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.