Business

When she's Finn, she fits in fine

At a focus group of technology executives in Silicon Valley, a senior woman offered this advice to her younger counterparts: “If you want to be in the loop, get yourself a male alias.”

Ten years ago while working at a start-up, she asked her boss to call her “Finn” after he kept shortening her name from Josephine to nicknames that she hated, such as Josie. The e-mails that Finn received from colleagues in other cities were completely different from those sent to Josephine.

Along with locker room language, Finn got information about whose star was rising or falling, which markets were tagged for expansion, where new investments would be made.

If you are skeptical that a woman would find it necessary to masquerade as a man to get ahead, you will find the research by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and six co-authors eye-opening. Their study, “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology,” is the fourth in a multiyear project by a task force of 42 global companies.

It focuses on women with degrees in these three traditionally male-dominated fields, who occupy a surprisingly large 41 percent of lower-echelon corporate jobs.

Over time, 52 percent of these highly qualified women quit. Attrition spikes 10 years into their careers, around age 35, when obstacles become more apparent and family pressures intensify.

Some of the reasons are familiar: hostile macho cultures, isolation and lack of support.

Sixty-three percent of the women in these fields experienced sexual harassment, the study found. Research included a national online poll, three surveys at multinational companies, 28 focus groups and individual interviews.

“It's almost like a time warp,” Hewlett said. “Across the board there's a mix of predatory and condescending behaviors. Compounding that is a great deal of isolation. Women still find themselves the only female on the team, or at their facility or their rank level.”

The potential for change never has been greater. Companies can no longer afford to lose half their female talent in an era of skilled labor shortages.

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