Sunday, December 7, 2014


Believe it or not, I still have the dictionary my parents bought for me when I started high school: Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (copyright 1960!)  Ok, ok! So what if you can do the math?!

What is interesting for me is that on page 772, at about a third of the way down the second column, I had placed an * in pencil between the words serenata and serene. At the bottom of the page, also in pencil, I added * serendipity because apparently the G & C Merriam Co., Publishers of Springfield, Mass. U.S.A. forgot this most important word.

The dictionary continues in constant use over half a century later in spite of water glass stains and duct tape on the book’s spine to keep it together. When did I go in search of “serendipity”? Was it as a just-off-the-bus freshman? Or was I a “wise fool” of a sophomore? It could have been much later in my career, but the pencil handwriting looks young and untested by time and events.

It must have taken some courage to edit the great Webster’s NEW Collegiate Dictionary in that manner.  But, it didn’t appear arrogant – just a brief reminder to the publishing world that they didn’t have a monopoly on editorial perfection.

There is something special about knowing a private little example of “serendipity” sits on my bookshelf, engraved in pencil in a young girl’s imperfect but memorable penmanship.

You Are As You Read

I have studied the lives of successful individuals and interviewed a number of accomplished women over the years. One memorable trait among many of them was their early exposure to books.  It wasn’t necessarily a case of reading great tomes.  Memories of the Dick and Jane series were as strong as The Little Engine That Could. 

Minds were taught to imagine a world of words outside a child’s small experience.  Listening skills found early refinement.  Stories were told of a youngster coming home from school to nestle in a corner chair and read to a puppy or kitten – someone with whom to share the excitement of discovery. More precocious kids read poetry, literature, or even worked through math puzzles or games.

Sharing stories with younger generations is a tradition as old as the formation of villages.  Perhaps story-telling helped created the cultural bonds of our earliest gathering together as families.

There is something special about selecting, from an abundance of books (at home or in libraries or even on Kindles), that one special tale that will be shared by parent with child.  There is no greater gift than the time taken to read a story – of joy or sadness; triumph over challenge; adversity or mystery faced and conquered. It might be possible to predict the success of a student by the books she has read as a child.

Christmas is a marvelous time to share the excitement of reading with the children in your life.  It is our personal joy to be able to shop at a local children’s bookstore and then to take a box full to the church across the street to share with the youngsters in their gathering.

For children, today, have their share of clothes, toys, even technology.  Is it possible – nay conceivable – that they could ever have enough good books in their life?  It is a joy, indeed, to see the local library meeting room packed with youngsters on those days that volunteers read to them after school.

The time we invest in reading to a child is a humble gift, but also a great source of mutual joy.  I would love to hear your memories of reading as a youngster.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Median Earnings Gap

A recent MIT Technology Review article on Inequality quoted David Autor, an MIT Economist, as follows:

“The gap between median earnings for people with a high school diploma and those with a college degree was $17,411 for men and $12,887 for women in 1979; by 2012 it had risen to $34,969 and $23,280. ‘Education,’ Autor says, ‘is the most powerful thing you can do to affect lifetime earnings.’”[i]

But not for everyone, apparently.  Look at the chart below to understand what has happened to median earnings for women COMPARED to men in the more than three decades during which more women have attained college graduate diplomas than ever before.

Here are the facts presented by Auton’s research:
  1. The advantage of a college diploma increased 100.8% for men (by $17,558) over the 33 years between 1979 and 2012. 
  2. The advantage of a college diploma increased only 80.6% for women (by $10,595) over the same period.
  3. The gender differential was $4,534 between men vs. women’s median earnings (a ratio of 1.35 dollar earned by men for every 1 dollar earned by women) in 1979, but it was over two and a half times greater at $11,686 (a ratio of 1.5 to 1) by 2012.
So, it appears that there are other factors behind women’s earnings differential beyond simply enrolling in college and receiving a college degree.

Women have outnumbered men enrolled in colleges every year since 1974. In the period 1960 to 2004, women outnumbered men enrolled in college by 2.8 times (1.5 million more women attended college than men). In the same period, women outnumbered men graduating from high school by 22.6 times (4.7 million more women graduated from high school than men).

In the fall of 2012, there were 10.0 million female undergraduate students (56 percent of total enrollment) and 7.7 million male undergraduate students (44 percent of total enrollment). Since 1990, female enrollment increased by 52 percent (from 6.6 million to 10.0 million students), while male enrollment increased by 43 percent (from 5.4 million to 7.7 million students).

Between 1990 and 2000, female enrollment increased by 12 percent and male enrollment increased by 7 percent. Most of the increase in enrollment occurred between 2000 and 2010, when female enrollment increased by 39 percent and male enrollment increased by 36 percent. However, both female and male enrollments were 2 percent lower in 2012 than in 2010.

Between 2012 and 2023, female enrollment is projected to increase by 18 percent (from 10.0 million to 11.8 million students), while male enrollment is projected to increase by 8 percent (from 7.7 million to 8.4 million students).[ii]

Evidence suggests there are two factors that might have contributed to the earnings gap between men and women.
  1. Women were more likely than men to interrupt their careers for an extended period of time to take care of young children.
  2. Women also were more likely than men to prepare for jobs (in women-dominated fields) that historically have lower income potential.[iii]

That same research indicates that higher grades achieved by women in college result in higher average earnings in the labor market. The two factors, cited above, the discontinuity of time on the job experienced by women and the selection of a college major, leading to decisions about jobs and industry sectors of post-college employment, are crucial. 

We could concentrate on the first point: the time women opt out of the workforce to raise children, but that subject has been the focus of childcare specialists, public policy advocates for government provision of childcare, corporate advocates for greater company investment in childcare, and the arguments favoring federal and state legislative efforts across the country.

Only one point might be added to this discussion: If shortages of reasonably-priced, appropriately-located, well-staffed/-supported childcare products/services were the major, primary barrier to women achieving their ambitions in the workforce, then what is the reason that women themselves have not created a larger or better industry of childcare products and services to “solve” this perceived problem to the satisfaction of modern women?

It is the second point that concerns us here:  women follow each other, lemming-like, into the same female-dominated, low-income, support service jobs and industry sectors year after year. Women who burst out of this stereotype, who tap into the higher income-potential STEM fields, are the women whose average earnings and long-term income growth excel.

The question that needs to be asked about his second item is “What do we need to do to persuade young women entering college to NOT pursue only the easy majors, the social media, marketing, fashion, consumer goods, or entertainment industry training where jobs are disappearing en masse or which will keep them at or near minimum wage levels of employment?

[i] “Technology and Inequality” by David Rotman, MIT Technology Review, October 21, 2014
[ii] National Center for Education Statistics
[iii] Gender Differences in Earnings Among Young Adults Entering the Labor Market (April 1998)
by Suzanne B. Clery, John B. Lee, Ed.D., and Laura G. Knapp, JBL Associates, Inc.
U. S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau. 1993 Handbook on Women Workers: Trends and Issues. (Washington, D.C.: author, 1993), p. 74.
Jerry Jacobs. Revolving Doors: Sex Segregation and Women’s Careers. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tapping the Wisdom that Surrounds You

It’s fun to ask readers of my book to share with me their “favorite story.” Recently, one reader emailed me saying, 

“The book has gotten even better as I get into the later chapters.  I'm enjoying the current area I'm reading which includes the stories of young women in Honduras, Iran, (sheesh!) and Greece.  I continue to be amazed at what the women have done when challenged by the events and situations that their lives presented to them.  These are truly amazing people.  I mean - really - who teaches themselves BASIC????"

"I think the best self-actualization in this book is the statement that the women “love learning.”  It's key to who they are and how they approach life." 

"From my perspective, one of my “fave” lines was the one about “If we are willing to make an effort towards a stranger, then they can instruct us.”  I so believe that, and I know it's a core belief of my husband as well.  He's always coming home from our grandson’s ballgames having approached a new person and learning something new about possibilities, places, and people."  

"These experiences instruct the reader in how women can find or create their power.  Believing that you are an amazing woman - in and of your own self - is a crucial concept that can benefit every woman and ensure that she achieves her ambitions."

Check out the book's web site and click on the NEWS link:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Better to Light One Candle than to Curse the Darkness

The Girl Scouts’ 10th annual Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (GEMS) event was held at the University of Kentucky (UK) this past Saturday, November 15, 2014. The event was organized by the Girl Scouts of Kentucky's Wilderness Road Council and was open to all Girl Scouts in Kentucky and surrounding states from 4th to 12th grade. Admission was only a $10 fee for children and $5 fee for adults.

          12 girls attended the Future Cities workshop – one of many hands-on workshops
          350 girls attended the event this year.[i]

To appreciate the challenge they are addressing:

Kentucky is
           49th in the nation in bachelor's degrees in science and engineering,
           47th in the number of scientists and engineers, and
           42nd in the number of high-tech jobs

Kentucky has
            1.4% (680,000) of the US total enrollment pre-K through 12 (49.7 million)
            1.3% (193,800) of the US total enrollment of 9th through 12th grade (14.7 million)
            - 2.0% growth rate annually in total enrollment vs. 5.2% for the US overall
            0.4% growth rate annually in 9th-12th grade enrollment vs. 2.7% for the US overall
            78.8% of Kentucky students have computers at home
            72.8% of Kentucky students have Internet access.

The Girl Scouts of Kentucky's Wilderness Road Council is just one of 112 Girl Scout councils nationwide. [ii] Kentucky Girls Scouts serve 21,700 girls (1% of the national total of 2,282,817 youth, with 883,521 adults as of 2011) in 68 counties in Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and Tennessee and 1 county in Ohio. 

In the US, 30,000 students take AP exams in computer science annually, but less than 20% of them are female (6,000).[iii]

[i] “Campus Event Urges Women into Science Careers” by Sophie Tapia
[iii] Barbara Ericson, the Director of Computing Outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech University. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Opt Out or Quit?

When did women first get the idea that it was okay to "opt out?" It is such a delicate phrase, isn't it? It almost suggests that women will just step out on the balcony, for just a moment, and watch life events go on without her. Then, at some indeterminate time in the future, women might possibly "opt back in" and pick up where they left off. Easy as pie! Not even break into a tiny bead of perspiration.

Guys call it something different, don't they? They call it "quitting," as in "taking your marbles and crawling back home." Quitting carries a very heavy stigma while opting out does not.  Quitting recognizes the reality that when you leave, there is a gaping, emotional hole left behind. Opting out, on the other hand, carries the promise of "I'll be right back. Save my place for me!"

The key consideration is the motivation behind the "leaving." Women say they are "opting out" to raise a family which actually can result in up to two decades of absence, depending upon the family size. Or women "opt out" to take care of elderly or ill family members. The length of time required, not to mention the emotional commitment, could be sizable. The risk of a non-return is significant given that both the individual and the marketplace inevitably will experience dramatic change in the intervening years.

Other women argue they "opt out" of the traditional male-oriented corporate world because they don't like the traditional male-oriented leadership style they encounter.  But, who have they left behind to change that command-and-control hierarchical structure? Are they realistically expecting to be able to "opt back in?"

The difference between "opting out" and "quitting" is the mental frame of mind that the individual brings to the decision. That mental attitude is the juggernaut with which women must come to terms, if they are to navigate this transition successfully.  Women must recognize that, when you decide to leave, then you leave. Nothing stays the same after you've left a company or a job. You are naive if you believe you can come back and find that things have not changed. You have changed by your departure. The entity you left will have crafted itself around others in your absence.  Others will fill the vacuum you created by your decision to leave.

When guys use the term "quit," they recognize the finality of the change. They mentally pack away the previous status and turn their heads, hearts, and spirits toward the new endeavor. They mentally bring no baggage with them. That means they have created an empty slate on which they can write their new story, a new career, a re-invented life. That means they bring no false hope that their prior role will promise them anything. They pursue their new vision, unencumbered by the past. Only the future calls them.

Women will argue that "somebody should" hold a place for them for after they return from the family duties, just as veterans get promised a place to return after their service to their country. If we are realistic, neither promise serves the individual well. Each person is strongly redefined by their experience. We might better focus on building a growth-oriented economy with enough room and innovation to accommodate re-entry after major transitions.

But growth-oriented economies require that every person we educate become a productive contributor to that growth, one way or another. If we provide top tier education to both women and men, we need them to return something or to re-invest in future growth. How they accomplish that is infinitely variable. 

Some talented women understand the requirements of creating new enterprises that foster alternative strategies for career-pathing.  I've had the honor of interviewing many of those women leaders and have been introduced to many more.  There are women who are crafting another vision for the future. They have pushed their ship out to sea, leaving the security of the safe harbor behind, ready to take on new and exciting challenges.

"Opting out" does not quite cut it. In reality, it is just another way of "quitting."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and LinkedIn are among the top tier technology firms now announcing their Workforce Diversity reports, showing the overall percentage of women in the workforce, their shares in tech and non-tech fields, and in leadership.  The data does not cover actual wage levels, which inevitably show greater disparities.  Nevertheless, the reports tell us a little bit about why wage differences persist.

                                                            Women’s Share                                  
Company         Overall            Tech                Non-tech         Leadership
Microsoft        29%                 17.1%              44.5%              17.3%
Google            30%                 17%                 48%                 21%
Facebook        31%                 15%                 47%                 23%
Yahoo             37%                 15%                 47%                 23%    
LinkedIn         39%                 17%                 47%                 25%

If you read each report, you’ll see that each company’s HR leadership touts the many “programs” they sponsor to entice girls and women to become interested in their employment opportunities.  Clearly, those are having a marginal effect at best. Almost half of all women employed by these highly technical firms are employed in the soft-support sectors rather than in the top dollar/high salary/high-tech positions.  The highest overall employment share goes to LinkedIn which may be explained by its much higher percentage of women workers involved in non-technical areas: social media, marketing, finance, and human resources, for example.

The more sophisticated a technology firm, say Microsoft, the lower percentage of women overall and in technology fields within the company.  Microsoft has the lowest percentage of women in leadership positions of all of these companies.

Microsoft has 3 women directors out of a board of 12 people:  Dina Dublon, Teri List-Stoli, and Dr. Maria Klawe.  Microsoft has only 3 women among their top tier leadership ranks: Peggy Johnson, head of business development; Amy Hood, CFO; and Lisa Brummel, head of Human Resources.  Brummel had to release the mea culpa memos to the employees after Nadella’s interview with Klawe at the Grace Hopper event.

It is important that a firm has women in leadership, setting the example and the “tone at the top.” Dr. Klawe accomplished a great deal by directly and immediately challenging Nadella’s statement that raises will miraculously appear “for women.”  She disagreed with him, graciously, in front of 8,000 attendees, and her words echoed through the blogs-sphere for days afterwards.  Because she challenged Nadella, people went and looked at the data and discovered what we all know: women need “to ask” for equal compensation.  Women cannot wait for some “karma” or “Prince Charming” to give them financial self-sufficiency – not on the job and not in the legislative forum.

In January 2013, I wrote about several options women have for improving their financial competitiveness in the marketplace.  See:

It’s the same thing, again and again, for women pursuing angel or venture capital, or board positions, or scholarships.  If women don’t ASK for the opportunities, the opportunities will not miraculously appear --- by “karma.”

Learn how to negotiate.  Learn how to present yourself and your competencies.  Learn how to compete in the modern economic marketplace. This is something women CAN do. 


Friday, October 10, 2014

Curing Nadella’s "Foot in Mouth" Disease

“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.  That’s good karma. It will come back. That’s the kind of person that I want to trust, that I want to give more responsibility to.” So said Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, in response to questioning by Dr. Maria Klawe, head of Harvey Mudd College, in an interview at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing on Thursday, October 9, 2014.

The good news is that everyone is pushing back on this archaic perspective.  And vocally so.  Nadella portrayed an anachronistic viewpoint that one of the “super powers” of women is that they can tolerate this kind of patronizing behavior from their bosses in the workplace.  Categorically, women are tired of having saintly behaviors attributed to them, while men contend successfully for the 100% of the salary scale by being mere mortals.

Nadella will go back to Redmond severely chastised, appropriately so.  He needs to stop sending apologetic memos To All Microsoft Employees and, instead, begin the long, hard task of looking inside the corporate towers of Microsoft and examining the exact payroll picture of women vs. men employees.  If there is 1% of disparity between any two people performing at peer levels, Nadella now has a responsibility of giving them back the KARMA they have already earned.

By the end of the year, Nadella needs to speak again to all of the women at Microsoft and all women who have aspirations to work in today’s technology field.  You need to tell them that “the system has been fixed” and we now can affirm that you will receive equal pay in this lifetime, not merely some promised time in the future.

It’s time for Microsoft to deliver.

Monday, September 8, 2014

MIT Technology Review: The 2014 List of 35 Innovators Under 35

Earlier I threatened to take copies of my MIT Technology review magazines to the waiting rooms where my female friends might read them instead of Self, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, etc.  The latest issue of TR presents the 2014 list of 35 innovators, entrepreneurs, and visionaries under 35 years of age.  To see the full September/October 2014 issue, go to:

This year, we are pleased to see that 7 out of 19 (36.8%) of the Judges who selected innovators for this list are outstanding women in their own right. I have gathered their web sites so that you can read about their amazing contributions is science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields. 


Jennifer Elisseeff, Professor of Biomedical; Engineering, Johns Hopkins

Julia Greer, Professor of Materials Science and Mechanics, Caltech

Cherry Murray, Dean, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University

Kristala Jones Prather, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, MIT

Laura Schewel, Cofounder and CEO, StreetLight Data

Rachel Sheinbein, Managing Director, Balfour Asset Management

Sophie Vandebroek, CTO, Xerox

These Judges located a total of 13 outstanding women (from the total of 35 innovators or 37.1%).  Their expertise is wide-ranging, with each competency offering substance and value for today and tomorrow’s scientific exploration. The quotes after their name is the citation from the TR article, along with their web site and biographical material.

Innovators Under 35:

Emily Balskus: “More precise knowledge of the bacteria in our guts could lead to better-targeted treatments for chronic conditions.”

Ayah Bdeir: “Electronic blocks that link with one another also connect art and engineering.”

Rumi Chunara: “Crucial information about disease outbreaks can be gleaned earlier.”

Emily Cole: “Can we cheaply convert carbon dioxide into something useful?”

Tanuja Ganu: “Simple devices allow consumers to cheaply and easily monitor Indias rickety power grid.”

Sarah Kearney: “A financial innovator is crafting a way for foundations to invest in clean energy.”

Duygu Kuzum: “Brain-inspired chips could mean better computer processing and neural implants.”

Megan McCain: “Heart on a chip paves the way for personalized cardiac medicines.”

Maria Nunes Pereira: “Patching holes in the hearts of sick infants.”

Julie Shah: “This MIT engineering professor is turning robots into ideal colleagues for humans.”

Mariam Shanechi: “Using control theory to build better interfaces to the brain.”

Kay Tye: “Identifying how the connections between regions of the brain contribute to anxiety.”

Kathryn Whitehead: “A systematic search discovered nanoparticles that could improve drug delivery.”

Fifteenth Anniversary of the 1st List

Outstanding women from the 1st list include the following 4 out of 10 (40%) innovators selected 15 years ago (1999).

“Anseth develops new types of photopolymers, plastics that go from soft to hard when struck by ultraviolet light. Anseth has invented novel photopolymers that actually wear away over time—a feature that promises much for orthopedic repairs.”

“Berger is leading a group of computational biologists to develop software that … predict[s] protein folding based on the sequence of amino acids. Such insights could eventually lead to new drugs to combat viral disease such as AIDS.”

“These days, robots are typically used in limited, specialized roles. But if Helen Greiner and Colin Angle [her cofounder at the company that would become iRobot] have anything to say about that, robots may soon be a more versatile and ubiquitous part of our lives.”

“Jeremijenkos aim is to pierce the ‘hallucinationthat cyberspace is somehow clean. In reality the digital domain is a world of hard truths. Silicon Valley is home to a large concentration of toxic waste sites and one of the nations largest gaps between rich and poor.”

If you recognized any names from this list, congratulations to you -- you are one of the outstanding visionaries who are on the lookout for talented women in nontraditional fields. If you recognize only Helen Greiner, one of the co-founders of iRobot ONLY because of the vacuum in your home, then read more about what a significant role robotics plays in every field of manufacturing and construction today.  You'd be amazed.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Light a Candle

We have a choice of cursing the darkness or lighting a candle to show the way for the next generation of young women to take on the modern challenge of computer science, programming, math, science, and engineering through advanced educational options.  How many thousands of depressing magazine and newspaper articles have you read about “the dearth” of young women in this or that arena?  That IS the “curse the darkness” mentality.

Let me show you the “light the candle” mentality instead.

Dr. Maria Klawe’s amazing progress at a little-known college in Southern California: Harvey Mudd College. Read about her amazing progress and methods at: 

Dr. Lenore Blum, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg also upped their computer science class enrollment by young women to 40 percent.

Stanford University’s she++ is a program developed by undergraduate students in computer science, demonstrating that real change can come from the innovations of young women themselves.

See especially their efforts to seed interest in computer science and technology at the high school level through fellowships:
the #include Fellowship Program, a community of High School and College students passionate about technology.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to School

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but we’ve come to make the journey of “going back to school” into the most miserable experience imaginable.  There once was a time when kids were enthusiastic about going to school or returning to school.  There was a real excitement about new shoes, bright new clothes, new book bags and pencils or pens.  There were fresh, unsullied booklets and binders.  We’d put paper bag or team sport covers on our books.  We looked forward to seeing friends who lived too far away to see during summer.  There was a certain joy about returning to class led by a favorite teacher. 

Parents participated in this “tone at the top.”  They’d use this time to teach us how to organize ourselves for the school. They’d coach us to polish our shoes and put them near the door. They’d run down first-day-of-school checklists: Did we have this? Did we pack that? Was our lunch or lunch money ready?

Today, every cartoon in our local paper broadcasts the imminent misery of going back to school.  Advertisers are conditioning our kids to counter the prospective misery by buying up and over-dressing to compensate for the tedium of school days ahead. As a consequence, why are we surprised that kids today act out that negativism in disruptive, aggressive, and sometimes bullying behaviors?

The prospect of a positive learning experience has been exchanged for this negative hype.  Misery loves company, so every mention of back to school becomes a downer.

If we want kids to be enthusiastic about their learning experiences at school, we will have to set the “tone at the top” and close down the negativity.  Going back to school needs to become, once again, an exciting, positive, productive learning experience.  

To Make the World a Better Place to Live In

When I was in the 7th grade, my father was commuting daily by train between our small town in Southern New Hampshire and his office in Boston, Massachusetts.  My mother would drive him to the station each morning and back home again each evening. Often I would “ride shotgun” with her when she drove to pick him up in the evening.

Many times he was joined in the evening by another townsman commuter.  We would drive him from the station to his home on the way to our home.  My father would take over the driving, my mother would take over the “shotgun” seat, and I would sit next to our fellow townsman who inevitably would try to engage me in conversation.

He was a man of routine, as were most men of that era.  He’d start the conversation with, “Well, what did you do today to make the world a better place to live in?” Heady stuff for someone who barely qualified as a teenager! I’d have to think about an answer each evening, just in case he’d be on the train with my father and just in case I’d get his query. 

“What did I do, today?” would be my first thought?  I’d have to review school, classes, gym, and play after school to inventory what, in fact, had occupied my time.  The real challenge was whether or not I did anything worth reporting that might match his higher standard.  “What would make the world a better place?”

He was pretty generous in his performance appraisals.  I could say “I watered the plants at school,” and he would respond enthusiastically, “That’s marvelous!” as if I’d just saved the Amazon forests.  I might say, “I feed the dogs” to which he’d respond, “Good work!” making me feel like a responsible adult.  I might have to search for a performance measure, but usually could find something to report in terms of a grade, project, or report at school.

All of which was his point, of course.  His job was to set out some expectations that only I could determine would be acceptable by the standards of “make the world a better place.”  I had to find the actions that I deemed worthy of mention to him in the back seat of our car.  He made me think about my efforts each day.  Were they worthy?

At the end of the evening, we would drop him off at his front door, where he inevitably would say the same parting words, “Thanks for the buggy ride!” And we’d go our separate ways.

His expectations were pure and simple, but they stayed with me for these many years. Even today I will ask myself if I’ve done anything that might make the world a little better place to live in.  That is a mindset for which I must thank our townsman commuter - our fellow buggy rider.

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Asking Questions

It was interesting to read that the 2014 Fields Medal winner, Maryam Mirzakhani, was sharp enough in college to pursue opportunities to attend the “informal seminars” offered by noted Harvard mathematician, Curtis McMullen (a Fields Medal winner in his own right, in 1998). Taking advantage of extemporaneous learning experiences like that is an example of the initiative that puts individuals such as Mirzakhani on track toward exceptional advancement.

Mirzakhani was much more than merely a bump on the log among the seminar audience.

She asked questions.

Probably, she asked many deep, penetrating, and interesting questions. Which was one of the reasons Professor McMullen became interested enough in her intellectual development to mentor her as a doctoral candidate.

How many times have we attended an event or given a presentation or webinar where the moderator invited the audience to join in the “Questions & Answers?”  And how many times have we encountered dead SILENCE?

Smart speakers and moderators know this phenomenon all too well.  They seed the audience with one or two prepared questions to ensure that the proper tone is set and that the dead air doesn’t infect everyone.  That silence is very frustrating to a presenter.  You ask yourself, “Why did I bother?”

The “Question & Answer” portion of a presentation can be as enriching as the speech itself, but only if the members of the audience generate intelligent, relevant, and interesting queries in the speaker’s domain of expertise.  The failure of the audience to step up and carry their share of the responsibility results in the waste of valuable intellectual resources.

The speaker’s knowledge is under-valued.  Speakers thrive on the exchange of productive ideas and constructive dialog.  By failing to engage the speaker, the audience is failing to tap that fountain of wisdom.

The audience potentially is an active learner, but only if members formulate an intelligent question worthy of a response.  If the audience cannot think of anything to add to this field of inquiry, then when would there be a more fertile chance for idea exchange in which individuals might participate.

What are the reasons (or, more accurately, the excuses) for the silence?

“I don’t want to appear stupid.”  Isn’t it reasonable to believe that an individual exhibits a measure of intelligence simply by seeking the wisdom of the speaker and attending the event in the first place?  Isn’t there just one basic question that might add value to this topic and evidence your smarts more than your stupid?  

“I wasn’t listening closely enough. The speaker may have answered the question in the presentation.” For shame! Next time, listen up!

“I hate to be first.” So, you aspire to be second? Or merely a follower?

“I’m afraid of speaking in public.” The average person is more afraid of speaking in public than dying.  So, are you in that audience because you are an average or an exceptional person?  There are many ways to overcome this anxiety.  The easiest way is to just start asking a few good questions in a public event when invited to do so.

“The speaker knows more than I do.” Right! That’s why the speaker is on the stage, while you are not.  But, you are there to learn.  So, start by identifying one small area or thought whereby the speaker could enlighten you by sharing his/her insight.

“I should have prepared a few questions in advance.” Right again.  You should have done some research about the individual and formulated one or two questions to show you have a little interest in this topic.

“I wish I had more time to ask more than just one question.”  Which question is the most important one right now?  If you cannot get that one question asked and answered, why would the speaker bother with any of the other questions?

“I’d really like a one-on-one opportunity to talk with this individual.” Do you have secrets you don’t want to share with other members of the audience?  Why would this presenter possibly be interested in participating in that one-on-one with you if you don’t have the courage to express your questions in the public forum?

Imagine, if you would, the loss of idea development that might have resulted if Maryam Mirzakhani had not engaged Curtis McMullen in a creative dialog where she thought carefully about and asked some really good questions of him – so good, in fact, that he helped her achieve her doctoral goals as an advisor. Asking good questions is a fundamental skill that we all must develop.

Oh, and one more thought:  the question, "Will the presentation slides be available?" is NOT a valid, information-gathering, intelligence-enhancing question.  We really can do better than that!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Outstanding Woman in Mathematics: Maryam Mirzakhani

On August 13, three amazing women stood together on the stage at the 2014 Seoul, Korea International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM). Maryam Mirzakhani was recognized with the Fields Medal, an award for “outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement” from the International Mathematical Union (IMU). The Fields Medal is given to an exceptional mathematician aged 40 years or younger.  Including this year, there have been 56 recipients, but Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman so honored.  The IMU described Mirzakhani’s work in these glowing terms:

“Fluent in a remarkably diverse range of mathematical techniques and disparate mathematical cultures, she embodies a rare combination of superb te4chnical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity.”[i]

Her specialty is the geometry of hyperbolic surfaces and moduli spaces (a geometric space whose points represent some form of algebraic or geometric object). 

She described her own work in these terms:

“I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields – it’s very refreshing.  It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.”[ii]

The individuals who opened the congress and awarded Mirzakhani her medal (along with three others) were President Park Geun-hye (the first woman president of South Korea) and Ingrid Baroness Daubechies (the first woman president of the IMU and a noted Belgian physicist and mathematician in her own right). In 2000, Daubechies was the first woman to receive the National Academy of Sciences Award in Mathematics.

Biographical Background

Maryam Mirzakhani was born (May 1977) in Tehran, Iran. She was one of three children raised by supportive parents.  She read copiously about men and women role models, imagining herself  becoming a writer. Her parents placed her in Farzanegar high school, “a national organization for the development of exceptional talents,” yet her first math teacher failed to motivate her. It was her older brother who piqued her interest in science and math by showing her the mystery of Karl Friedrich Gauss’ method of adding numbers from 1 to 100 (consisting of a series of 50 pairs each adding up to 101, for a total of 5050).

In 1994, she and her close colleague and math partner at high school, Roya Beheshti (now Zavareh) became the first women to represent Iran in the International Mathematical Olympiad which was held in Hong Kong. Mirzakhani won the gold medal while Beheshti won the silver medal that year. In the Toronto competition in 1995, Mirzakhani received a perfect score.
In 1999, they both earned Bachelor of Science degrees in mathematics at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran.  Beheshti Zavareh went on to earn her Ph.D. in Mathematics from MIT in 2003 and currently is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis, MO.[iii]

Mirzakhani was accepted at Harvard University where she studied hyperbolic surfaces.  Her doctoral advisor at Harvard was Curtis McMullen (a 1998 Fields Medal winner). Mirzakhani attended the informal seminars that McMullen organized, where she regularly asking him questions. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 2004. She was a Clay Mathematics Institute (Providence, RI) Research Fellow and assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton University (Princeton, NJ) from 2004 to 2008. She joined Stanford University’s Department of Mathematics as a Professor in September 2008.

In 2009, she was awarded the Blumenthal Award (from the American Mathematical Society) for “the advancement of research in pure mathematics.” In 2013, she received the Ruth Lyttie Satter Prize (from the American Mathematical Society), recognizing an outstanding contribution to mathematics research by a woman during the preceding six years. In 2014, she was given a Clay Research Award from the Clay Mathematics Institute awarded to Mirzakhani and Peter Scholze to recognize their achievements in mathematical research.

Mentors, in addition to McMullen at Harvard, include Alex Eskin, professor of mathematics and collaborator from the University of Chicago, and Steven Kerckhoff, professor of mathematics at Stanford.

She is married to Jan Vondrak, a theoretical computer scientist at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, and they have a 3 year old daughter, Anahita.

The Fields Medal

The Fields Medal was created in 1936 from a behest left to the IMU by John Charles Fields, a Canadian mathematician and researcher who died in 1932.  The Fields Medal is one of five scientific and mathematical awards granted every four years for unique contributions to the field of mathematics. Fields himself did not originally set an age limit but wrote that, “… while it was in recognition of work already done it was at the same time intended to be an encouragement for further achievement on the part of the recipient and a stimulus to renewed effort on the party of others.”

The award includes a small stipend of about $15,000 (Canadian). Originally, surplus funds from the 1924 ICM gathering were combined with funds from Fields estate to support two award recipients. An anonymous donor provided additional sums in 1966 which made it possible to award four Fields Medals at each four year gathering of the IMU.

The four other IMU prizes are: 
  • Gauss Prize - to honor scientists whose mathematical research has had an impact outside mathematics – either in technology, in business, or simply in people's everyday lives.
  • Chern Medal Award – the highest level of recognition for outstanding achievements in the field of mathematics
  • Rolf Nevalinna Prize – for outstanding contributions in mathematical aspects of information sciences
  • Leelavati Prize (at the ICM Closing Ceremony) recognizes outstanding public outreach work for mathematics


Maryam Mirzakhani will prove to be an enduring role model for young girls who consider the opportunities in math. Lessons from her experience echo those we have seen before:
  • Parents who encouraged her and created surroundings that fostered her intellectual ambitions
  • A brother who provided a counterbalance to an uninspiring math teacher
  • A close friend (Roya Bereshti Zaraneh) with similar interests to challenge and support her
  • Excellence of education
  • Mentors whose intellect she pursued and who counselled her progress
  • Collaborators who were proud to pursue like interests with her
  • Organizations that recognized the unique contributions of their members
  • An open mind, herself, enabling her to reach across the silos of expertise
  • And an open mind, as well, among all those who saw her innate talents.     

[i] “The Work of Maryam Mirzakhani” from the International Mathematical Union, August 2014 Press Release,
[ii] “A Tenacious Explorer of Abstract Surfaces” by Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine, August 12, 2014
[iii] For more information on Roya Beheshti Zavareh, see:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

McKinsey Survey on Sustainability

In the Insights and Publications area of their website this month, McKinsey & Company reported the results of their survey of over 2,900 global corporate leaders (down from 3,847 in 2012) on the topic of sustainability. See: 

A key conclusion was that “many companies have far to go” before they can master the reputation, execution, and accountability of their sustainability programs. Less than half of the respondents (43 percent) stated that their companies sought to “align sustainability with their overall business goals, mission, or values.” That represented the largest share of respondents, but an increase from 30 percent in 2012. Thirty-six percent of CEOs stated that sustainability was a top priority compared to 32 percent of all other respondents.

A closer look at the underlying details raises some concerns.  McKinsey inquired about 13 core sustainability activities from which executives could select their priorities.  The field of sustainability includes four domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture in which human interaction with the environment can be synergistic and productive, rather than wasteful and destructive.

McKinsey said executives stated that specific sustainability priorities in 2011, 2o12, and 2013 for their companies were as follows:

       reducing energy use in operations (64 percent),
       reducing waste (63 percent), and
       managing their corporate reputations for sustainability (59 percent).

“…among these activities, reputation management has the highest value-creation potential for their industries over the next five years.”  Reputation management includes communicating with customers/consumers and external shareholders/stakeholders about their sustainability activities.

In other words, companies primarily are concerned about how their sustainability efforts are being perceived by their constituencies.  They view sustainability on a par with marketing, advertising, and public relations presenting their companies as “good citizens” in the battles and debates about environmental impacts.

Is this really what we want from our economic and business leaders? Does this suggest that CEOs/executives are more interested in the appearances of their work in sustainability rather than their actual performance metrics and accomplishments? McKinsey at least included “execution and accountability” among the core competencies to be tracked and monitored, but CEOs/executives opted for the more ephemeral “reputation” impact.

Using the example of companies in the extractive industry sectors, McKinsey stated that companies focused on three “reputation-building actions:”

local community investments,
external reporting, and
employee volunteering.

None of these relate to substantive measures WITHIN corporations. Local community investments provide positive PR for companies for work conducted outside of the company walls, often by public entities. External reporting means that companies are not presenting transparent documentation or action reports about their own actions and measurable results. Employee volunteering is companies riding the backs of well-intended workers.  Where are the measurable accountabilities of companies themselves?

Sustainability has many potential economic activities that are far more important and measurable than “reputation management.”  These are suggestive:

         Reduce packaging
         Re-utilize materials
         Alternative energy sources
         Pollution reduction
         Water conservation
         Prevention of adverse environmental impacts

The core requirement of sustainability should be reminiscent of the guide to those enjoying our National Parks: enter only with your eyes and your camera, take out only your memories, leave only your footprints. Your reputation as a global citizen will take care of itself.

Presenting Yourself

Presenting Yourself: Reflecting Your Worth in Your Presentation Skills

SPEAKER: Elizabeth Ghaffari, Founder of Champion Boards & President of Technology Place, Inc

In this two-part presentation, Elizabeth Ghaffari discusses the research and advice provided by Ellen Welty in her Redbook article entitled “Are Your Words Holding You Back?” Ms. Welty’s work is highlighted in Elizabeth’s upcoming book, Tapping the Wisdom that Surrounds You: Mentorship and Women (forthcoming this Fall 2014 from Praeger). The second part discusses presentation suggestions from Elizabeth’s experience as coach and judge for Los Angeles-area business plan/pitch competitions.

Ms. Welty provided her thoughts upon viewing the presentation, as follows:

Dear Elizabeth,

What a fantastic presentation you gave. You did a great job of distilling my article’s recommendations and including the details that will make it easy for attendees to find the books written by the experts I interviewed (books that will give them a whole other level of expertise).

Your advice in the second half on how to give a better presentation was very helpful, and I loved the way you used humor to convey some of your points. Nice mention of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, also!

You asked some great questions of the attendees. I especially liked your answer to the question, “What do you do with the fear?”

And Sheila Ronning capped it all off with advice that’s as useful as it was unexpected: to bite your tongue if you’re struggling with a dry mouth brought on by nerves.

I thank you, Sheila and Cortney for sharing the webinar with me. And, Elizabeth, I truly look forward to reading your new book, Tapping the Wisdom That Surrounds You: Mentorship and Women.

Best regards,

Ellen Welty, Writer and Editor