Earlier this summer, Lego, whose toys have stimulated so many children's dreams, released the Research Institute, a groundbreaking set featuring a paleontologist, astronomer and chemist mini-figures--all of them female. The set sold out within days, a testament to girls' widespread excitement about science. Yet, puzzlingly, Lego has no plans to reissue it.

Ironically, the story of Research Institute is a perfect metaphor for women choosing careers in science, engineering and technology (SET): Their early enthusiasm is thwarted by companies that first encourage but then ignore them.

U.S. women in SET overwhelmingly love their work and are eager to progress in their careers, according to research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI). Yet more than a quarter (27 percent) feel stalled and nearly a quarter (23 percent) of SET women believe "a female would never get a top position at my company, no matter how able or high-performing."

The result: 32 percent of U.S. women working in SET fields are likely to leave their job within the year.

What causes smart women to head for the exit?

  • Ambition-sapping antigens. Gender bias is a persistent and pernicious problem: More than a third of U.S. women perceive bias in their performance evaluations. More than half work alongside colleagues who believe men have a genetic advantage in math and science.
  • Male leadership models. CTI research finds that 44 percent of U.S. women feel that behaving like a man will help them advance and nearly half (46 percent) believe senior management more readily sees men as "leadership material."
  • Lack of senior-level support. A dearth of effective sponsors leaves many women without someone to protect, advise and promote them or their ideas.

In other words, because women don't look, sound or act like the alpha male, or because they lack senior-level support, women's ideas and innovations hit a chokepoint. In the US, SET men are 20 percent more likely to see their innovative idea make it to market than their female counterparts. Unable to contribute their full innovative potential, it's not surprising that so many SET women have one foot out the door.

That's not only bad for women; it's bad for business. This was an underlining theme during the "Women Tech Entrepreneurs: Increasing Impact; Driving Results" panel discussion at last week's Tech Week New York. Panelists from CTI, Google and Siemens discussed the disadvantages of not having female or diverse talent on teams. Rose Marie Glazer, general counsel at Americas Siemens Corp, stated that investors and consumers are demanding more diversity in the industry and companies that get it right stand to gain greater market share and competitive edge.

Fortunately, both SET employers and women in SET jobs can take steps to stem the exodus of female talent, and sustain and advance their careers. A first--and very important- step: Jumpstart sponsorship. As I've written in Forget A Mentor. Find A Sponsor, sponsors help their protgs 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--one of the best ways to engender respect and open opportunities to promotion.

CTI's extensive research on sponsorship shows sponsors tend to help people who remind them of themselves. Because senior SET leaders are still overwhelmingly male, it's that much harder for women to trigger that instinctive outreach.

Yet, women can get the leverage they need to succeed by following these strategies:

  • Go for the leaders with "juice." Women in science, engineering and technology overwhelmingly confuse mentors, role models and people who like them with sponsors, or people who can actually help them and are motivated to do so. Don't look for comfort; seek out clout--leaders who have the power to make a real difference in your career.
  • Grasp the power of performance. Sponsors back people who over-deliver--not just for the sponsor but for the firm. Hit those deadlines, deliver on targets, and drive superior results that will burnish the sponsor's legacy and show your commitment to the company's mission.
  • Deploy your difference. Draw on insights afforded by your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or socio-economic, religious or cultural background. Look for gaps--in strategies or even your sponsor's skills--and use your experience to fill them. That's what Portal creator Swift did in creating a game that appealed to a broader audience than typical gamers.
  • Exude executive presence. Are you "leadership material?" More importantly, do others perceive you to be? Focus on the three pillars of executive presence: appearance (looking like a leader); communication (sounding like a leader); gravitas (acting like a leader). The more you can convince your sponsor that you have EP, the more likely he or she will believe you do.

Women in SET jobs are responsible for a plethora of inventions that make our lives healthier, safer, easier, and more enjoyable: from Scotchgard to the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner; from the first drugs to treat leukemia and aid in organ transplants to Kevlar; from the pioneering Web application Blogger, which sparked the phenomenon we now call blogs, to the innovative--and bestselling--video game Portal. And, not surprisingly, Lego's Research Institute.

But in order for the girls who play with Research Institute today to achieve their full potential tomorrow, SET must become a more welcoming environment. The sooner that happens, the better for SET companies and their talented women.