Nearly 60 percent of women contribute to the U.S. workforce and they account for more than half of all workers in management and professional occupations. Over the next decade women have the potential to add trillions of dollars to the growth of the global economy. Yet gender inequity continues to create significant hurdles for women in the workplace. These obstacles are particularly evident in the technology industry, where women hold just one-quarter of the jobs and only 8 percent of leadership positions.
Women in tech are paid less and promoted less often than men—disparities that have contributed to nearly 60 percent of women leaving the industry at midpoints in their careers. Additionally, women-led tech firms receive less funding, despite studies that show they get an average 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts.
These issues have inspired several women in Minnesota to devote their lives and careers to breaking down barriers, overcoming obstacles and transforming the technology industry. “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” is a series of feature articles and a white paper that highlight these extraordinary individuals and their journeys.
Challenging the Mainstream
As a girl, mainstream media messages about women in the workplace profoundly affected new Science Museum of Minnesota President and CEO Alison Brown. The daughter of an entrepreneur who worked with early laser technology in the 1960s, she recalled a conversation with her father on the subject when she was 11 years old. An article she’d read in Reader’s Digest suggested that if women considered their potential salary along with the costs of child care and professional wardrobe, they would most certainly lose money by pursuing jobs outside the home.
The implication may have been that women were better off as homemakers, but Brown wasn’t buying it. “I told him it didn’t matter if I netted a profit working, I was still going to work.” Her father wholeheartedly encouraged her to pursue a career, which instilled a belief in Brown that she could do anything. It gave her the confidence to consider whatever interested her without being influenced by gender biases.
Ultimately, Brown’s professional path has included finance and leadership roles in the publishing, technology and museum industries. Before joining the Science Museum of Minnesota this past May, Brown spent 17 years at the California Academy of Sciences as the chief financial offer and chief of staff. She worked in positions and industries typically dominated by men, and she was fortunate to work with instrumental male role models who mentored her throughout her career. She attributes her success in part to being assertive and assuming positive intent.
She also learned the importance of guiding future generations of leaders and has made it her personal mission to do so. Brown’s former colleagues have openly praised her efforts. “[She] mentored me as a new dean of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences. She has also been a great role model for many other female employees during my tenure there,” said Meg Lowman via LinkedIn. Brown’s former chief human resources officer, Raul del Barco, echoed those sentiments: “In the 10 years I’ve worked for Alison I’ve watched her mentor employees, help them overcome fears and challenges, and excel in their roles.”
Breaking Down Barriers for Girls and Women
Though messages about women working outside the home may have shifted over the years, deeply embedded stereotypes are still shaping how they think about their career aspirations at a young age. Brown said that as early as elementary school, girls begin doubting their abilities to do well in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Without specialized school curriculum, dedicated educators, positive role models and critical family support, many girls make up their minds that they aren’t good at STEM subjects.
Brown emphasized that the kind of support she received from her father 40 years ago is just as critical for kids today—especially girls. And institutions like the Science Museum are important because they provide an interactive environment where multiple generations explore and learn together. “They can have a shared experience with their grandmother, grandfather, sister, brother—and talk about science in a way that’s fun and engaging,” Brown said. “It breaks down the barrier of science being scary because they can see everybody do it.”
The Science Museum also offers special programs for girls, such as its annual Girls, Science and Technology event. Dozens of women who work in STEM careers at major corporations are featured throughout the day. Girls have the opportunity to partake in one-on-one interactive experiments and demos with women scientists and engineers who are experts in their fields. Additionally, the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center provides opportunities for girls and boys to work together on building leadership skills and STEM career readiness.
Supporting the women who teach STEM-related subjects is also an important focus for the museum. It recently launched the LinCT Project, which aims to increase the number of female educators in STEM and provides resources for incorporating technology-based programs into their classroom curricula.
Looking to the Future
Brown is honored to be the first female president in the Science Museum’s 109-year history, but she doesn’t give it a great deal of thought. She is focused on the museum’s responsibility to the community and her personal commitment to creating equal opportunities for girls and underserved children.
“As science and technology continue to evolve rapidly and shape our lives, places like the Science Museum will play a larger and more important role in preparing our next generation of learners for the challenging and exciting future that lies ahead,” Brown said. “I’m eager to combine my passion for science and education to advance the critical mission of one of Minnesota’s, and our nation’s, greatest institutions.”
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.