't have women about whom I'd say, 'I want to be like her.'"

Desmond-Hellmann has recently found her own role models in a small number of female academics. "I've benefited from seeing people like Shirley Tilghman and Susan Hockfield. It's amazing for me to see women taking on those leadership roles," she says. Tilghman, a molecular biologist, is president of Princeton University and Hockfield, a neuroscientist, is president of MIT. "For people like me it's both inspiring and useful to see their [management] styles and how they command respect."

Before she left Genentech, a female scientist there brought her 3-year-old daughter into the office and asked Desmond-Hellmann if she would pose for a picture with the little girl. It meant a lot to the outgoing president, who'd decided to become a doctor after hanging around her father's pharmacy as a child in Reno, Nev. Desmond-Hellmann was one of seven kids, and "the big question in my family was always 'Are you more like Dad [a pharmacist] or more like Mom [an English teacher]?'" she recalls. She was more like her father but recounts how pleased she was during her days at Genentech when "young women would come into my office and see someone who looks more like their mom than their dad."

"I think what's going to change things more than anything," she continues, "is when people see someone who looks like them."

And then? "There's a certain momentum that happens, whether it's with a search committee or a hiring manager or a board of directors. Success breeds success." - Magazine Article
At the higher reaches of math ability, women are few and far between. I can't think of a single female Fields Medallist. The few women mathematicians I can recall: Noether, Kovalevsky, Ruth Lawrence .... Math is like chess: males dominate.