Quality and Diversity, Especially Women in Tech
The newly launched R Consortium has announced its inaugural Board members, and not one of them is a woman. (Even more unfortunately, I don’t think any of them are active R users; although I’m sure he’s used it, the new President’s bio establishes him as a SAS and S-PLUS user.)
Although I’m sure the lack of diversity is an oversight (as it so often is), I’ve gotten my knickers in a knot a lot more about this issue lately. It’s probably just because I’m getting older (I’ll be 40 next year), but it’s also due to the fact that I’ve been reflecting an awful lot more lately: about what I’ve done, and what I’ve chosen not to do. About how I’ve struggled, and the battles I’ve chosen (versus those I’ve chosen to ignore). About how the subtle and unspoken climate of women in technology is keeping them out, and chasing them away, even though the industry needs more.
I really love programming. I’ve been doing it since 1982, when I realized that I could make my Atari 800 beep on command.
But in the workplace, I never really felt comfortable as a programmer. Whether they intended to or not, male colleagues always gave off a vibe of mistrust when they integrated my code… they always had a better way to design a new module, or a better approach to resolve a troubleshooting issue. When I got an instrumentation job that required field work on the hardware, I’d hear comments like “maybe you can stay here… girls don’t like to get dirty.” I felt uncomfortable geeking out with other women because I even felt like I’d be judged by them… like if they were some technical rock star, they would find my skills an embarrassment to other women like themselves who were trying to become experts.
So I went into software development management, where my role was much more accepted. My job was to let the coders do their job, and just keep everyone else out of their hair. I remember hearing comments like “you know a lot more about code than I thought you would.” I wanted to get a lot deeper into the technical aspects of the work, but I never felt like one of the guys. So I stopped trying.
Even while working as a manager, the organizations I was a part of were always male-dominated, in both the hierarchy and the style and tone of the work environment. (It was much like the masculine, emotionally void environment of so many of the classrooms I’d spent time in during my youth.) I felt lots of pressure to be firm and decisive, to never show emotions, and to work a 60 hour week even when I had a newborn at home. When I was firm and unyielding, I was called “difficult” and “strident.” I changed my approach and became “not assertive enough.” The women who I saw as being successful were all decidedly masculine, and I couldn’t transform my personality to become an ultra-productive, emotion-suppressing machine. (I’ve got the personality of an artist, and I’ve got to flow with my ideas and inspiration.)
Eventually I lost my mojo, switched careers entirely and went into higher education. (What do I teach? Mostly R… so I’m having fun, and I get to code pretty much every day.) But I still fantasize about getting back into the technical workforce and being one of those rare women leaders in technology (which I try to rationalize is not that rare at all, because I know plenty of women scientists, engineers, and technicians). But yeah, comparatively, we are a minority.
My situation is not unique. So why does this tend to happen? Gordon Hunt of Silicon Republic reports that gender stereotypes, a small talent pool, and in-group favoritism are to blame. I’ll agree with the gender stereotyping – even women do it to each other. My college roommate called me “Nerdcole” and it was sort of endearing, and sort of not. As a hiring manager, I remember being surprised every time a resume from a woman crossed my email box, and giving it a second look no matter what. I remember feeling guilty every time I thought “oh, well, she can’t be as serious about doing this as the guys are.” As for in-group favoritism, I think it’s hard not to favor naturally masculine people for jobs in a naturally masculine environment.
The role of diversity in achieving quality and stimulating innovation has not been deeply explored in the research. Doing a quick literature search, I could only find a few examples. Liang et al. (2013) found that diversity does influence innovation, but due to inconsistent outcomes they couldn’t recommend a management intervention. Feldman & Audretch (1999) found that more innovation occurs in cities because of greater diversity. Ostergaard et al. (2011) explored the breadth of a firm’s knowledge base and its influence on innovation. And in one of my favorite papers ever, Bassett-Jones (2005) explains that diversity creates a “combustible cocktail of creative tension” that, although difficult to manage, ultimately enhancesa firm’s innovation performance.
I found no papers that looked at a link between diversity and quality performance.
But I would love to have a combustible cocktail of creative tension right now.
In a past job I worked as a contractor at the NCI, and I got to know Kara Hall who has led the Science of Team Science initiative there (see https://www.teamsciencetoolkit.cancer.gov/Public/Home.aspx) and also leads the annual Science of Team Science meetings (http://www.scienceofteamscience.org/). This group of academics and working researchers are all interested in understanding how team dynamics of all stripes affects the performance of teams. One member of this group, Holly Falk-Krzesinski, has also created a Mendeley group (https://www.mendeley.com/groups/3556001/science-of-team-science-scits/) focused on team science where members can add research papers that focus on some aspect of team science. I just did a search using “gender” and “quality” that produced 9 papers; I exported the citations to my Dropbox (https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2732693/Mendeley%20SciTS.bib) for you to look over.
I hope this info helps you. Since you write about your experiences in managing groups/teams, you might be interested in the work of the SciTS folks.
I forwarded your post below on to the contact I had for the R Consortium, Trisham de Lanerolle, and she responded very quickly. I’ve copied my email and her response below:
I’m a huge fan of R (have been since first introduced to it in 2011 at an APS conference) and I’m currently taking a Coursera Specialization in Data Science that uses R exclusively. I see that R is definitely in my future! Recently I came across the work of an educator at James Madison University, Nicole Radziwill, who is also passionate about R and I have been following her blogs ever since. I woke this morning to read the following blog about the lack of diversity in the newly constituted board for the R-Consortium. I’m forwarding this to you to let you know that I share Nicole’s concerns. I have always valued the different perspectives that others bring to any organization or project, and “oddly enough” I have found that women have been huge contributors on my projects.
I hope that as your consortium starts to build out its organization that you ensure that diversity is part of your organizational DNA and not just a slogan that get slapped on later.
Hi Paul, Thank you for sharing your concerns and thoughts. The R Consortium is in the formative stages and we are in the process of launching various activities, establishing procedures and operational structures. We hope to establish an organization, that will be a reflection of the broader industry, growing adoption and usage of R collaboratively. We will bring your comments and the blog post to the attention of the board. Regards, Trishan
Have a great day!
Wow Paul — that’s fantastic! Thanks so much for bringing this to the attention of the R Consortium. Hey, maybe we just had an influence on the way things will shake out 🙂 🙂 🙂 That makes me feel really good. –Nicole
Well maybe we did! It made my day to have gotten such a quick response. Maybe we could help them establish some useful procedures 🙂
The aim of the Compact is to support a step-change in how women and girls are encouraged to consider technology and engineering careers and the subject choices or vocational pathways especially the study of maths and physics – that lead to them. University to increase participation, address skills shortages, find untapped talent and create a more diverse workforce.