By Qiuyi Tan
Women are underrepresented in the top jobs of science and tech. A new programme is trying to fix that.
Maria Jose Alvarez was pitching her agritech start-up to a group of investors when they cut her off with questions. Not for her, but for her male co-founder standing off to the side.
“I was presenting, but their eyes would go to the men for answers,” said Alvarez, now 32 and an investment manager in Auckland.
She was shaken and frustrated then, but it’s human nature, she says.
“People tend to associate with what they can relate to, and in a room full of men, that’s other men. People do it unconsciously.”
That was a pitch in Chile in 2012, but unconscious biases haven’t gone away. It’s one of many reasons why women continue to be overlooked, even excluded from top jobs in every field, especially in the male-dominated worlds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or Stem.
Even in New Zealand. Women make up 48 per cent of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workforce, but account for about 30 per cent of CEOs across these fields, says Emma Timewell, citing data she cranked from the 2018 Census.
“Attracting women into STEM fields is not the problem … our biggest issue is moving women through the system at the same rate as men, particularly into leadership positions, ” said the national convenor at the Association of Women in Sciences.
A new initiative is trying to fix this leadership gap. The six-month Women in Leadership Development or WILD programme will provide mentoring, networking, governance and leadership training for 10 women working across science and innovation, and Alvarez is one of them.
A biotech engineer who founded and ran her own start-up in Chile, she moved to Auckland in 2016 for a masters degree in bioscience enterprise. She is now on the other end of the pitch table working as an investment manager at NZ Growth Capital Partners, a Government-owned investment outfit looking for the next big Kiwi idea.
Alvarez’s ecosystem straddles business, science and technology, where the minority status of women is most obvious at networking events.
“Every room I’ve been to has been a room full of men,” she said.
The healthy 48 per cent proportion of women in New Zealand’s STEM workforce belies the male-dominated reality in engineering and information and communications technology (ICT). Timewell’s data analysis here shows women make up about 27 per cent in these two sectors.
Being a rarity in her field has never stopped Alvarez. In school, there were four women in her math class of 35, championed by the teachers. “They would say, ‘Next year we’ll have eight. Look at yourselves as the new norm’,” she recalls them saying.
“I’ve been trying to live that ever since. I want to be the norm,” she told the Herald.
“When you’re a woman in STEM looking up into senior roles, you don’t necessarily see a place for yourself.
“And vice versa, when people are looking down to recruit the next wave of leaders, they don’t understand the skill sets (women) bring to the table.”
There is growing evidence that companies with diverse leaders do better in earnings, innovation, and problem-solving, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
“People with different backgrounds and experiences often see the same problem in different ways and come up with different solutions, increasing the odds that one of those solutions will be a hit,” a group of BCG leaders wrote in a 2018 article.
It’s one of the compelling reasons for programmes like WILD, first launched in Australia and due to kick off in New Zealand at the end of the month, backed by life science venture capital firm Brandon Capital and KiwiNet, an alliance of public research institutions.
“Forty per cent of the first (Australian) cohort saw career progressions such as increased salaries, promotions and new career opportunities,” says Duncan Mackintosh of Brandon Capital New Zealand.
Alvarez has jumped over the gender hoops herself and hopes to make it easier for the women who come after her. She believes many will.
“When you have women in senior positions, they’re going to be looking for someone they can relate to, and if you’re a woman, that’s you.”
She also has a tip for men in STEM who want to be on the right side of history.
“If you’re in a room where it’s just men, you’re in the wrong room.”