Jennifer Chayes has spent her career standing out. The daughter of Iranian immigrants and an accomplished academic in the male-dominated field of mathematical physics, she was the first woman to lead one of Microsoft Corp.’s research labs, where the Redmond, Wash., software giant spends millions annually to spur the next wave of innovation.
Now she’s using her post to inspire more young women to pursue math and science in hopes that being a top female technologist will no longer be a rarity. “If all their role models are male, it’s hard for them to imagine themselves in that situation,” says Chayes, 56, who cofounded Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge in 2008 and helped launch Microsoft Research New York City this year.
She actively works with DigiGirlz, a Microsoft initiative to expose high school girls to technology. Chayes is also making sure that Microsoft Research is a welcoming home for talented women. Forty-four percent of the full-time researchers at Microsoft’s lab in Cambridge are female. That is an anomaly in technology. Overall, women occupy just 25 percent of computing jobs, according to the Department of Labor.
Chayes wasn’t always a champion. Early in her career, she was too busy developing advanced mathematical algorithms to focus on gender equality. But the issue became clear after she began teaching math at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s. When Chayes encouraged promising female students to pursue advanced studies, she was often met with disinterest.
Again and again she saw “that young women who were really good thought they weren’t really good,” she says. “It began to occur to me that there was a crisis of confidence.”
Few role models is part of the problem, says Elizabeth Ames, a spokeswoman for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a Palo Alto, Calif., group that promotes women in tech fields. It honored Chayes in May with its annual Women of Vision Leadership Award.
“Leading technical women like Jennifer Chayes are rarely covered in the media, so the myth that only men make great computer scientists is perpetuated,” says Ames. “Why would we think it is reasonable to leave half of our smartest people on the sidelines in an area that is vital to propelling our economy?”
— Michael B. Farrell