Ritu Favre: against the grain

Ritu Favre. Photograph by Scott R. Kline.

If you were to take the measure of Ritu Favre’s lifelong behavior using some kind of biometric tool, you’d see a pattern of accomplishment that started early — long before the age of 12 when she entered high school, or 15 when she graduated and went to college, through the grueling years it took her to earn a master’s in electrical engineering, and then a rapid ascent up the management ladder at several major tech companies before she became CEO at the Norwegian firm NEXT Biometrics.

Biometrics is the measurement and analysis of personal characteristics, like fingerprints and shopping habits. It’s one of the fastest-growing segments within the information technology sector and its increasing prevalence affects our future as a society. People who work in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) are driving the progress. 

THE QUESTION IS, WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN?

They represent 11 percent of executives among tech companies worldwide. The number gets lower when you climb the ranks to CEO, as Favre has done as the first woman to head a global fingerprint sensor company. This startling inequality has many institutions scrambling to change the perception of bias. 

Recently, an employee at Google theorized that women have traits making them less biologically suited to work in tech. His memo went viral and Google fired him. 

Repeated condemnation of these views, however, has yet to establish them as obvious bias. These are merely differing opinions, the argument goes, pivoting the discussion off-topic and refocusing it on freedom of speech. (No freedom of speech argument, however, can be made for the culture of sexual harassment that women have recently said exists in the tech industry.)

Favre’s own story, however, echoes what research suggests:  It’s not that girls don’t have what it takes to excel in STEM; it’s that society tells them they can’t. As a pioneer of a company that’s risen to the top of its sector under her leadership, Favre serves as inspiration.

The cornerstone of NEXT is to position the world’s first flexible fingerprint sensor that meets all ISO (International Organization for Standardization) requirements for smart card markets at a time when the biometric sector is exploding. Its advantage is a sensor size large enough for print readings that’s durable, bendable and cost-efficient. Favre’s enthusiasm for the technology is now focused on scaling up the distribution of the device and refining its simplicity, a goal that is catapulting NEXT to the forefront of the industry. 

HER STORY

Favre was largely shielded from gender bias by a family that refused to perpetuate it. 

When she was young, growing up in Mesa, Arizona, it never dawned on her that she was a “girl,” she says. She credits her parents, who placed great importance on education.

“My father said, ‘It doesn’t matter if I have a girl or a boy. I want my children to be independent,’” Favre recalls. 

No subject was deemed too hard. Favre laughs as she recounts one of her earliest motivating factors — learning enough to stop her father from tutoring her in 8th-grade algebra.

Her parents’ gender-neutral expectations carried her forward. At Arizona State University, “I still didn’t really notice that I was a girl,” she says. “All I knew was that these classes were so hard.” 

But she was expected to succeed, so she did. 

“When I started to hit management ranks, that’s when I really start to feel it,” she says, “like a lot.”

Favre was surprised at “being talked over, not listened to and discounted.” If she was forceful in her viewpoint, she was seen as emotional or angry. If she wasn’t, she was deemed too weak. These are experiences echoed by women in tech — and in other fields such as politics — the world over. Some countries are addressing the problem through mandates.

Though Favre and her family are based in California, she thinks working for a Norwegian-based company has made a difference.

 “I do think America is struggling with how to fit diversity,” she says, noting that mandating to some extent forces people to learn to work together. Norway was the first country to introduce quotas requiring that public companies fill at least 40 percent of their board seats with women. There are two women out of five on Favre’s board.

“When all the men are talking and agreeing with themselves, they don’t see a problem,” she says.

Family/work balance is often sighted as a contributor to the gender gap. Favre thinks that in order to succeed, she had little choice but to absorb the added pressure, not trade one responsibility for the other. She says that as a CEO, wife and mother of two, “I basically have three full-time jobs. The person that’s left behind is you.”

WOMEN IN STEM

Prior to high-school graduation, girls’ participation and achievement in math and science is on a par with that of boys. They perform equally well on standardized tests and enrollment in advanced science courses.

These rates shift at the undergraduate level where only 11 percent of women earn bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, according to the NGC (National Girls Collaborative) Project. 

Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce but only 29 percent of the fields of science and engineering. 

The question that persists is: Why doesn’t the number of women in STEM reflect the interest girls demonstrate in math and science early on? While there may be a number of nature-nurture factors, including different expectations for each gender and workplace discrimination, will Favre is determined that her daughter’s choices not be a result of  unconscious bias.

STEAM HEAT

One effort gaining momentum is the addition of the arts rolled into the standard formulation of STEM, making STEAM. 

“I like the idea a lot,” says Favre, who sees that adding art and design as an entry point into the classic STEM subjects will make the fields more accessible to students who never considered them.

Still, she worries we run the risk of diluting certain challenges by adding the arts after a history of diverting women into the “softer” subjects. Girls shouldn’t be deterred from that level of difficulty.

“When math gets hard,” Favre says, “we as a culture need to say, ‘You can do it.’”

For more, visit nextbiometrics.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *