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Interview: Sony Electronics and the rise of women in STEM

teleteria
|Jun 15|magazine20 min read

The world of technology is still largely dominated by men. Almost all statistics (and there are many) point towards low female participation in STEM industries, from educational uptake all the way through to representation at boardroom level.

Take UNESCO Institute for Statistic’s 2017 Women in Science factsheet – globally, it says just 28.8% of the scientific research and development workforce are female, although figures are higher in Central Asia (47.2%), Latin America (44.7%) and Central and Eastern Europe (39.6%).

Further, United Nations research reveals that women who start out in business roles in tech-intensive industries leave for other industries at high rates – 53% of women compared to 31% of men. This in turn leads to an extremely low presence in the boardroom, with IT industries struggling to hit 15% in terms of female representation at the highest leadership levels.

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A bleak picture perhaps, but many of the world’s top technology companies are actively seeking to address the divide and drive women in STEM numbers significantly north.

One such industry heavyweight is Sony. In 2016, the percentage of management positions held by women across the tech firm’s global operations stood at 24%, almost double the proportion seen in the 2011 financial year (12.7%). In the US, this figure rises to nearer 36%.

Cheryl Goodman, Head of Corporate Communications for Sony Electronics, is among this 36%. Stationed at the company’s base in San Diego, she is tasked with the formidable challenge of driving a greater understanding of key developments in an ever-changing world of innovation.

“Is it a headache? Yes,” she tells Business Chief. “I think there are a lot of nuances. When you walk into that television aisle I'm sure you look at the TVs and you see new HD, 4K, and all these acronyms and you probably think to yourself, ‘why do I care?’

“So, we have to drive that ‘why you care’, and we have to drive understanding. I figure if I can explain to my mom what all these acronyms mean, and why she should care, then we're at a good spot. So, we try to drive understanding down to the very base level. It all equals quality.”

Goodman is certainly well-qualified and prepared to negotiate the communications conundrum of such rapid advances in technology. Having majored in political science and television media at San Diego State University, she has worked through the rise of web and increase in the number of ways we consume media.

Starting out at San Diego’s KGTV News, she moved to MP3.com and Lindows before a long stint in PR and marketing at Qualcomm. It was here that Goodman ramped up her involvement in championing the wider ‘women in STEM’ agenda, chiefly through membership and local leadership of Athena, a professional development organization helping women develop careers in STEM industries.

Goodman served as Executive Director for the San Diego branch between January 2016 and August 2017, during which time she doubled the number of technology and life science partnerships and helped break numerous fundraising records. 

“Then I moved to Sony,” she says, “and nine months later, two grey hairs later, I can tell you it is a phenomenal place. It had to be if I was to consider leaving my mission at Athena.”

A big part her decision was the approach to diversity of Sony Electronics President and COO Mike Fasulo. “My boss believes it is tried, true, and proven that diversity is a positive impact for the bottom line,” Goodman adds. “I had just not seen that before. For him it is a business imperative, and that’s why I’m here today to illustrate and support that.”

These beliefs are backed up by action. For three consecutive years Sony Electronics has been named among the best places to work in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, scoring a maximum 100 each time. 

“It's a big acknowledgement,” Goodman says. “This is a very well-respected organization, and in the past 11 years we have had at least a very high 90s ranking. So, while it is the trend for many technology companies to pull together some type of gender agenda to check the box, Sony Electronics has been walking the walk and talking the talk for over a decade.

“Our president even wears the pin on his lapel every single day, and he brings it up at every meeting. It's part of his DNA and it trickles down to the leadership and business as a whole.”

This is no better demonstrated than by Sony’s commitment to the nationwide Women Unlimited Mentoring Program. Designed to build talent management strategies through mentorship, Sony is supporting the participation of more than 70 women from its San Diego base.

Goodman is joined by Julie Wenzel, Senior Manager of Community Relations, who is taking part in a lead program aimed at middle management and above.

She describes her experience to date: “It really provides a great opportunity to not only experience a couple of different mentors from outside organizations at an executive level, but an opportunity to look at your career path, identify areas where you'd like to grow and put together a strategy for getting there. “It's been a very positive experience and is a great chance to meet women from various industries and understand challenges and opportunities regardless of where you work.”

Further still, Sony has become something of a hub in San Diego and Southern California, be it through participation with Athena, sponsoring the YWCA TWIN Awards or holding events for the North County Chamber of Commerce Women’s Week. For the latter, Naomi Tutu, daughter of cleric and human rights activist Desmond Tutu, recently addressed an audience at Sony Electronics.

“Sony headquarters becomes the hub for best practices and methods for women to live their fullest mission, wherever they are, whether that's in Sony Electronics or down the street in a competitor's company,” Goodman explains. “We like to hold the conversation, we like to curate the conversation.”

Goodman is also keen to stress how Sony’s own products can be molded by and contribute to that conversation. She cites Koov, an all-in-one coding, robotics and design kit that combines digital coding with physical building to teach the next generation of problem solvers and innovators. Launched in February, it is targeted at children as young as eight years old. “We don't target necessarily girls or boys,” Goodman adds. “We are targeting coding as a skill, something the nation needs.”

Indeed, 4.4mn computer and IT jobs will exist in the USA alone by 2024, according to the country’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics. An added complication, revealed by a World Economic Forum report, is that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in jobs that do not yet exist.

However, while uncertainty remains as to the future makeup of the workforce, Goodman is full of advice for women seeking to develop careers in STEM today.

“Number one is that your contribution level is more important than the color of your skin or your gender,” she insists. “Bottom line is the value that you add to the organization. When we hire we are looking for people to solve the problem with the skills that they have, regardless of what they look like or what gender they are. So, it is about quality, it is about skill, and it is about contribution.

“If you experience any pushback in your career, I would challenge you to find mentors. Find successful women in your realm to partner with and help navigate your path. I would also recommend joining an organization, whether it's an organization for your industry at large, or a women's organization in your local chapter.”

Goodman’s final piece of advice is to find a mentor in a top leadership position, which in many cases, she says, will be male. “Find someone in leadership that you trust to ask what the key issues for the organization at large are, and make sure that your contributions are in line with these needs.”

And what of Sony Electronics? How can it improve on three years of perfect scoring from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index?

“We've got a long way to go,” Goodman says, “but I'll say, again, the key theme is that this is an industry issue. This is a business issue. Gender equality impacts the bottom line. It impacts our return on investment, and we will continue to support this moving forward as long as I can imagine.

“Is it complete? Is our work done? No.”