Archive for March, 2010

Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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