Fifteen out of the top 20 names on the 2013 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies are in the fields of science, engineering, and technology (SET). Will they be able to attract and retain enough talent to keep growing? 

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, SET industries are where the jobs are--and will be in the foreseeable future. Over the next 10 years, SET job creation will outpace non-SET jobs significantly, growing 17 percent, compared to 9.8 percent for non-stem positions. Jobs in computer systems design and related services are projected to grow 45 percent between 2008 and 2018. The occupations with the fastest projected growth--biomedical engineers, network systems and data communications analysts, and medical scientists--also call for degrees in SET fields. 

But there's a serious problem that could dim this rosy picture: a lack of skilled workers. How can small companies and startups compete with the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, which say they will need to fill more than 650,000 new jobs--two-thirds in SET roles--by 2018 to meet their growth projections? 

The answer is hiding in plain sight: According to new research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), there's an enormous pool of skilled female talent, eager to use their knowledge and plumb their potential. In the U.S. alone, women earned more than half of bachelor's degrees in SET. CTI's recent report, "Athena Factor 2.0: Accelerating Female Talent in Science, Engineering and Technology," points out that female SET talent in the United States are ambitious (76 consider themselves to be "very ambitious") and committed (80 percent love their work). 

But they don't love their workplace. In fact, the same report found that 35 percent of SET women in the U.S. feel stalled in their career progress, especially women between ages 25 and 34. As a result, nearly one-third (32 percent) say they are likely to leave within a year. 

Turned Off and Tuning Out 

Why are so many of these women eyeing the exits? The study finds that powerful "antigens" in SET corporate environments block them from contributing their full potential at work. Gender bias is the common denominator, manifesting in hostile macho cultures that marginalize women, making them feel isolated; 21 percent of U.S. women in science say they experience "lab-coat cultures," 25 percent in engineering face "hard-hat cultures," and 31 percent in tech face "geek workplace cultures."

SET women also perceive a double standard in how they are perceived by colleagues and managers. Bias in performance evaluation is systemic: nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of women in the U.S. perceive bias in their performance evaluations. More than half of U.S. women work alongside colleagues who believe men have a genetic advantage in math and science. 

All of these elements sap ambition. Furthermore, a dearth of female role models and effective sponsors leaves many SET women unsure of what it takes to be a leader: nearly one-third (31 percent) feel they have to compromise their authenticity and 44 percent of U.S. women feel that in order to progress they have to behave like a man. "What does it take to be considered leadership material?" asks a former project manager at Microsoft. She glumly concludes, "I think you have to be a man." 

Unable to contribute their full innovative potential, it's not surprising that nearly a third of SET women have one foot out the door. 

However, this disenchantment with the established male-dominant model prevalent at so many large SET corporations is an opportunity for smaller companies and start-ups. Women are fleeing the behemoths and flocking to start-ups. In fact, a recent analysis by Dow Jones VentureSource shows that successful startups have more women in senior positions than unsuccessful ones. 

Finding and Keeping This Talent 

What can small companies and startups do differently to attract and retain this rich pool of female talent? 

Our research shows that when SET women are fully engaged, and when leadership creates the speak-up culture wherein their ideas might be heard, companies enjoy a "diversity dividend" that translates into increased market share and entry into altogether new markets. Companies that create a culture in which leaders make sure women get equal airtime are 89 percent more likely than companies with non-inclusive leaders to unleash women's innovative potential. And leaders who make sure each female member on the team gets constructive and supportive feedback are 128 percent more likely to elicit breakthrough ideas. 

Additionally, organizations can create opportunities for sponsorship. Sponsors help their protégés crack the unwritten code of executive presence, improving their chances of being perceived as leadership material. Most important, sponsors help women get their ideas heard and implemented. That's one of the best ways to engender respect, open opportunities to promotion--and ensure the success not just for these smart women but for the companies smart enough to know how to tap their talent. 

Companies are moving into an era that will be characterized by an unprecedented fight for growth. Talented and committed, women in SET are a potent source of power which no company can afford to ignore. Companies that help women advance and realize their potential will be rewarded with a rich pipeline of innovative ideas, giving them a sustainable competitive edge, both now and in the future.

Check out more details about this powerful source of talent below. Click here for an enlarged version of the infographic.