Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 13, 2023
by Barbara Bry
Twenty-five years ago, a small group of San Diego women had a radical idea. What about starting an organization with the goal of empowering women working in our local innovation economy to collaborate, socialize and advance in their respective industries? Athena San Diego was born.
As the first executive director I privately hoped that the organization would be out of business 25 years later — that by 2023, we would have achieved the goal of parity and equity in the workplace. Sadly, not yet.
According to the white paper “Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Workforce 2023, Rising Above the Headwinds,” by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), there is still work to do. These results were presented at Athena’s 25th anniversary celebration on Oct. 26 at The Conrad in La Jolla.
The timely study ironically coincides with Harvard professor Claudia Goldin winning the Nobel prize in economics for her decades of groundbreaking research on women in the workforce and her conclusion that women lag behind men in pay, workforce participation and the percentage who reach the top, some of which she attributes to the choices in balancing family and work responsibilities.
The future is attainable, and at the event, I met two women who represent the potential and the possible — sisters Ida Khodami, 41, and Pantea Khodami, 36.
“I’ve never been afraid of being the only woman in the room. I’ve viewed it as an opportunity to create more room for women to join. I’ve always gravitated toward more complex problems,” said Pantea, who is the worldwide head of precision medicine and genomics, solutions and strategy at Amazon Web Services after 11 years at Illumina. Her mission: Use big data to develop better ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases.
“Athena has become my community. When I joined in 2013, it was the first time that I felt the power of the community being with people that I trust and want in my life,” said Ida, who became a partner with venture firm Two Bear Capital after 12 years at Illumina, where her last job was head of global business operations. Her mission: Invest in companies that solve big problems.
According to the BCG study, women compose 25 percent of the U.S. STEM work force, unchanged since Athena’s 2020 index. They are 44 percent of life and physical science jobs, 26 percent of computer and mathematical science jobs, and 15 percent of engineering. About 20 percent are in executive ranks and C-suite. The San Diego data is similar.
We know that diversifying your workforce is a proven business case. S&P 500 companies headed by women have had nearly 1.5 times the returns of those led by men between 2012-2022.
The BCG study points out two major tipping points.
Women are not sufficiently elevated to senior and executive levels because of the lack of a clear upward career path, the inability to substantially advance without business backgrounds, the limited upskilling opportunities being offered by the companies and the continual challenge of leveraging their networks.
Another worrisome trend is that women earn 38 percent of STEM undergraduate degrees, yet only 40 percent of them actually enter the STEM workforce. Why don’t the other 60 percent enter the STEM workforce they trained for?
The report includes commonsense recommendations to improve the landscape for their female employees. Nothing new here. These include companies offering STEM career programs on college campuses; formal, consistent male allyship, sponsorship and mentorship programs; career planning that considers women’s skills and experiences beyond formal education; participation in industry organizations and other groups; flexible workplace policies. What is so hard about getting organizations to implement these proven initiatives?
At the celebration, Athena CEO Holly Smithson called for equity, community, and collaboration as the instruments of change but acknowledged that this is no walk in the park.
The auditorium was filled with women who want to believe their opportunities are unlimited. “The path to reaching our fullest potential for each of us involves confronting and surmounting unique challenges,” said Ida. “As long as you are determined to be the best version of you, nothing can stop you.” Added Pantea, “Opportunities are endless but it’s essential at each stage to reflect on what truly matters to you and stay aligned with your purpose.”
Athena’s purpose remains more important than ever.
Rule No. 785:
Athena was the goddess of wisdom, craft and warfare.