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Helping San Diego’s STEM Economy Become a Destination For Diversity

Board Members of United Nations Global Compact and Athena Announce Collaboration to Achieve SDG #5: Gender Diversity. December 2018

By Sarah Beauchemin

San Diego County is the third largest biotech hub in the country. Our region is home to over 1,200 life sciences companies alone.

With over 26,000 scientists and academics working in research, the Torrey Pines Mesa is a scientific mecca for the world’s best scientific minds.

Yet one troubling fact persists – women are significantly underrepresented in the STEM sectors, especially in leadership roles. Research shows women account for only 25% of the national STEM workforce and 23% in San Diego County’s STEM workforce.

But one San Diego nonprofit is determined to buck this trend. Founded in 1998, Athena is a women’s empowerment organization that fast tracks women working in STEM through leadership development and peer mentoring.

By empowering and helping to transform women scientists and technologists into corporate leaders, Athena’s mission is to empower one million women leading in STEM by 2030.

“In today’s society, we’re witnessing a tectonic shift on the value we place on women in the workforce,” said Holly Smithson, CEO of Athena. “There is a profound sense of what’s possible as we advocate for women’s leadership, specifically in the STEM economy.”

Aiming and Defining Gender Diversity for Business

Smithson recognizes that closing the gender gap in STEM is no small feat. That is why Athena is partnering with The United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) to drive business awareness and action in support of achieving gender equality by 2030.

Launched in 2015, the UNGC is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative involving more than 10,000 companies in over 160 countries. It is a global call to action for business to take measurable action and address gender and other inequities.

The initiative also puts a human face on globalization by featuring 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that address the most important social, economic and environmental challenges of our time.

Athena’s role in this collaboration leverages its 20+ year convening power, its deep market access and its 5000+ member stakeholder community to advance SDG # 5: Gender Equality.

In order to help further advance SDG 5, in summer 2019, Athena is launching the “Athena Assembly” – a consortium of 10-15 STEM companies committed to transforming their company through gender diversity.

The Assembly’s aim is to engage STEM companies to formulate, deliver and implement data driven tools and methodologies to achieve shared diversity goals.

With Athena’s help, businesses can learn how to specifically achieve gender equality – and at scale. Doing so positions San Diego as the “diversity” STEM gold standard for other cities to replicate.

Helping Business Prioritize Gender Equality

While many local STEM companies understand the widely published profit opportunities associated with gender equality in the workplace, they lack a clear strategic plan to re-engineer the legacy cultures, policies and behaviors that run counter to a diverse and inclusive business.

Athena serves as the industry funnel to coalesce the knowledge and resources required to engage business in three ways. First, by recognizing gender diversity as a sustainable goal; second, through identifying evidence-based best practices around gender diversity; and, finally, enabling business to operationalize the best practices enterprise-wide.

“In today’s war for talent and customers, business understands that by modernizing their workforce, they create a fierce competitive advantage,” said Smithson.

“Two of the biggest things that strike me about Athena’s platform is its empowerment and connectivity,” said Dr. Kara Bortone, Athena board member and head of JLABS San Diego. JLABS is a part of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and Johnson & Johnson is a UNGC signatory.

“JLABS employees with the common purpose of uniting and advancing STEM career women have a forum in Athena through its leadership programs and mentoring that addresses the challenges and opportunities relevant to STEM career women,” she said.

By becoming a UNGC signatory, a company’s CEO commits to implement the UNGC framework as part of its overall business strategy and culture. Bortone says this impact is already evident at JLABS.

“JLABS does a lot to support women’s leadership,” she said. “More than half of our senior leaders are women. We also support women’s leadership by hosting events on International Women’s Day and by providing a supportive environment to female C-level executives, who lead more than 25% of the JLABS resident companies.”

And Bortone also notes that gender equality in STEM actually starts at a young age, way before women enter the workforce.

“Many girls grow up thinking that math is hard and, sadly, irrelevant to their ambitions,” she said. “Trying to break down why they think that and how to make them realize that everyone can excel in math and can apply it to everyday life, is critical.”

Athena helps address this issue as well by providing resources to women of all ages who may be considering STEM as a career path.

For example, with the help of a grant from SDG&E’s #BeThatGirl initiative, led by engineer and COO Caroline Winn, Athena is showcasing the transformation of female engineers, scientists and technologists into corporate leaders through its Blueprint for Success VLOGs. These rousing monthly stories not only inspire Athena’s large stakeholder community, but also encourage young women to follow their dreams of forging a STEM career.

Long-term business success matters – and so do your employers. Athena is shaping the future and wants you to take part.