To bust the echo chamber, let women join the conversation

Saturday, 12 August 2017, 02:11:52 AM. Tech companies are beginning to recognize the lack of creativity in a homogeneous workforce, and there is a tremendous emphasis across the industry on diversifying engineering talent.

to-bust-the-echo-chamber-let-women-join-the-conversation photo 1Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press fileGoogle this week fired engineer James Damore, who wrote a 3,300-word manifesto titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” in which he claimed women’s lack of achievement in tech was due to “biological causes” and criticized the company’s effort to diversify its workforce.

Let’s leave it to the good old boys at Google to decide what to do with James Damore, author of the memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” It’s hard to know, after all, just why a boss might fire an employee, particularly one who had falsely claimed to have a Ph.D. in systems biology from Harvard.

So instead of debating his right to trash his colleagues and publicly ridicule his bosses, let’s explore the opinions expressed by this vainglorious 28-year-old free-speech crusader who wants to liberate us all from the “dominant ideology” that dares to suggest that women have what it takes to succeed in technology fields.

Where to begin.

Maybe with Ingrid Alongi, a web applications developer who co-founded Quick Left in Boulder, ran the company successfully for several years before she sold it to Cognizant, and now leads the mentor network at Cognizant.

Alongi, who obviously is given to thoughtful understatement, said she was “a little disappointed” to read Damore’s memo about how women suffer from anxiety, can’t handle stress, and are more interested in feelings and aesthetics than ideas.

“I’ve heard those arguments before,” she said.

In fact, when she launched Quick Left, she was amazed at how many guys approached her to do design and marketing work, despite that every description of the company clearly stated it was a web applications development shop.

“It was most annoying,” she said.

Alongi got into computer science because she loves to solve problems. She is drawn to logic and identifying patterns in data. She also excelled in math and science in school. Biologically, intellectually and psychologically, it was a perfect fit.

As a web applications developer, an elite bicycle racer and mother of twins, Alongi feels no need to prove that she can compete at a high level, work long hours and handle stress. The 28-year-old Damore, despite all his apparent bravado, might find himself anxious, overwhelmed, maybe even a little weepy if he had to maintain her brutal schedule.

Then there is Maryam Darbeheshti, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Denver, who said the basis for Damore’s manifesto is just plain ignorant.

“I have been in this field a long time and I am not biased against men, but by far the best students in my classes are females,” she said. “They are more dedicated and they are fearless. Even the males in the class admit that females do a better job on class projects. They want them on their teams.”

Much of this likely is due to the cultural bias against women in technology fields that Damore so plainly exhibits, she said. There are fewer women in the classes and “the females think they have to work harder and to be perfect to prove themselves.”

When Damore says that women are biologically ill-suited for working in tech fields, “he is just wrong, frankly,” said Sarah Miller, assistant dean of inclusive excellence at the CU College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Still, she said, his memo points to a great question: Why aren’t more women in engineering?

Research by the American Association of University Women found that threats to common stereotypes and implicit bias are critical factors in discouraging girls and women from pursuing technology fields.

One of the key strategies to overcome these barriers and to improve technical innovation is to achieve critical mass for women in tech classrooms, Miller said.

“Engineers work in teams and they have to be creative and collaborative,” she explained. “If your team is comprised of exactly the same kind of people, your solutions to problems are not going to be that creative. Diversity produces much better solutions and more profitable products.”

Companies are beginning to recognize this and, call it an echo chamber if you like, there is tremendous emphasis across the industry on diversifying engineering talent to produce better results.

But first, the companies have to deal with implicit — and explicit — bias.

“Often the culture in these firms is not conducive to women coming to work there or wanting to stay,” Miller said.

“Think about it. If you were a woman computer engineer, would you want to work with this guy?”

Diane Carman is a communications consultant and a regular columnist for The Denver Post.

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