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Women & Power Issue

Missing in action

As some of the female executives on our Top 100 Women-Led Business in Massachusetts list confirm, women are still regrettably scarce in science and math fields.

John Jay Cabuay

DECADES AGO, as a dewy-eyed staffer at Working Woman magazine, I helped fill those pages with articles bemoaning the dearth of women on corporate boards, yet I was confident that would all change as qualified women moved up the ladder. Fast-forward 20 years. The magazine’s gone defunct. The blogosphere is aflutter over Twitter’s all-male board of directors. And here we go, writing the same story all over again. Truly, has nothing changed?

One area where women are still woefully underrepresented is on the boards and management teams of companies in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math.

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“There hasn’t been any significant progress — that’s borne out in the numbers,” says Mary G. Puma, chairwoman and CEO of Axcelis Technologies (No. 13 on our Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts list), a Beverly company that manufactures semiconductor processing equipment. “There’s a few reasons for that. This whole glass-ceiling concept still exists. The pipelines still aren’t good. And opting out and then back in hasn’t been a successful strategy for women.”

“There are so many women entering the sciences at a high level [of education],” observes Barbara Osband, president and CEO of Cambridge Biomedical (No. 78), a diagnostic and research lab in Boston. “But when you go to CEO round tables, you can count the number of women — and I do count. I look around the room and say, ‘This is pitiful.’ ”

Shepherding girls into STEM careers has never seemed more in vogue, with White House initiatives and grass-roots groups like Girls Who Code. Schools such as MIT and Worcester Polytechnic Institute offer summer courses for tech-bound teens. And to some degree, it’s worked. Today’s high school girls and boys are equally enrolled in science and math courses, according to the US Department of Education. But then they hit college, where women make up just about a third of the students majoring in a STEM field. By the time they’ve arrived in the workplace, the proportion of women working as hardware developers, electrical engineers, or systems managers has nose-dived to 25 percent or less, according to the research group Catalyst.

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“Being a young female engineer can be challenging due to the lack of role models,” says Lisa A. Brothers, president and CEO of Boston’s Nitsch Engineering (No. 58). “Many engineering firms do not have many women at all — let alone women in senior positions.”

“Confidence is definitely something that a lot of women struggle with,” says Annette Arabasz, leader of Boston’s new chapter of Girl Develop It, which offers courses in coding for women of all educational backgrounds. “It can be intimidating for anyone to enter an area that is heavily dominated by the opposite gender.”

A 2012 paper in American Sociological Review by MIT professor Susan Silbey attempts to explain the brain drain by following engineering students from four Massachusetts colleges. She found the female engineers weren’t daunted by work-life balance or lack of confidence, but by what they saw as a negative work environment.

“I would love to tell you that the good old boys’ network doesn’t exist anymore; it still does,” says Lauren Baker, president and owner of Boston Biomedical Associates (No. 62) in Northborough. “If you are knocked down by professors or your boss, you’re either going to respond in an angry way, which is what I did, or you’re going to go sit in the corner. To this day, I see women sit in the corner.”

Perhaps Twitter couldn’t find a woman to check that box, as CEO Dick Costolo put it, especially given that only about 1 in 8 computer science graduates are women, down from a high of 37 percent in the mid-1980s. (Never mind that most of his board members aren’t techies, either, but come from softer sciences or business backgrounds.) Yet surely here in Boston’s biotech vortex things should be different, given that women have made up more than half of biology and biomedical engineering grads for some time. But no.

Take seven biotech firms, all in Cambridge or Watertown, that also IPOed this year: Foundation Medicine has an all-male board and management team — save its HR director. Same at Agios. There are no women at all at that level at Enanta Pharmaceuticals. The others — Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals, Epizyme, Bluebird Bio, and Acceleron — do have one or two women in their leadership teams or on their boards. It’s not just start-ups: A 2010 report by The Boston Club tracked a dozen established Massachusetts public companies in the life sciences and reported only 15 percent of their directors and 10 percent of their executives were female.

“They’re going to say there aren’t any women qualified, because women don’t put themselves out there,” says Baker, who herself founded Boston Biomedical in 2000. “We’re our own worst enemies. We don’t self-promote. We wait for someone else to say, ‘You’re really good. Why don’t you sit on my board?’ I have male colleagues at the same level as me who sit on half a dozen boards and I sit on zero. I don’t seek it out — and maybe I should.”

The stakes are high: Women in STEM jobs will earn 33 percent more than their counterparts. Yet the expectations remain low, even among Baker’s teen daughter and her classmates: “The girls say, ‘I want to work in a lab.’ They never think about running a company or being an entrepreneur — but tons of those boys do.”

 Melissa Schorr is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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