Follow the money: Getting future buyers involved in tech development

Women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the U.S. over the next decade, therefore getting them involved in the product creation process may make the difference between creating tech that survives the marketplace and tech that doesn't.

Every woman I’ve ever spoken to who works in IT, has lamented that there are so few of us here. No female friends to chat with. No one to get behind causes we care about. No one to say, “Um, if you want women to buy our product, don’t do that. We hate that.” Every conversation on the topic I’ve ever had with high-tech execs has ended with a lament that there aren’t enough women here.

From a pure product development point of view, a company needs to understand the people it’s making its stuff for. And, outside of high-tech, half the population is women. And, even more to the point, when it comes to buying stuff, a much higher percentage of the people doing that are women. In fact, women are the ones buying most of the stuff. According to Nielsen, “Women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the U.S. over the next decade.” We women make most decisions about what to buy be it consumer goods, apparel, food, or big ticket items like computers, cars, and homes. If you want to build something – be it molecule or automobile – you have to get women to want it in order to sell it.

Getting women in the room in the creation process isn’t just being nice to women. It can be the difference between making something that survives the marketplace and one that doesn’t. Technology has been blowing this completely – except for being so awesome that women buy it anyway -- since its inception. And most tech and science based companies know it. But fixing this is hard. Women are unmoved – at least in large numbers – by a life that involves studying science.

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L’Oréal (yes, the cosmetics company) fielded a study to find out when – in fourteen countries -- women drop out of the sciences. Not if. When. Because we know there aren’t enough women studying science. The evidence – at least in this survey and displayed in the above infographic -- suggests that – rather than any lack of ability or schooling – it appears to be largely a failure of inspiration that causes women to take another path. Maybe this lack of desire is caused by prejudice, cultural expectation, or simply a lack of role models to inspire them. But it is clearly a choice. Women choose not to study science.

In middle school and high school – when no one is offered much choice – men and women perform about the same in math and science. But when everyone gets to college – and get to choose a field of study -- women don’t choose science in nearly the number men do. (Men = 68%; women = 32%.) In graduate school, that choice becomes even more pronounced so that by the time everyone gets to the doctorate level, the population is only 25% women (89% men). It makes sense, then, since women have been moving away from the sciences since high school, that less than three percent of Nobel Prizes in the sciences have gone to women.

L’Oréal is not missing the point here. “Founded by a scientist more than 100 years ago, L’Oréal has always been a business driven by science,” says Sara Ravella, Chief Executive Officer of the L’Oréal Foundation in a press release on the study. “In fact, 70 percent of L’Oréal’s Research and Innovation global workforce are women, and they drive growth, innovation and discovery across all facets of this company.” And of course – as a cosmetic company -- the company needs women to buy its products. To keep that science-for-women’s-beauty machine running, L’Oréal needs female scientists.

Inspiring women to choose a life of science is complicated. We probably have to start changing the minds of very young girls. But L’Oréal is hoping to encourage more women with recognition, rewards, and mentoring. To that end, the company has partnered with UNESCO to recognize female Laureates and offer mentors to encourage women who are considering a career in science. The company is honoring female Laureates from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America) and 15 International Fellows for their achievements in science. There is a -- $60K -- cash prize to this honor. Know a woman scientist L’Oréal should consider next year? Nominate her. The official call for applications for 2014 USA Fellowships For Women in Science program is March 24, 2014.

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