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Innovation goes together with representation

9 Aug

In the wake of the now-infamous Google memo, some have argued that whether or not its author should have been fired, is a hard question to answer, because of the company’s commitment to open discussion.  I’m not sure that this is such a hard question to answer.  The memo proposed that women were intrinsically less attracted to, and less capable of, coding careers than men.  It argued that biology explained the lack of women in technology firms and their comparative absence at senior levels.   If you believe that companies embody a set values and create a working culture – and technology giants with their global missions and highly-designed office spaces, do this more self-consciously than many – then contravening central tenets of that culture has to be problematic at best.

Google aims to bring its products to all, and it has already had to confront its lack of internal diversity publicly.  Publication of its staffing ratios (69% of all workers are male and only 20% of technical jobs are held women; 2% of employees are African American) has led to open discussion of diversity issues, and to pledges to improve the picture.  Google, furthermore, has been embroiled in a potential legal challenge around sex discrimination and the gender pay gap, which the US Department of Labour has described as showing ‘extreme’ disparities.  In this atmosphere, what the firm is seen to do in response to reductionist arguments about who is good at tech, is crucial to its reputation.  Complacency is not an option.  As a former Google employee forcefully argued, publishing a memo that suggests that part of the workforce (the female part) is intrinsically unsuited to its work, and is present for politically correct reasons, has consequences for both the author of the memo, and for the company.  In publishing the memo, the author has made it very challenging to assign collaborative work to him; nor could a manager easily put women in his team, after he has said what he has said. And having put in place the conditions for a ‘textbook hostile working environment’ the only realistic choice was to remove the author from his job. Meanwhile the company has to deal with internal dismay in its workforce, and external reputational damage.

What would the alternative be?  To leave the man in his place and educate him about just how flawed his arguments are? This seems pretty hard in situation where the author overlooks that there are systemic and cultural reasons why women may not be thriving in tech.  As the FT put it today, ‘It is clear from history and social science that bias and inequity do have an effect on the composition of the workforce’ – in other words women and other minorities have been affected by factors in the wider system, not inherent deficiencies in themselves.

Looking beyond Google to the wider tech sector, there is ample evidence that more diverse workforces are possible. The role of women in the history of computing has recently been highlighted in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, and celebration of Ada Lovelace’s pivotal work at the dawn of computer science.  In Russia and Asia, women are employed in greater numbers in technology and engineering than in the USA (or the UK for that matter), again disproving the argument that women are somehow intrinsically less capable of such work. And a Guardian article on Monday showed how Silicon Valley has been less successful in integrating minority ethnic groups, than the technology companies around Washington DC, where 17% of technical workers are black.  In California, technology companies are failing to recruit to reflect either the local Latino population, or the smaller proportion of African Americans. So the West coast tech sector is particularly white and male.  Public commitment to increasing diversity is part of the coda of Google (and its Silicon Valley cohabitants) – it knows that it has a problem and that it needs to be addressed.  The memo has probably made doing so all the more difficult, at least in the short-term.

And the case for Google and others diversifying their workforce isn’t simply to do with equality and social justice. In marketing technological products to us, Google needs to know that they meet consumer requirements.  The papers are full of examples of where this capacity has been limited by a professional monoculture  – e.g. voice recognition software tested by men, which struggles with women’s voices; facial recognition systems which work less well with darker skin tones. And in terms of general innovation there’s a growing literature to show that diverse teams come up with better, more original solutions to problems, than groups of similar people from similar backgrounds.  So diversity is a scientific and commercial necessity, not just a ‘nice to have’ option.  It is somewhat ironic that the kind of collaborative and interactive skills which the memo defined as ‘female’ characteristics, are exactly the ones that tech companies must have in order to innovate and compete….

 

 

 

 

 

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International Women’s Data

8 Mar

What would I like most for International Women’s Day?  I’d like better data on women’s lives.  Last year Melinda Gates gave the global gender data gap a boost by pledging funds to improve data collection and to set priorities for countries to record information on women’s health, economic and social contributions and their unpaid work.  It may all sound a bit wonky, but how can we set the record straight on women’s rights if we don’t count what women do?

Globally the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) give a focus for collecting more and better data on women and girls, and there is a specific goal for gender equality, SDG number 5.  But it is striking how little we know in many areas, and how patchily data on women is collected throughout the world.  A report from 2014 identified key areas where gender data gaps exist, and the main types of data gap – gaps in coverage, gaps in international standards, gaps in complexity, and gaps in granularity (the ability to separate out data on men and women in large datasets).

Among the many topics in health, education, economics, politics and human security, it is quite telling which areas have all 4 types of data gap: employment mobility, agricultural productivity, access to childcare, access to ICT, women’s participation in peace and security processes. All of these areas highlight aspects of the invisibility of women lives – women are much more likely to be in informal employment throughout the world, their activity unrecorded and their ability to transition into formal work unaccounted for.  In agriculture, women’s work may be vital, but hidden in remote places, or beneath the umbrella of household productivity, which doesn’t show which people did what.  Access to childcare is crucial for women’s participation in all activities outside the home, and the fact that there isn’t consistent data, demonstrates both how undervalued childcare can be, and how service provision has not been a major priority in many countries.  Access to ICT is now a crucial part of everyday life, and mobile phones and the internet are transforming services and access to markets in both low and high income countries.  And yet, where there is information on access by gender (e.g. here ) it shows that women are disadvantaged when it comes to connectivity. Finally, women’s participation in peace and security processes has been shown to be crucial in rebuilding post-conflict societies and making settlements last, and yet it may often be overlooked.

So as we look to Make Work Visible on International Women’s Day, let’s remember to record all of women’s contributions to society. Women must be counted when they stand up.

 

Representation, Parliament and Brexit

24 Jul

There’s been a kind of perfect storm of issues to do with representation in the last couple of months – what with the male-heavy campaigns for Leave and Remain in the EU referendum; the result which called it for Brexit, and the accompanying discussion around distance between political elites and ordinary people; and assessment of the impact of our new, second female Prime Minister.  Both major political parties have also been embroiled in leadership contests which have presented different approaches to the question of representation of party membership, and parliamentary representation of the electorate.

Into this maelstrom arrives a new report by Professor Sarah Childs, ‘The Good Parliament’, which addresses how the institution may become more diverse and inclusive.  It is an opportune moment to consider representation in Parliament: not only is it the centenary of the Acts which extended voting rights to working-class men and the first women, but the need to refurbish our Parliament buildings presents a rare chance to experiment with physical and procedural infrastructure. These factors, along with the support of the Speaker, who has founded a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to carry ideas forward, mean that there is a unique opportunity to potentially transform Parliament into an institution which more closely represents the society it serves.  With only 29% of MPs currently female, and only 6% drawn from minority ethnic backgrounds, this is surely overdue; and the long decline in numbers of parliamentarians drawn from working-class backgrounds also needs to be addressed.  While the report does not deal with the EU referendum, it seems to me that it has added relevance because of it.  In the wake of evidence that the Brexit vote was carried by people living in former industrial heartlands of the UK, and in more deprived communities, working-class representation in politics could hardly be higher on the agenda.

The report looks at how diversity could be strengthened throughout Parliament’s work and practices. This includes measures to improve the family-friendliness of parliament – involving policies around maternity, paternity and parental leave, more flexibility in voting arrangements, and the headline-grabbing recommendation that breastfeeding should be better accommodated.  As Jo Swinson has already pointed out, the media focus on breastfeeding, which is a relatively minor recommendation in the report, says a lot about how far we have to go in discussions of diversity, especially as it applies to women in public life.

Childs highlights the importance of better representativeness in Select Committees, the parliamentary bodies which hold government to account.  She says that in 2016 it is ‘undesirable’ that some Committees are highly skewed in terms of gender in their membership.  This matters, because many of the Committees considered most important or prestigious, e.g. Foreign Affairs, are disproportionately male.  Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee initially contained only one man, and now has two male MPs among its members.  The report mentions the blog I wrote last year, which remarked that this committee is also novice-heavy and that it would be good to think that ‘women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men’.  The Good Parliament recommends that single gender Select Committees are prohibited, and that parties become more ‘mindful of wider representativeness’ in electing committee members.  This awareness of representativeness extends to committee witnesses as well – the experts invited to contribute should also be more diverse.

During the referendum debate, Michael Gove made the now notorious comment that we’ve ‘had enough of experts’; there’s been a strong suggestion that this view may have gained traction because ‘experts’ are so often the ‘usual suspects’: white, older men.  By looking beyond this group, the valuable work of many female and non-white professionals and academics would be recognised and reflected back to us all.

Representativeness also matters in media – the lens through which we receive information about politics and Parliament.  Lobby journalism remains even more male-dominated than other areas, and Childs advocates that Parliament works towards a situation where monitoring ensures that neither men nor women drop below 40% of lobby pass recipients.  This move would potentially encourage more diverse reportage, and help insure against any tendency towards ‘groupthink’ in political coverage.

As the dust begins to settle on the turbulent last month in British politics, Childs’ report should be part of the landscape in which we discuss post-referendum Britain. The ministers appointed to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – the new departments central to implementing  Brexit – are exclusively male. As we gear up to make the best of post-Brexit Britain we should ensure that diverse voices are heard.  There is a Select Committee for every government department – hopefully the ones for DEEU and DIT will not hear exclusively from white men of a certain class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let all flowers bloom

23 May

Listen carefully – above the polite tinkling of teacups and the clip-clip of pruning shears, you might hear the faint suggestion of a row brewing at that most English of events, the hardy annual that is the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show.

Last year there was an audible murmur of disquiet at the fact that out of the 15 most prestigious show gardens, only 2 were designed by women.  Indeed, since 2000 only around a quarter of all show gardens have involved women designers, and only one female designer has won ‘best in show’.

To their credit, the event organisers recognised the issue and promised to do more to encourage female entrants and to rectify the gender deficit.  The RHS looked at its processes and found that female designers weren’t getting on the shortlists, and so have encouraged more women to apply to show their work at Chelsea. This year the number of show gardens has been increased to 17, and 6 have been designed by women. So far, so good.  Among the show gardens is the first to be entered by a black female designer, Juliet Sargeant.  She has been quoted as saying that horticulture is quite a traditional profession and could do more to encourage participation by people from all walks of life in the flower show, and from ethnic minorities in particular.

While some (notably Diarmuid Gavin the TV gardening veteran) have been supportive of her comments, other including Alan Titchmarsh have been critical, saying that gardening is a great leveller enjoyed by all.  The Chelsea flower show selection panel chair has argued that the RHS does much to encourage all communities to take part in horticulture, and to gain apprenticeships, and said that Sargeant was being ‘publicity-seeking’ by raising the issue of diversity.

However, the evidence that Chelsea is unrepresentative seems pretty compelling – at the community level it’s true that people from all walks of life, both female and male, enjoy gardening and have considerable expertise.  But there is no getting away from the fact that the Society of Garden Designers enjoys 70% female membership, but women have produced relatively few show gardens.  And there are a range of hurdles to getting on the roster for the Chelsea show, which might deter many without unusual determination, and, importantly, the ability to cultivate connections as well as plants.

2014 gold medal winner Charlotte Rowe wrote in the Guardian last year about the labyrinthine process of getting a show garden design from drawing board to Chelsea. This involves getting a charity partner and a commercial sponsor, as well as coming up with a strong, original design.  Show gardens do not come cheap – costing upwards of £300,000 to put on, and it may be that this poses particular challenges for women seeking funding.  It has been shown in many professional contexts that investors often favour male candidates, and that selection panels have a tendency to recruit males over females, so garden design is unlikely to be much different.  And like many creative professions, it is majority female in the lower echelons, but male-dominated at the top.

So it seems a shame that there has been a spat over the discussion of diversity at Chelsea.  Charity involvement means that social justice issues are often highlighted in the show. Alan Titchmarsh’s comments about gardening being open to all, included the observation that ‘nearly everybody has a front garden’.  This seems to go against the RHS’s own pre-show foray into media, which revealed that the high number of rental properties in the UK, means that many front gardens are disappearing under concrete, or left neglected by tenants with little motivation to do gardening in a place that is not their own.  These trends particularly affect the young, urban population – surely the kind of people Sargeant was talking about encouraging to take part in horticulture.  A rose may be a rose by any other name, but it would be a good thing if big names in garden design were attached to someone young, female or non-white a bit more often.

 

 

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