All Hands On Deck

In the summer of 2014, Jean Yang asked me to write something for the ACM publication special issue on diversity. At that time, I had both graduated from MIT and stopped working at Lorem Ipsum Books. I thought quite a bit on what I could say on the topic of diversity and couldn't really come up with much other than: How to Get to Work. In any case, ACM has a pretty strict publication model and I am not exactly sure what the rights around distribution are. I am posting here in free form what I wrote for them until I receive a notice to take it down. You can purchase the full text here.

Published June 2014 in ACM's Diversity Issue

All Hands On Deck!!

Ten Action Items for Bringing More Women into Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Dr. Grace Woo
Grace Woo is the inventor of VRCodes, an unobtrusive way of embedding visual information for the camera. She is currently the co-founder of Pixels.IO, a venture focused on giving visual context to mobile devices.

Bringing more women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields is an important objective recognized from the top-down in many organizations. According to whitehouse.gov, women already make up 41% of graduating PhDs in STEM. Yet, the lack of exceptional role models still makes it a challenge for women to join the workforce.

While every woman who currently participates in STEM is responsible for proving herself in one way or another to the community she respects, the real burden of change lies on the shoulders of top-down decision-makers. Every opportunity I ever received was the result of both men and women ahead of me deciding that it would be worth taking a risk on me including professors who chose to spend more time with me and teach me, employers who decided to hire me and pay me, advisors who back me up, and mentors who reach out for me even when I’m not looking.

Effective teams composed of mentors and students are all aware of the benefits of diversity. The following are ten action items I propose for having diverse participants in an effective team:

1) Recognize that "Women are the world's most underutilized resource" -H.C.

Hillary Clinton recently showed intent to encourage more diversity in STEM fields [1]. For whatever you are looking to do, it is highly likely that there is a woman out there who is capable of helping you out and currently not operating at hundred percent of her own potential. Previously being in a STEM field, Michelle Obama also demonstrates through example by focusing on health and defending free Internet [2].

2) Develop individual confidence in order for your team to leverage diversity

There are ideas left off the table when a particular group is excluded. Therefore newcomers should not have to prove themselves in the context of an existing framework. This can be difficult to practice in rigorous STEM environments where established mathematical metrics already dominate. One thing I realized is that responsibility is the mother of confidence and it is also the universal currency for proving yourself while defining new metrics and putting new ideas on the table. Remember that the key motivation for encouraging diversity is to generate new thinking and that diversity is lost if one is forced to play in the existing framework with the existing metrics or if one becomes doubtful and ends up following the status quo.

3) Recruit with respect

When it comes to successful recruiting, respect is a combination of patience and open-mindedness. Imagine you are a scout at a diner discovering a potentially successful supermodel. A scout knows that snapping some pictures for free and slapping the images on the cover of a magazine is not the most effective way to create a supermodel. Instead, the key is to uncover and nurture strengths. Unfortunately, in the science fields, whatever that appears as an "objective" assessment can often be a quick judgment that leaves no room for developing potential talent.

It then follows that when it comes to interviewing for that dream job, approach the opportunity as though getting discovered. As a candidate, show off your strengths and how you can bring something new to the table and then be open to learning more on the job.

4) Interview people (women and men) by being opportunistic rather than skeptic.

In academia and industry, the people and what they can contribute build often the core of the overall value. In forward-thinking organizations, it is as important to think about maintenance, as it is to think about what roles a candidate can generate to make a better environment. Accolades and resume lines can unfortunately be a distraction. Those aspects favor the status quo and appeal to skepticism. In contrast, an opportunist can be convinced by fresh qualities and contributions that only the candidate can bring to the table. For example, if Tim Berners-Lee was focused exclusively on handling physicists’ data at CERN, the World Wide Web as we know it might not exist today. One diamond in the rough can change an entire organization, bring ongoing ideas to fruition, or give significant advantage over status-quo-driven competitors.

5) Open doors for others by negotiating in a professional environment.

Negotiation is a tool for fairness and creating value. All participants are required to be professional in order to achieve fairness. Consider the person who goes through the door and doesn’t hold the door for the person behind. This man (or woman) who doesn’t open doors for others is simply a person that doesn’t negotiate. Almost always, this ends up being a loss of value in the long term. As a wise man once said, “Every time you shut a door on someone, you are narrowing your own horizons”. As an additional note, if the person behind is a woman, the worst response that the woman can give is “that was not a gentleman thing to do” which reflects an unnecessary and unprofessional typecast. Using stereotypes as ammo is kind of like buying a gun. If you are not an expert at using guns, the assaulter can grab it and use it against you causing even more damage than if there existed no gun in the first place. Gender-fueled prerogatives create a precedent that detracts from the real issue: singleton self-absorbed researchers and professionals who are narrowing their own horizons by not opening doors for others. This is a loss of value that actually has no gender issues attached unless we make it so.

6) Develop subcultures by relating them to ideas rather than gender, race, color etc.

Many minority and majority groups have gained significant influence on society by creating subcultures that expand our life experience. Programmers who decided to develop higher level programming languages rather than continuing to program in assembly-like instructions were real definers of a subculture. Initially rejected by the rest of the community, new ideas actually need time to mature. Then, the matured versions of those ideas are evaluated by the larger community. Then, if accepted, those ideas generate impact. All of this is not possible without the initial formation of subcultures around ideas and not stereotypes. The harshest thing that comes with talking a lot about gender issues is that it can divert attention from evaluating the ideas and can hinder creating the necessary subculture to push STEM forward.

7) Avoid one-dimensional cronyism, in this case gender-related

Cronyism is the act of practicing partiality to long-standing friends. There's nothing wrong with helping out your buddies. However, this assumes people don't just pick their friends based on stereotypes. Such one-dimensional cronyism gives rise to large organizations that look more like fraternities, sororities or cultural groups. In the STEM fields, this can lead to blind spots that prevent ideas and research from being adopted. These organizations are also in the position of being labeled as fanatic, lobbyist and generally less credible.

8) Giving women credit increases your leverage, but giving out accolades for being a woman does not.

In general, not giving appreciation and credit builds resentment within individuals and that leads to general unhappiness and diminished values. Appreciation is just an ongoing lookout for contributions. On the other hand, awards tied to labels are less appreciative and can even have the opposite effect than encouragement. I’ve always thought it would be more beneficial to actively look for ways of expressing appreciation rather than to sit around and discuss who is “the best woman in blah”.

9) I don't want any special days for my archetype.

Morgan Freeman once made a point by asking an interviewer a question "Do you want a White Caucasian Male Day?" to which Freeman then responded "Neither do I, why do we have a Black History Month?". I'm not saying that the gender experience is anything like the African-American experience, but I do share the opinion that there is no need to create special events for being born with specific genetic predispositions. Creating such skewed evaluation of what is considered contributory doesn't particularly help the artificially engineered social environments. By and large, labels like "crazy", "intelligent", "genius", "black", "white", and "gay" are more fashionable rather than constructive diversifiers.

10) Stop talking about it. Most talkings only encourage the status quo.

When I was an undergraduate at the U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I started the Women in Electrical and Computer Engineering (WECE) program. This was a much smaller organization in addition to the larger Society of Women Engineers (SWE). At the time, I observed that somehow raising awareness at SWE had turned into a series of fundraising bake sales, high school awareness and motivational speakers talking a lot about how to survive as a woman in engineering. I wanted WECE to be more of a nest. A place where those who wanted to become interested in engineering could get the extra nurturing needed to grow in a different direction than the predominantly male engineering field. Now, I realize that there are diverse opinions within the male community as well, which are often left off the table because of the status quo. If I were to start a similar program today, I would focus on removing as many thought-limiting stereotypes as possible (not just gender related). Luckily, STEM participants have a wonderful subculture that constantly motivates them to think and build new things that will help create a context for all the other mechanisms of the world... without focusing on attaching labels of any kind. It's the best opportunity for me to participate in a forward-thinking community while helping validate ideas that haven't manifested before.

References
  • [1] http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/02/hillary-clinton-wants-young-women-to-grow-skin-like-a-rhinoceros/
  • [2] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/michelle-obama-talks-free-speech-china-peking-university-article-1.1730826

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