Tag Archives: tech

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….







Women just can’t win

28 Feb

Back in September, EDF, the energy company, launched a campaign to inspire girls to take part in science. They called it ‘Pretty Curious’, and the accompanying hashtag drew some criticism on twitter, as it associated girls’ interest with their appearance, and suggested that science has to be stereotypically feminised in order to appeal to female students. A similar approach had already led IBM to end a campaign called ‘HackAHairdryer, which was widely viewed as sexist. However, EDF defended its strapline as a way of opening the conversation on involving girls in science, and persisted in its plans to mount a series of science engagement events, culminating in a competition where students entered ideas for a domestic gadget.

This competition, the #PrettyCuriousChallenge, was opened to boys as well as girls, apparently on grounds of ‘fairness’, which is an odd decision when related to a campaign based on the fact that girls are underrepresented in science. As you may have seen in headlines, the ultimate irony is, that the competition was won by a boy. Yes, that’s right, a campaign with the stated aim ‘to change girls’ perceptions of STEM and encourage them to pursue science based careers’ , ended up with a male competition winner. How was the winner chosen? Well, a shortlist of entries was drawn up by a panel including girl students and then the entries were put to a public vote. Is it surprising that a boy won? No. A cursory glance at the literature around unconscious bias and science shows again and again that gender is a factor in hiring decisions, in perceived competence of scientists, and in rating work authored by men and women respectively. We still live in a world where men are advantaged because of baseline unconscious assumptions everyone makes about competence, credibility and science. I recently came across a study which showed that men’s academic work is rated more highly when it concerns stereotypically ‘male’ topics, while women’s – which is rated less well – suffers even more when in ‘male’ territory. So wider perceptions of girls are likely to influence public judgement of submitted work in science.

And this is perhaps the heart of the problem: shifting girls’ perceptions of STEM is only one part of the recipe required to make science more gender-equal. We need to address all the cultural and systemic reasons why women are less likely to persist in science or to be promoted in science careers once they are there. We need to confront the fact that this is about perceptions of women in an unequal society, not just girls’ own perceptions of their interests.

Jackie Fleming, the feminist cartoonist, has just written a book about women’s achievements being excluded from history. In a recent interview she points out that by not learning about the ingenuity of women in school, both girls and boys internalise the message that men are the important ones and women haven’t done much. This impression of women is cemented she says by ‘not giving them prizes, obviously, as that tends to go down in history’ . As I read that, I thought of what an own goal EDF has scored – the male winner will be on the record of their campaign to encourage women in science. It’s not the boy’s fault – I blame society.


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