Posted by: Chris | 29/08/2011

How can we only live with half a brain?

This week I spent two days in a workshop for IBM’s emerging technical leaders. Among others, they had asked me as an executive to sponsor the progress of the young talent we have in our company.

Half BrainTo briefly summarize, it was a very interesting experience. The organizers had selected 18 female candidates and no males for this workshop. In my opinion this was a very clever choice. When I look at our technical leaders (who can reach the executive ranks with science-friendly titles including Distinguished Engineer or Fellow), it is a predominately male world. Somehow we really miss a huge opportunity here. If women aren’t equally represented in all aspects of an organization’s workforce, we only use 50% of the available brainpower to serve our clients. This is like playing tennis with only your right hand or football/soccer only using your right foot.

From talking with the participants I observed two points:

  • The demands of a scientist are not yet really conducive to being a mother and pursuing a career at the same time.
  • I learned (though I have to admit, I already knew it from having been married for almost 24 years :-)) that women and men deal differently with issues. It seems that men approach matters in a very linear fashion, we solve one problem after the other, i.e. if it cannot be solved, we go on to the next.  While women on the other hand solve problems, but then continue to reflect on whether that was the right approach and what they could have done differently much after the fact. If something is not solved to their satisfaction they may dwell about it for many months or even years to come.

The combination of both observations means that mother’s really have a much harder time in succeeding in a scientific environment because they will always have a bad conscience if they have children that they don’t live up to the expectations and that they cannot as easily deal with the way we men (and companies) approach problems – which is like “shooting ducks one after the other.”

I wonder what experiences my readers have and how they think we can improve the field for our female colleagues such that we get to leverage the significant contributions they will bring to work and capitalize on the fact that they represent 50% of the intellectual capital available to mankind.  Obviously, this is only a small sample size, so if I have any female readers from science, please share your tips and thoughts on how you overcome these observations.

I certainly wish the 18 participants in our workshop that they will succeed with their career aspirations and become part of our technical leadership that eventually should be made up of half females and half males!


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