women don’t compete – encouraging diversity

Diversity Feet

I believe that supporting diversity is much wider than women vs. men or under-represented minorities in the workplace. Encouraging a diversity of approaches and viewpoints and experiences is the essence of teamwork, and becomes more critical each year as the complexity and ambition of what organizations are trying to achieve increases.

The proximal cause of this post is a discussion earlier in the week among some Facebook friends about this article that appears in the current issue of the journal Science. I don’t have access to the full article or study, so my only information is from the extended summary. I don’t intend this post as a commentary on this particular study per se, but I want to use the reported findings to make a wider point.

The gist of the study results match “previous economic studies” which show that women disproportionately choose not to enter a competition – whether for job, promotion, award, adding numbers (the study), or other achievement – and as a result, do not win such competitions as often as men do. What the study tries to show is that if additional incentives are provided (“affirmative action”, their words), then women will increase their participation in the competitions under study (adding numbers), and as a result will win more often overall. They attempt to control for different inherent skill levels and also evaluate whether there are subsequent negative effects on teamwork by the additional inventives toward the women (they find none). Again, my point isn’t to promote this study, but to make a wider point from my own experience.

the field through the first mile of the 27th running of the Army Ten-Miler on 9 October 2011 in Arlington, VAI believe the point is wider in two ways. First, I believe that this result is likely equally valid if the two categories were blind to gender and the participants are “people more likely to enter competition” and “people less likely to enter competition” rather than “men” and “women”. There are ancillary points about specifically women vs. men, and the authors are trying to address this toward “affirmative action” policies as in their title, but the idea that different people approach “competitions” differently should be familiar to anyone who has ever operated in a business environment, or any social environment for that matter.

Gingy comes to a Fork in the Road - July 10th, 2011

choices - fork in the road

Second – and this may be a more tenuous leap, but please stick with me – the focus on “competition” is likely narrower than necessary. We all know from our own business (and personal) lives that we are faced every single day with a wide range of choices about when to participate (“compete”) and when to stay on the sidelines (“not compete”). Many such choices and situations can likely be fit into a viewpoint of “I win/you lose” competition, but many are simply choices without an inherent “winner” and “loser” to be found, they are just “choices”.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about diversity.

In a past job I was the executive sponsor for my site’s diversity committee. The corporation – under the guidance of a senior executive who strongly believed in the power of diversity – had decided to “think global, act local” and give volunteer committees at each site the autonomy and the support of local management to promote and encourage diversity awareness and education among our colleagues.

Our site had a particularly interesting perspective, because as a research lab filled with Ph.D.s from a broad set of fields, we had significant diversity in several dimensions. The products we were building technology for required fiendishly difficult physics, chemistry, material science, signal processing, computer engineering and computer science. Among a staff of 250 people, we had 68 countries represented – a veritable United Nations of science and technology. As a German citizen myself (I came to the United States when I was 5 years old), I directly feel the impact of cultural diversity even though I am most obviously in the white American male category (no noticeable accent, the occasional Steelers sweatshirt, eat with my fork in the right hand).

quinn's by jenny downing, on FlickrAs a result of this background, it was logical for me to think of diversity in the widest sense – not just covering under-represented groups of women or ethnic minorities – but also thinking of my small group of computer science/computer engineering colleagues within a sea of “real scientists” at the lab; the minority group of us who do not bleed “black and gold” from August to January each year (something one dared not let on when walking the streets of Pittsburgh); and fork-in-the-right-hand eaters (something one only really noticed when a group of European visitors came to visit and there was a lull in the dinner conversation).

Whenever we watched videos or had discussions about accepting diverse viewpoints and different approaches to problem-solving (the “corporate diversity” crowd positions this as different ethnic and cultural backgrounds resulting in different approaches), I simply thought:

  • “of course the physicists are seeing this problem differently than the computer scientists”
  • “of course when we discuss how cool a new technology idea is, the marketing person doesn’t get it because they aren’t thinking like a wow-this-is-sooo-cool engineer”
  • “of course the finance person back at HQ doesn’t understand why we need to spend so much money, because they don’t have to arrange to break or bend a law of physics every 3 or 4 years”
  • “I sure hope someone else in the room understands that chemical reaction they have up on the whiteboard, because it is all Greek to me and they might be turning lead into gold.”

The fact that two engineers with similar training might look at a problem differently simply because one of them was female and the other male just fits right into the continuum of trained-in-US vs. trained-in-Asia; trained-as-scientist vs. trained-as-engineer; learned-to-program-with-Pascal vs. learned-to-program-with-Java differences inherent in our staff.

awaken-your-problem-solver-from-within-mind-map by jean-louis zimmermann, on FlickrThis post is getting toward 1,000 words, so what is my point? I believe that diversity covers all these various aspects of how and why different people might approach problems differently. I also believe that in a field as complex and varied as the development of new computing technology (perhaps it is different for doctors or lawyers or Hollywood actors), there are already so many different and varied ideas floating around, that it should be so easy to make room for the incremental diversity added by women and under-represented minorities.

So the goal of increasing the likelihood of women or left-handed-fork-holders or soccer fans to “compete” (i.e. “participate”) in a discussion or technical debate is a win for all. The more viewpoints and insights are included in the decision-making, the better any data-driven decision will likely be (I will leave the efficiency of decision-making for others to discuss, or perhaps another post).

The key is to increase participation and reduce apathy. So whether we do that via the incentives-to-compete of Sutter and Balafoutas; or by involving “kids these days” in game playing as a way to help save the world (Jane McGonigal – watch the TED talk, really, it’s worth it); or by making sure that we go around the room to help the “quiet folks” also get their viewpoints heard; all of these approaches will help us widen the discussion, get better and deeper insight, and come to better solutions.

This post now exceeds 1,000 words, but I still want to point out some additional readings that I think continue to broaden this point.

    • a previous study by one of the authors of the competition article considered gender differences in competition at an early age and showed noticeable effects from three to eighteen year olds.
    • some work done in Pittsburgh on the diversity topic comes to related conclusions on how different people approach negotiation and applies to men as well – Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon.
    • two recent popular press books on how people make decisions, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (read it to find out why people with higher social security numbers pay more for things on eBay) and Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler (read it to find out why salad at eye level is just as likely to get eaten as ice cream at eye level).
    • and finally, note that the authors of the competition study also studied cheating by Greek cab drivers!

Please make sure that you think about diversity and inclusion every day; please make sure that everyone in the room gets heard one way or another. You will get more information, you will have richer discussions, and you will get better results – applies whether you are out to save the world, or overcome technology barriers, or improve your customers’ experience with your products.


About er1p

Also known as "Daddy".
This entry was posted in Communication, Diversity. Bookmark the permalink.

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