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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Women Make Notable Gains in Local STEM Workforce

San Diego County is the third largest biotech hub in the country and ranks fifth nationally for the number of tech jobs. Most recently, the region hit an important milestone by achieving gender parity in the Physical and Life Sciences workforce.

Despite making notable gains in female representation in the STEM workforce, women are significantly underrepresented, especially in executive and management roles. In fact, research shows women account for only 26% of the national STEM workforce and 23% in San Diego County’s STEM workforce.

A San Diego nonprofit is determined to improve this stunning data. Founded in 1998, Athena is a women’s empowerment organization that fast tracks women working in STEM through leadership development and peer mentoring. The two-decade old organization aims to empower one million women leading in STEM by 2030.

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.

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“As the demand for STEM talent increases, women’s share of those jobs remain relatively flat. In an equitable workforce, men and women enjoy equal representation and equal pay,” said Holly Smithson, chief executive officer of Athena. “We’re not there yet in the fields of STEM. In key areas, San Diego County is leading the way in positive trends that promote women in STEM, but in other areas, it lags.”

San Diego is home to world-leading companies such as Qualcomm, Illumina and ViaSat (as well as more than 1,200 other life science and tech firms), the region’s economy thrives on having a talented, inspired and diverse pool of talent.

The Business Journal spoke to several diversity leaders to learn the success inside San Diego’s global STEM hub as well as workforce strategies in place to tackle this trend.


“At Qualcomm, from the very beginning we have fostered extremely diverse groups of people ranging from engineers to non-engineers to all kinds of different races nationality genders,” said Vicki Mealer-Burke, chief diversity officer of Qualcomm.

The number of women employed at Qualcomm as a percentage of the overall workforce lags slightly behind the 26.5% found at Intel and the 24% of AMD, a global semiconductor company.

Mealer-Burke explains this is one of the areas Qualcomm is focusing on, across countries, through innovative hiring and retention best practices.

Redesigning its college graduate strategy, Qualcomm has funded several initiatives over the years including hiring recruiters specifically targeting universities both inside and outside the U.S. with a high percentage of female enrollment within specific STEM areas.

“UC San Diego has made a long term commitment to building diversity into their student enrollment, when we find those types of universities, we double down and make sure that it is a two-way relationship,” said Mealer-Burke. “For example, I’ve had the pleasure to work with Lisa Ordóñez, the new dean of the Rady School of Management on a number of areas. Continuing to hire female deans in those areas, really shows UCSD’s understanding and commitment to producing graduates that companies like ours are going to be able to take advantage of.”

This year, the Qualcomm internship class recruited 66 engineers from UCSD, with 22% female interns out of those 66.


Truvian is a healthcare company at the intersection of diagnostics and consumer tech, and is one of the few companies that has been able to achieve true gender parity across the board.

“About 46% of our talent is female and our executive leadership team is 50-50,” said Katherine Atkinson, chief commercial officer of Truvian. “Our hiring efforts are naturally diverse because our leadership, management and board are very diverse.”

Atkinson said the company finds most of its candidates from employee referrals.

“When you have diversity, it removes potential biases in the sourcing and screening process,” Atkinson said. “It reduces the probability of shortlisting those candidates. It’s been extremely helpful.”

Atkinson added that she is proud to be at the forefront of progress in her role at Truvian, noting that the company’s chair of the board is also female.

“We are helping lead the way and we’re excited to see the work that Athena is doing to help make a difference here.”


Teradata, a Rancho Bernardo-based data and analytics technology company, saw an increase in their female and minority employee representation to 31% in 2019, a 5% increase from prior years.

“At Teradata, we have individuals that are nonbinary, transgender and members of the LGBTQ community,” said Juanita Hendrickson, vice president of Human Resources at Teradata. “We offer a program called Women of Teradata network within each of our regions. We also expanded our active participation globally for women, allies and advocates focused on growth and development.”

Hendrickson said Teradata partnered with Athena to provide its female employees professional development training and resources, including leadership forums and expert panels.

“The thought leadership and programmatic work that Athena represents for the local San Diego community cannot be under celebrated,” said Hendrickson. “They have been clear partners with us on this journey and strong partners helping advocate for women in the workforce. Obviously, we are not done, nobody should ever be done and we will continue learning and improving our representation.”

UC San Diego

“At the Jacobs School of Engineering, we have many opportunities for companies to engage with us in order to support women and other students who are traditionally underrepresented in engineering and computing,” said Christine Alvarado, associate dean for students at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering. “Creating majority-women recruiting spaces, such as is done at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, can help level this playing field. I encourage more San Diego companies to recruit at these types of venues.”

Alvarado said companies can further strengthen their efforts to diversify their workforces by getting involved before students graduate. Early internship programs with a focus on high quality mentoring are one example.

“My experiences as an educator and as a researcher point to the fact that specific actions can and should be taken in order to improve educational, recruiting and career outcomes for women in STEM. The good news is that companies have many opportunities to play active and productive roles in diversifying their workforces through thoughtful efforts before, during and after STEM students graduate from college,” said Alvarado.

She added that early internship programs could provide students with high-quality mentoring, particularly as part of a cohort of at least two or more women at the same company, can give women students a supportive and empowering way to get started at a company and help companies secure top talent early.

Looking Forward

“It is imperative that San Diego county probe deeper into understanding why local women are not well represented in STEM management positions. San Diego should also seek to understand why the greater number of female STEM graduates in the region is not translating into more equal representation in the local workforce,” said Smithson.

Looking forward, Smithson believes greater diversity in San Diego’s STEM workforce will translate into vibrant industries that reflect the diversity of our communities and customers.

“We’re a global STEM hub, we can do better,” said Smithson. “To be globally competitive, we have to continue producing innovative products and services, which requires having a diverse and modern workforce. We’ve got a ways to go.”

To view full report, please visit www.­athenasd.org/research-and-data. 


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