Posts Tagged ‘diversity of thought’

No, I’m not preparing to board an elevator or wondering about the stock market… This was an interesting conundrum triggered by a recent discussion with a friend. After she told me that she had had a tough time, I tried to encourage her using the old (world?) wisdom saying: “well, you can take some heart in knowing that it can only be up from here…” Her reply was fresh! “Oh no, I don’t like ‘up‘. I have always preferred downhill: it’s more fun!” I had never looked at it from her (skier) perspective, probably because I am mostly a “lowlander” type athlete, the pull of gravity does not enhance my efficiency when rowing. So it seemed to be an interesting question to consider at the beginning of the year in connection to what we wish to achieve and how to do it.

According to some data, as many as 40-45 % of Americans are following the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions.  The order and content of the many “top 10+/- resolutions” lists varies somewhat based on demographics. As expected, our motivations change with age, take the very public evolution of Richard Branson‘s (“The art of self motivation”). Well known for its presence in the music and airlines world, he is now launching the Virgin Group into space exploration (Virgin Galactic), to be followed soon by underwater adventures…

However, the great majority of top personal goals fall under a few categories of action. People would like to:

1. lose (weight), do less (spend, eat)

2. gain (money, education), do more (exercise, volunteering, travel)

3. stop (smoking, drinking, procrastinating).

Seems one could consider these could relate in different ways to the “going up or down?”  question:

– the “positioning” of the goal compared to the starting point

– the action needed to achieve the goal

Looking at all these I’m thinking that, as opposed to downhill skiing, an uphill ride will be needed to achieve any of these destinations, whether at a higher, lower, or same level with the starting point. E.g., gaining in knowledge, stopping a bad habit, or lowering our body weight, all require a sustained effort. No wonder many of these goals will remain just as good intentions: the determination to stick to resolutions can drop by as much as 25 % after the first week of the year! You had likely noticed the January phenomenon if you regularly go to a gym: the swelling attendance falls back to its regular levels in just few weeks. On the other hand, if your goal is to simply have more fun, you could just let yourself “go“….

Although it sounds discouraging, seems people who explicitly make New Year’s resolutions are 10x more likely to eventually attain their goals. To succeed, it helps to approach personal goals the same way we do in business: choosing goals that are important (to us), realistic and measurable, deciding on tactics likely to allow us to achieve them and, of course, executing them! Some even think that success strategies are gender-specific, with women being more likely to succeed if they go public with their resolutions. So, here it is:

This year I’m… going up!

p.s. want some suggestions on how to achieve your goal(s)? See the list published by the USA.gov http://bit.ly/r5sUZ – with helpful links for each of the most popular resolutions:

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“Happy New Year!” We wish it to each other, in many languages, in a form or another at the beginning of every year. Around the same time, millions of us also make personal resolutions (set goals for the year), possibly in an effort to enhance our happiness… This seems a good time of the year and reason for all of us to ponder – again – on the subject of “what is happiness?” At the beginning of last year we investigated it, mostly in relation to one’s work parameters, w/specific data about science-intensive work places, but also suggested general themes (“Where do you find ‘happy scientists’? and what makes them feel that way?”)

One possible immediate reaction to this question is to just dismiss it: why bother? Happiness is hard to define, or very personal (we may all define and experience it differently); however, should you agree the answers might help us better understand ourselves and others and set goals to enable our constant progress toward happiness, here is a selection of insights from the candid responses brought back by an amateur international team who participated in a year-long field exploration of “what makes people happy around the world”, to the “expert opinions” on the nature of happiness from scientists, psychologists, economists, and Buddhists. Please feel free to add your own.

Macro photograph of coca cola bubbles (image via Wikipedia)

The 3 young “happiness ambassadors” comprising the international team of the “206 expedition” just returned from a year-long field research into the subject of “what makes people happy around the world”. Despite their initial plan, they actually only visited 186 of the 206 countries where people drink Coca Cola, the project sponsor (by the way, no relation to me, I do not drink Coca or any other cola). Nonetheless they had traveled 273,204 miles to collect a large sample of international opinions and brought back many of their own new impressions. What I thought was very powerful was their conclusion that around the worldPeople definitely have more things in common than differences”, also demonstrated by the sharing of main reasons to be happy worldwide:Family and friends, food, sports, music, health”. Interestingly, money was only mentioned as important if it enabled people to travel more or spend more time with friends and family. To watch various testimonials collected all over the world see here. Among other impressions solicited during the interview, Guy Kawasaki also asked the question: “Which country has the best looking women?” The 206 expedition team offered the following verdict: “The eastern European countries definitely have some of the best women in the world.” May I suggest finishing reading this post before booking a trip?

The more money does not make one happier message is consistent with the “Easterlin’s paradox”, formulated by Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics, based on data collected from several dozen countries. This theory is not without opponents. Says sagely my main economic advisor (my son) “economics is not an exact science” (gasp!): ”one can always collect and analyze the data in ways that will support their personal beliefs.”

Happy Mattieu Ricard

Some refer to Matthieu Ricard as the “happiest man in the world” – apparently a scientific classification based on results of intensive brain clinical testing performed at the U of Wisconsin. He is actually a molecular biologist (Ph.D.) from Pasteur Institute, later turned Buddhist monk. Ricard says happiness is “life’s most important skill” so we all have to attempt to understand and define it and, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we can all work to attain it or increase it further by training our brain to be happy– see his TED talk (funny Ricard should start it by mentioning a Coca Cola team being present on top of Everest, as evidence of globalization – a nowadays version of “shared experiences?”). He teaches us that happiness comes from inner serenity. Anger, jealousy, hated, or obsessive desire are detrimental to our and others happiness. Ricard illustrates the danger of basing our happiness on fleeting pleasures by reminding us that even the best things at some point lose their ability to make us happy, e.g., the first serving of chocolate cake is delicious, the second “no so much, the third is disgusting.” OK, that specific number may be debatable for some, but we can all get the point. Instead of focusing on the object of our positive or negative emotions, which result in reinforcing these every time, he advises we should instead focus on the emotion itself. Just like a menacing storm cloud when seen from up close, anger will prove to be just mist…

Possible option

Also mentioning chocolate’s relation to our happiness, Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology from Harvard is “Exploring the frontiers of happiness” in another TED talk. In a simple experiment looking at perceptions of happiness, scientists gave subjects a bag of chips and asked them if they will be happy to eat them one minute later. They were, unless a box of chocolates was also in sight. So, while the intrinsic value of the chips, their taste or availability, did not change, their desirability – hence their ability to make those who were about to eat them happy – was eroded through the simplecomparison with the possible” (the subjects were not actually offered the option to eat some of those chocolates).  As Ricard had pointed out, this experiment also illustrated the relativity of the happiness based on appreciation of an object of desire. Furthermore, Gilbert says we are generally happier when we are not given the option to take a decision/change our mind (i.e., when we are stuck with a specific option), because we manage to convince ourselves that’s what we actually wanted, something he calls “synthetic happiness”. He describes it as a sort of “psychological immune system” we all have, which allows us to adapt to the environment, i.e., like what we have. See another talk where he elaborated on this notion. I can see where this phenomenon may explain a range of synthetic happiness in personal and collective situations when people are unaware of other potential options.

Less is more

On the relation between free choice and happiness, Barry Schwartz, another psychologist, also illustrates why having too many choices does not actually make us happier (The paradox of choice”). In such cases he says, facing the need to take decisions we get analysis paralysis. Schwartz states this is mostly a problem of affluent societies, “we don’t have freedom of choice, we have paralysis” (of decisions). Then, when comparing many options it’s easy to see all the attractive features of those we didn’t chose, and most times we end up regretting our choice and hence being less happy. Sounds very apropos to the current state of the health care bill? It seemed to me that this applies with a couple of major caveats: a) one should not know any better (indicated by Gilbert), b) one should be indecisive or risk-adverse. There is a reason for which some are leaders and the others are happy to follow. According to Barry Schwartz, the secret of happiness is to “Lower expectations.”  I’d add: if you can’t make a decision, be happy with what someone else you trust had decided for you! In any case, the conclusion of all these potential comparison studies reminded me of the old song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with”… Is visiting former Eastern bloc countries still one of your 2011 resolutions?

Ok, getting us thinking about the subject of choices and decisions that can make us happy seems a good pause point and a premise for a future post of New Year resolutions.

What makes you happy?

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Isn’t it time we flipped around the old ‘divide and impera’ (‘divide and conquer’) strategy attributed to the Romans and used for centuries to assert dominance? (The correct Latin term for “unite” might be “iungo”, but you get my gist). While the strategy has pretty effectively helped many generals and emperors take over large pieces of our world’s map, I am proposing that it is also the single most important reason for which most major empires have ultimately failed, being reduced to history book chapters or precious relics needing the controlled environment of museums to survive… This should not remain a history book story, but a living lesson for today’s world.

Now, fast forward to what is happening in the pharmaceutical industry today, where several companies that have dominated the world of pharmaceuticals, not unlike the great empires with their own achievements, territorial claims and peculiar corporate cultures are marching toward the “patent cliff”. The causes for what I believe is essentially a pharma innovation problem could fill in many posts. The current pharma model is increasingly more analyzed and scrutinized and thought to be unsustainable. Every day brings new stories that have created for me the vision of  a pharma’s “python phase”. To feed their draining pipelines, many companies ingest and digest consecutive boluses, M&A, expansions and cuts, which constantly inflate and deflate their bodies. What I decided to do here is to simply summarize how observations I made from a completely different situation – to me, a great way to learn! – may hold clues about other powerful strategies to survive life-or-death challenges.

I have recently learned about the practical and harmonious solution to survive the extreme challenge of the frigid waters in the Bay area during my recent visit at the Dolphin Club, a swimming and boating club in San Francisco. I have already raved elsewhere (Sports-inspired life and business lessons) about my admiration for its members who challenge the frigid open waters of the bay. If I had to summarize in only two points what was needed to survive those waters from an individual perspective, it would have to be: 1) cross-training and 2)… being “Zen”! But I also learned fascinating things about the strategy that constitutes the basis of the club and about its inner functioning from Reuben Hechanova, the current boat captain and upcoming 2011 president of the club. Everybody has to share learnings such as hypothermia classes and to regularly work together to maintain the wooden boats, even if they are not rowing them, as one day they may save their life. While touring the club one of the returning rowers reported to Reuben having had a “fantastic” row! “I had the opportunity to save a swimmer who was beginning to experience hypothermia”. These people not only share the waters (politely giving way), but they closely collaborate to successfully conquer them. For instance, I learned that for long swims, the club members move in a well-orchestrated formation, again reminiscent of the Roman’s tactics, with the swimmers in the middle surrounded by small boats, while all being flaked by the bigger wooden boats protecting from them from the potential impact of passing tankers and being ready to take back to safety anyone succumbing to hypothermia. In my many years as a rower, I had never come across such tight symbiotic collaboration between swimmers and boaters. I believe the reason is that I do not know of any other place that chose to deal with such an extreme challenge: normally rowing clubs have rules that require members to stop operating when the water temperature gets too low to be comfortable for swimming (to prevent hypothermia in case the rower accidentally falls into the water). Most outdoor swimming facilities close even earlier in the year! But, what is one to do in San Francisco, where the temperature of the Bay waters is never warm enough for most people to comfortably swim in it? Here, some people choose to jump into frigid waters and seem to love it, but not before having a survival strategy in place that capitalizes on the close, symbiotic, collaboration between rowers and swimmers. Rowers need to be able to withstand swimming if needed, swimmers need to be able to rely on or become rowers should one need to be saved from hypothermia.

Just had a great row... saving a swimmer!

So here are the three main points I derived from my recent visit about how collaborations may work for survival:

1. Goal/Need to conquer the same domain/major challenge, e.g., the frigid open waters.

2. Have complementary strengths: some are experts at moving inside the water, some over it.

3. Should share enough trust, knowledge, and capabilities to be able (and willing) to jump to the rescue or even into the other’s shoes, in this case, at the drop of an oar!

Also based in San Francisco is the UCSF. Last week, a press release announced a major common effort with Pfizer, which is expected to lose exclusivity for world’s largest ever earning drug, Lipitor, in exactly one year from now . The waters below that patent cliff might be very frigid indeed! We applaud this trend, it may produce some of the greatest example of ‘unite and impera’ our common global challenge: developing new therapeutics to address the unmet medical need. Let’s see, do the other, sports-inspired lessons apply? Do the two partners have different strengths? Check: academia excels at the “fuzzy” innovative front end of life science discoveries, while pharma’s strength is the late stage development and commercialization of therapies.

And, how about the third lesson: How much do pharma and academia share in terms of trust, knowledge, and capabilities? More and more facilities that are appropriate for drug development are becoming available, either “for hire”, being used by or built for academia’s and other self starters’ use. Mind you, several have been deserted specifically due to pharma’s budget cuts, including Pfizer’s own site demise in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and many are operated via new government programs. Do I dare say the major lasting dividing problem remains the lack of trust and knowledge sharing, not only of intellectual property (IP) per-se, but even that of common “know how” of drug development. A better shared understanding of “what” and “how” to develop a new medicine will only increase our common ability to conquer diseases. This knowledge, “as good as gold”, could be as enabling as the precious coins made of it, or, if not shared, will remain as elusive as the buried treasures of a lost pharma empire.

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In a recent, widely anticipated decision that pertains to rights to some of what makes us us, a federal judge ruled in favor of patients, medical societies, and researchers, who were suing Myriad and the Utah University research foundation, owners of the patent on the two genes whose mutations had been associated with increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Their ownership had allowed them to retain complete rights for these widely prescribed diagnostic tests, which have remained prohibitively expensive for many patients (currently at more than $3,000).

Interestingly, in taking the decision to invalidate such patents, the Department of Justice differs in its opinion from the US Patent and Trade Marks Office (USPTO). Meanwhile the status quo will be maintained. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the organization that lobbies for the pharma and biotech companies, has been arguing since the beginning of the case that preventing patenting of human genes will literally impede life science innovation and had stated after the court’s decision that carrying this one out would: “undermine U.S. global leadership and investment in the life sciences”. A variety of people have spoken for and against the decision. The New York Times just wrote an article citing several of them.

The US government filled a “friend of the court” (or “Amicus curiae”) opinion entitled: ”BRIEF FOR THE UNITED STATES AS AMICUS CURIAE IN SUPPORT OF NEITHER PARTY” (you can read the pdf here ). As expected with these types of opinions (see Wiki)- and indicated by its title – the intent was not to support either of the parties. The last point listed in the government’s opinion constitutes a good summary: “Isolated Genomic DNA Is Not Patent-Eligible Merely Because It Is Useful Or Requires Investment To Identify.”

As someone who has dedicated her life to improving human health: I understand the need to recognize and reward discoveries, so that they may continue to advance the available diagnostic and therapeutic interventions. At the same time, in my opinion, a balance needs to found – or maybe a line needs to be drawn. Otherwise, these innovations will remain out of the reach of many patients who need them. The exact balance may not be easy to figure out or accept by consensus.

To what point should we own things we just happened to be the first to discover/figure out? Should various entities (researchers, universities, companies) own pieces of everybody’s proteins, DNA, or maybe their constituent atoms, electrons or the even more ephemeral particles and their interactions? These are all things that make us us. Or, going in the opposite direction, should each disease/syndrome or epidemic have owners that need to be paid before we could proceed with curing them? Am I right to assume that in such case, arrangements and payments would need to be exchanged between the owner of the gene and the person who had discovered the disease, with corresponding arrangements with those who had patented the smaller molecular or atomic pieces of the puzzle? How are we ever going to navigate such complex territorial and legal claims? Maybe Google could develop maps of the human body charting out the parcels to indicate ownership? I am on the opinion that we should only own things we create ourselves. In relation to this specific discussion, I think it is appropriate to own the rights to a new method to test or to control a gene, or a newly created molecule that could be used for diagnostic or therapeutic effect.

I know patients who were unable to take advantage of the BRCA test because of its prohibitive price and who knows how many more cases we might have failed to diagnose and treat because of these legally imposed economic barriers. Can you imagine that currently the actual cost of performing such a diagnostic test is only a few dollars? Would it be possible to compromise by assessing limits on the profit margin of diagnostic tests? I feel that we need to ensure that the initial intent – or what many say is – of our efforts to improve human health is not compromised.

What is your opinion? Should those sequencing one of the genes we all share – and its mutations – gain the exclusive rights to any diagnostic or therapeutic intervention that is related to that gene? Do you know who owns YOUR genes?

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A logical presentation of arguments, be it a business or personal plan or a scientific lecture, usually contains responses to “why,” “what,” “how,” and possibly “who” and “when”. The most thought provoking idea I got from the webinar on analytics for driving performance (hosted by the Pharmaceutical Executive ), suggested by Charlotte Sibley, was to consider that “what” could actually come in three flavors: “what,” “so what,” “now what.” 

Indeed, I could immediately relate each of these “what”-s not only with different time frames (past, present, and future), but also with a different tendency, intent, and capability needed to answer it, possibly along the lines: 

  • What have/are we doing?” The question is related to a preference to be introspective and the correct answer relies on the capacity to be analytical
  • So what if we did it this way??” (Shouldn’t we continue to do it the same way?), Asking and answering the follow-up question requires an added willingness to judiciously pursue exploring the answer to the initial “what”
  •  “Now what should we do next???” (Could we do it better?) Asking this question requires the willingness to be objective about the findings and to entertain new ideas and ways to accomplish them.

From experience, the first “what” is the one most frequently asked and pursued, and most science and business operations have good capabilities or at least a pretty good idea about how they could obtain the answers. Asking the second and third questions requires courage especially in a larger organization. Being able to answer the “now what” question requires vision and leadership, and actualizing it is the hardest. This is probably why many either “don’t get it” or prefer to not even ask such question. While all three questions are needed, answering the third one is how innovation is born

So, which “what” is your organization’s biggest challenge?

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The post was triggered by reading about the concept put forward by AM Shneider proposing that the evolution of science depends on being driven by four main “flavors” of scientists  http://bit.ly/cBQoTV.

The first scientist personality style is very much the “big picture” type, someone able to see a pattern where others had not, seeking new concepts without much concern about clarifying all the details or being afraid to make mistakes. A very useful quality of such scientists is not being prone to giving up easily in face of regular criticism for their out-of-the-box ideas. The second scientist type, usually the closest collaborator of the first, is essential in “translating” the fuzzy-ness of the initial idea into doable experiments, many times spearheading the invention of new techniques that allow carrying out the first experiments needed to test a new hypothesis. The third type of scientist – usually associated with the next stage needed for the development of a new scientific area – is more methodical, going after the thorough testing of the initial hypothesis, then asking more questions and deriving follow-up hypotheses. Finally, the fourth, most methodical, type of scientists obtain a lot of data, many times have encyclopedic knowledge of previous research, like to chronicle discoveries, but rarely produce some themselves.

This scientist type classification might be an oversimplification, but I think serves the higher purpose to highlight that ALL these four types offering different abilities and using different styles have been needed to create scientific knowledge and to move any field forward. I.e., new concepts cannot see the light of the day without having scientists who challenge the status-quo and are persistent at it, neither could we have gotten it “right” unless other scientists did not challenge and find ways to test such early concepts.

I understand Shneider’s attempt at classification was found controversial by some. As a scientist, I like assessing new hypotheses in general and such I found his idea intriguing (apparently I’m not so much bothered about lack of details or potential specific exemptions!), which in turn triggered my thinking on how it may be tested, and I willing to immediately volunteer myself as a first test subject. I was even able to see where I might fit into his classification. Also, I could continue to “assign” types to many of the people I have worked with in various stages in my scientific life, although most of us likely display a combination of some of these four types. I could then extend the same paradigm to characterize the overall “personality” of a lab or an institution in which I had worked, and even was able to gauge how the group personality had evolved as a function of it ratio of scientists representing various types, due to the turn-over characteristic to most academic and scientific labs in general.

A main reason for which I found the article interesting is my increasing interest in understanding what the best ways are to foster professional interactions between people with different thinking/personality styles.  After being part of, and leading several different scientific and other professional teams, I believe the most productive – and the most fun! – are the ones combining various professional expertise, diverse thinking and work styles, such as those possibly described for scientists by Shneider. However, working with a very diverse team is not without challenges, thus it is very important to not only fully understand our own perspective, but gain insight also how we could better mesh it with others to leverage the overall team performance. While classifications may upset some people, I think there are many precedent systems, some widely used to help identify one’s work style, personality, aptitudes, etc. (e.g., Myers Briggs), see a description of some at http://bit.ly/AefdT I myself took a few of these, and while many “findings” were merely confirming my own impression of myself, I found the most useful insights were gained about how to best interact with others with very different style.

I currently suggest that there should be an active effort to share this type of “personal” information that could be used to put together and run highly functional professional teams that take advantage of diversity.

What do you think of such classifications, could you identify yourself with any of the styles? Could be this a way to optimize interactions with very different people?

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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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