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Learning from Satya Nadella’s comments

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Credit: Photo: Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing

Let’s use Satya Nadella’s remarks at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing as a learning experience — for all of us.

When Larry Summers made the comments about women in academia that led to the termination of his presidency at Harvard, the issue was not “inarticulateness” — it was that his comments betrayed a lack of familiarity with a rich scholarly literature regarding discrimination against women in academia: literature that should be deeply familiar to any person in an academic administrative role, from department chair to dean to provost to president.

Similarly, the issue with Satya Nadella’s remarks was not “inarticulateness” (as his first Twitter apology stated). It was that his remarks betrayed a lack of familiarity with a rich scholarly literature regarding discrimination against women in the tech workplace, and suggested a degree of faith in the personnel systems at Microsoft and other tech companies that is contradicted by data and experience.

Why diversity matters

Eminent computer scientist Bill Wulf nailed it 15 years ago, when he was president of the National Academy of Engineering:

A lot of people argue for diversity in terms of fairness. We Americans are very sensitive to issues of fairness, but that’s not my argument. Others argue in terms of simple numerics: Male Caucasians will be the minority in the 21st century, and so to meet the need for engineers we will have to attract women and underrepresented minorities. That’s true too, but that’s not my argument, either.

I believe there is a far deeper reason why we require a diverse work force. Let me give you the argument in a nutshell, and then I’ll try to draw it out more carefully.

First, engineering is a very creative profession. That is not the way it is usually described, but down to my toes I believe that engineering is profoundly creative. Second, as in any creative profession, what comes out is a function of the life experiences of the people who do it. Finally, sans diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost — a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented …

Every time we approach an engineering problem with a pale, male design team, we may not find the best solution. We may not understand the design options or know how to evaluate the constraints. We may not even understand the full dimension of the problem.

In other words, while there are many reasons for striving to increase the representation of women in our field, the selfish reason is the most compelling one: The quality of the solutions we achieve is enhanced by the diversity of the individuals contributing to these solutions.

The state of the playing field

Nearly 20 years ago, a landmark study of women faculty at MIT was embraced by then-President Chuck Vest and then-Provost Bob Birgeneau, who implemented changes that made MIT a leader in faculty gender diversity.

Every generation of women faculty at MIT acknowledged that previous generations had faced obstacles. But every generation believed that they enjoyed a level playing field. This was not the case! But the false belief caused women to think that their lack of advancement was due to their own shortcomings, rather than “the system.”

What are some examples? Women and men were given equal laboratory space when they were hired, but five years later, men on the average had significantly greater lab space than women. Why? It’s not because their research was better — it’s because they pushed for it.

An article by Claire Cain Miller in Friday’s New York Times lays it out clearly:

Women are paid less than men, and one reason is that women are less likely to negotiate for raises or promotions. They feel more anxiety about negotiating and are less likely to consider job situations to be negotiable …

Women’s behavior is just half the equation. The other half is how they are treated when they ask … people penalized female job applicants more severely than men for negotiating. Men penalized women more than men for asking, while women penalized both men and women. They attributed it in part to stereotypes about appropriate masculine and feminine behavior.

The bottom line

Diversity matters. The playing field is not level. Today’s biases are sometimes more subtle than yesterday’s biases. This makes them more difficult to identify and tackle. Leaders — at every level — must be held accountable for recognizing and tackling these biases.

The No. 1 thing tech companies can do to improve the diversity of the field is to create a welcoming and supportive environment within the company for female engineers. All of the outreach programs in the world for K-12 and college students, all of the advertising campaigns, all of the articles in the press, all of these together will not make nearly as big a difference as a visibly supportive corporate culture.

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