Editor’s note: “Breaking Glass” is a regular feature that focuses on women and minority executives and the issues minorities face in the high-tech industry. “High Tech” will return next week.When Deborah Clayton begins her new job as director of the UNC Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation (CITI), she’ll bring with her a varied background as a science teacher, academician, high tech entrepreneur, consultant and technology transfer officer at one of the country’s leading labs.
As CITI’s first permanent director, she’ll draw upon all her experiences as she seeks to put UNC Charlotte — and the Charlotte region — on the map as a high tech and applied research center. Her work will begin immediately to raise CITI’s profile and effectiveness as an economic development generator, to attract funding for research, and to strengthen its ties with the region’s businesses.
Clayton, 54, was most recently director of operations for the office of technology transfer for the Chicago-based Argonne National Laboratory. Previous to that, she served in a technical advisory position for R.R. Donnelly and Sons and was co-founder, vice president and COO for Orchid One Corp., a developer of precision electron-optic components. She helped found the Alabama Electron Microscopy Society and received the Microscopy Society of America’s first distinguished service award.
Initial reports of her hiring in the Charlotte media in June focused on her success in raising funds for Argonne and her economic development contributions, as well as what a coup it was for UNC Charlotte to attract such a heavy-hitter to CITI. But none touched upon her gender, and how she has stood out in a field dominated by men at every level.
It could be because Clayton hasn’t considered it unusual. When Local Tech Wire contacted her about her experiences as a woman in the tech field, she was genuinely surprised anyone would be interested in the topic. But despite being in the midst of a major career and life transition, she took the time to give much thought to the topic.
Do you consider yourself a girl geek?
I have never found labels or stereotypes of value. What is significant is the fact that I was blessed with a strongly supportive family and the ability to succeed in a traditionally male-dominated field. By example, I hope that my past success as an educator, scientist, entrepreneur and administrator – and my anticipated interactions at the UNC Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation (CITI) – will serve to encourage all women to follow their dreams, not only in science and technology, but in whatever field of endeavor they choose.
UNC Charlotte is the perfect venue for these realizations. The number of talented female faculty is impressive, and the university continues to grow and expand, offering further opportunities and advancement. For example, consider Robin Coger, a bio-mechanical engineer in the Mechanical Engineer and Engineering Sciences group; Angela Davies, assistant professor in physics; Banita Brown, associate professor in chemistry; and Susan Marshall, associate professor in earth sciences.
Your first job was as a science teacher. Were you drawn to that because of a deep love of science, and you thought teaching was the best way you could do it? Or because you really wanted to teach, and science was the subject you chose?
Even as a young child, the sciences intrigued me, so it was no surprise that my undergraduate degree was in biology (with a good smattering of chemistry). I spent almost a year in Seville, Spain shortly after graduation from Tulane University and quite serendipitously was offered a position teaching at a British school in the city. I had not intended to begin my career in academia, but found this opportunity both enjoyable and personally rewarding. It wasn’t one career choice or direction over another–it was a gift. Returning to the States, the value and importance of the teaching profession was emphasized further during my years spent at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
Is it lonely being a woman in the tech field?
The field of technology is too exciting, too rewarding and in constant flux to ever feel lonely, whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s all about the work, and working effectively as a team to achieve goals in a time and cost-effective manner.
Whether it’s as researchers or academicians, entrepreneurs or in management, there are still few women in technology. Why do you think this is the case?
I don’t have statistical data on the number of women in technology, but I do know that at UNC Charlotte, women accounted for nearly one-third of last fall’s student enrollment in engineering, IT and science programs. Of the 2001-02 degrees conferred in the same fields at the university, 27% of the honorees were females. Nationally, there are some incredible examples of female “technophiles” achieving success. One only needs to look at the rising number of female university presidents and chancellors having technical backgrounds to support this claim. That includes Princeton President, Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist; Maryanne Fox, chancellor of North Carolina State University, a chemist; and Shirley Ann Jack of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a theoretical physicist.
Do women in tech face roadblocks or challenges that their male colleagues do not?
The equal opportunity pendulum rarely stops moving entirely. I was fortunate to have supervisors, most of whom were men, who rewarded and promoted women for their contributions, valued their judgment, and respected their talents. Regarding women leaving the workforce to raise a family, I think some very well respected Fortune 500 companies have shown us that women can do both: have children and enjoy a rewarding career. Life is made up of choices. Everyone — male and female alike — has the ability to set priorities and goals. During that process, challenges surface. It is up to the individual to determine what is best for him/her overall.
You’ve been an entrepreneur. Are women tech entrepreneurs treated differently or face unique situations or challenges?
There are numerous challenges one faces as an entrepreneur, none of which I believe are gender specific. It takes a unique type of individual to address the risks that arise daily in a start-up company. How these are handled, I believe, is personality-based, not gender-based. America was built on the genius and hard work of the unique types of individuals who thrive on risk, challenge and the unexpected happening. True entrepreneurs, male or female, are energized by it.
Are schools — society as a whole — doing enough to encourage girls to go into science and technology?
How does one determine what is enough? Results from the biennial survey of the National Sciences Foundation suggest that parents and educators need to do more to illustrate the career satisfaction that young girls can anticipate by studying the sciences. But couldn’t we say that to all school children in America? The study also revealed that 70 percent of Americans do not understand science
Did you (do you now) have a role model or someone who inspired you?
Mentors are important contributors to an individual’s maturing process. They can be teachers, advisors or guardian angels. I have been blessed with having many wonderful personalities in my life, both male and female, who have unselfishly provided guidance. I have been most inspired, however, by the women in my family: my maternal grandmother, my mother and my daughter. These three women have consistently helped me towards my path of fulfillment, both professionally and spiritually. Their abilities, talents, strengths and, most important of all, their sense of humor, help to keep me focused, regardless of what setbacks might come along.
How would you describe your management style?
My management style–perhaps you should ask my staff!! I would like to think that I do not micro-manage. I believe everyone can achieve his/her potential if given the opportunity and guidance. I am very much a hands-on person. I like to be involved with the development of a concept, but readily defer to those having more expertise in a particular area. I like the team environment for it encourages out-of- the- box thinking and provides all participants with an opportunity to learn. This is one of many attractions UNC Charlotte offers. There is a great deal of talent and commitment to make things happen. This is particularly true regarding the Charlotte Institute.