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Athena Survey Probes Gender Issues in San Diego Innovation Ecosystem

Xconomy San Diego — 

A San Diego survey on professional women working in tech and life sciences offers some insights on the recurring debate over gender diversity in venture-backed startups and big companies, as well as a related incident that boiled over this week at Google.

When asked, “What do you aspire to be, professionally?” nearly 29 percent of the respondents said they want to become the chief executive officer, or to hold a similar C-level job (such as CFO or CTO); another 20 percent aspire to become a director or senior corporate executive—and over a third said, “I’m already there.”

Speaking more broadly, slightly more than 71 percent of the people who responded (both men and women were surveyed) said they want to advance their career, with close to 40 percent saying that “creating their own opportunity” was the best way for them to move ahead.

Asked, “What factors do you feel are holding you back?” slightly more than 23 percent answered “fear,” while almost 23 percent responded that it was “unconscious bias in my work place (social stereotypes about groups of people.)” Nearly 22 percent said it was “lack of a mentor or sponsor,” and nearly 18 percent said it was “commitment to family.”

The survey, which included 212 women and 10 men, was commissioned earlier this year by Athena, a San Diego nonprofit group that serves as a professional development association and networking organization for women in science and technology. It was completed in June under a partnership with Mary Blair-Loy, a sociologist at UC San Diego who uses multiple methods to study gender, the economy, work, and family.

“I felt that we had to understand the baseline in order to solve some of these issues,” said Athena executive director Cheryl Goodman (pictured above). While the scope of the survey was relatively small, Goodman said it provides a comprehensive overview of professional women in San Diego’s tech and life sciences sectors, covering perceptions about pay, discrimination, and job satisfaction.

Such issues have formed the backdrop for a series of controversies over sexual harassment and bias in the innovation sector, with Silicon Valley being a common flashpoint. In the latest disruption, Google fired a software engineer Monday over an internal memo he wrote, entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” Among other things, the memo argued that “personality differences” due to biological causes between men and women—like higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance among women—help explain why there are fewer women in engineering and leadership roles at the company.

Google is such a leader in innovation and technology, yet the thinking displayed in the memo reflects such a deep level of dysfunction that it is “really disturbing,” Goodman said. “It really calls out to ‘unconcious bias’ as something that we really, really have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we seeing this clearly?”

It is not a problem that is confined to Google or Silicon Valley, Goodman added. “It’s universal, certainly national, and that’s why Athena is so important in terms of serving these sectors.”

In the Athena survey, most of the respondents (74 percent) were born between 1946 and 1980. About half of the 222 respondents work as executives or directors. A majority (58 percent) have expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and two-thirds have a college bachelor’s or master’s degree (another 25 percent hold advanced degrees in law, medicine, or doctorates). Nearly two-thirds are married. About 90 percent of the respondents are the primary source of household income, with 54 percent being the sole contributor.

On their perception of a gender pay gap, just over a third said as far as they know, they are equally compensated to their similarly qualified male counterparts, with 32 percent responding “don’t know,” and 21 percent answering “no.” It’s worth noting that 27 respondents did not answer the question.

Asked, “Has your organization taken steps towards pay equity?” 39 percent said, “don’t know,” 36 percent said “yes,” and 12 percent answered “no.”

Asked, “If you believe there is a gender pay gap, what actions do you believe would help close this gap?”, 54 percent answered, “Better access to salary survey data for relevant industries,” 51 percent said “open communication with company leadership,” and nearly 27 percent answered “legislation.”

In general, the survey found that women in San Diego’s innovation ecosystem are confident and working hard in challenging careers. Their definition of success includes making a difference (75 percent), fulfilling/challenging careers (74 percent), maintaining a work/life balance (68 percent), financial rewards (62 percent), and being a great leader (55 percent).

Asked where they feel they need help with their career (if at all), negotiation skills ranked at the top (33 percent) followed by management skills (25 percent), domain expertise (22 percent), command of relevant market data (21 percent), and presentation skills (18 percent).