CCL Women’s Research Meets Lean Startup Process

In many ways, this has been the decade of STEM and women’s leadership. There are hundreds of initiatives nationwide supporting increased participation by girls in STEM programs, and just as many programs and organizations advocating for women leaders.

But there’s a gap between the investment in encouraging technical careers for girls and young women and the ROI in terms of the actual number of women who make it to management-level positions in science, technology, enginnering, or math (STEM).


A 2016 study from the National Center for Women & Information Technology starkly illustrates the problem. The numbers for female retention in STEM fields are dismal, and companies are trying to understand why and how to change this trend.


Female ‘Engineering Exiles’ – Why Are Women Leaving STEM Fields?

I joined CCL in 2016 after a long career in Silicon Valley, where I worked in technology marketing and product management with software and networking companies. I’ve reported to VPs and CEOs who were engineers, and have always worked closely with engineering teams in defining new products. There’s always been significant representation of women in staff engineer roles, but as their careers progressed, I noticed that very few moved into engineering and technical leadership roles — many women with STEM expertise ended up in marketing and product management positions instead.

These ‘engineering exiles’ were always very successful, combining technical talent with the listening and communication skills required to translate customer needs into product plans, and to work with engineers to design them.

It always left me wondering, why do so many women leave technical and engineering career paths? Why is the quit rate so much higher for women in STEM fields than men? And what would it take to keep them progressing into technical and engineering leadership roles?

This dilemma came back into focus during my first month at CCL when I met one of these ‘engineering exiles’ (we have many here!), Senior Faculty Kelly Simmons. Kelly was an engineer at Hewlett Packard early on, but left to build a career in leadership development. And she was interested in seeing how we could tackle this challenge.

She had a strong relationship as a speaker and participant in IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) events, a respected non-profit organization with a similar mission to ours. In 2016, we met with the WIE Silicon Valley chapter to see how we could help our technical sisters. And thus the Advancing Technical Women program was conceived.


Lean Startup Approach – Accelerating Time to Market

Since Kelly and I are both devotees of Design Thinking and Lean Startup methodologies, we formed our own little ‘startup’ and began talking to potential sponsors and participants about some of the leadership tools and concepts that could help technical women overcome the barriers they face in mid-career. Kelly drew on decades of CCL research about women’s issues and leadership in general, bringing in ideas from across CCL globally, including research, faculty, digital products, coaching, and more.

Several of the key concepts were trialed in a 2-hour workshop with 50 women technologists at the IEEE WIE International Leadership Conference. The group was enthusiastic and wanted more, so we were confident we could build a “minimum viable product” (or MVP) and were ready for a pilot.

PayPal agreed to host at its beautiful site in San Jose, and many of the Learning & Development and Diversity & Inclusion teams we sought input from were excited to send participants. The pilot of Advancing Technical Women concluded its successful inaugural run in April 2017, with 25 mid-level women in STEM jobs participating. The second pilot occurred Nov. 1, 2017, again at PayPal, with 35 women from across the U.S., and our work continued in 2018.


Top Takeaways and Changes to Come

Following both pilots, our Evaluation Team surveyed participants, and we conducted more “Lean Startup”-style interviews with program sponsors and engineering managers who sent participants to the program. We received lots of feedback on areas to tweak, expand, and improve our leadership training program for women in STEM careers. A few key takeaways:

  • Research matters. Technologists are driven to ask questions and demand proof. The fact that ATW content is based on decades of research from CCL and others made it extremely credible to this audience. We watched women’s attitudes change from skeptical to enthusiastic once they understood the research behind program concepts.
  • It’s a journey. The women were able to apply the learnings and tools over the 6-month period and could see tangible benefits over time. Many of them even got promotions or expanded their staffs, and one woman even secured a coveted speaking engagement at a technical conference — and they gave full credit to ATW.
  • Focus on actions, no fluff. After all, these are engineers! There were specific challenging assignments they had to accomplish in their work environment, along with longer term action plans that really made the learning stick.
  • Keep the relationships going. The group established a community and network of support that they want to continue. Since most are in male-dominated work environments, this group provides a safe place to brainstorm, test ideas, and practice.


Leveraging Technology Platforms and Tools

Since the first session had an accelerated time to market, we did it on a shoestring, managing participant interactions manually. We later added many more sophisticated features, including an online learning platform that tracks progress and assignments, builds community, and keeps the group engaged throughout the 6 months and beyond.

We’ve also recognized that managing and collaborating often take place more in virtual settings than face-to-face, so we want to reflect that real-world environment. We added a virtual option for the final closing session to teach participants how to be as impactful online as in person.

Leadership training for women in STEM: Technical Womens Leadership Journey Timeline Infographic

A Look to the Future

In keeping with our mission “To advance the understanding, practice and development of leadership for the benefit of society worldwide,” our goal is to expand the scope of this program for women in STEM more globally. In addition to offering the program throughout the U.S., many of the companies that participated in the pilot have large engineering populations in China and India, where technical women are even more challenged.

We also want to work with women’s leadership organizations to offer the program to their memberships. And we want to bring the Advancing Technical Women program to other technical, “hard skills,” male-dominated professions. CCL has female faculty members who are “exiles” from aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and other industries where this program could be equally valuable.

In our data-intensive, technology driven world, the need for engineering, technical, and scientific professions is growing exponentially. Our research-based approach and heritage in women’s leadership is a perfect fit — and the ATW is a natural extension of our service offerings. We’re looking forward to offering leadership training for women in STEM to make a dent in that “Quit Rate” statistic and help these women become thriving leaders and contributors in these exciting technical fields.


Explore our new leadership training program for women in STEM, Advancing Technical Women, with several offerings in spring 2018.


About the Author

Patty BurkePatty Burke is an Innovation and Venture Catalyst in CCL’s Commercialization and Innovation (C&I) Unit. She is responsible for identifying, validating, and commercializing innovative product and service opportunities. Her first project is the breakthrough Advancing Technical Women program. Patty also represents CCL and C&I in the Bay Area, working closely with clients in technology, healthcare, and financial services, and with women’s leadership and other advocacy organizations.

Patty is an experienced C-level executive who has served in operational roles with large corporations and startups and as a consultant to venture capital firms, corporate venture and innovation groups, and technology startups. She was founder and managing partner of Accelevate, an innovation consulting firm providing business model validation and innovation training for corporate innovation teams, based on Lean Startup and Business Model Canvas principles. She also consulted for Bell Mason Group, conducting corporate innovation readiness assessments, innovation training, and corporate venture capital programs.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start typing and press Enter to search