Joanne Cohoon from the University of Virginia led the workshop’s final discussion. Noting that people seem to shape their environment to suit them, she reiterated an earlier point that not only do women leave male-dominated fields at higher rates than men, men also leave women-dominated professions at higher rates than women do. What is needed to create environments where all people feel comfortable, rather than just one group? This is not just a STEM or engineering issue; nursing and teaching are not especially diverse either. What might be done to motivate employers to create environments suitable for more than one dominant group?
What might be done that could motivate employers to create environments that are not just suitable for one dominant group?
~ Joanne Cohoon
Milan Yager from the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineers posited that small businesses do not set out to create environments or job descriptions targeted to men rather than women. He believes the challenge is that most people do not understand the value that diversity brings to every field. In every environment diversity can bring value, and to the extent that diversity is a goal, companies and individuals have to do whatever is necessary to attract diverse people, whether by writing different job descriptions or creating different environments.
The easiest thing in the world is to be surrounded by people just like us, said Nadya Fouad: the small businesses probably simply hired people that were like them, and did not see any problem with that. The question is how to emphasize the true value of diversity—not just the “nice” value of diversity, but the bottom-line value of diversity—and encourage people to get out of their comfort zones.
Sara Raju found that many articles focus on gender neutrality rather than gender inclusiveness. She and her colleagues reported that, in addition to “feminine” and “masculine” words, there are neutral words. Similarly, in physical space there are two paradigms: the Star Trek paradigm and the one with blank white walls and white carpet (where no one is likely to be very comfortable). In a third paradigm both men and women would be comfortable. Cohoon remarked that although many employees and professors say they are gender neutral, “neutral” often means that an environment favors men. Failure to act is to allow the status quo to persist. Channing Martin seconded Cohoon’s observation: she and her colleagues heard the word “neutral” over and over again from employers, but among employees “neutral” was “male.”
She went on to report that in their company interviews, she and her colleagues asked employers whether they were using strategies to target women specifically: all said no, that they recruited everyone equally and did not do diversity initiatives. But many of them also understood that diverse environments are important in terms of return on investment and productivity, as the research shows. So there was a disconnect between having that knowledge and using it (though this may also have been a function of very little turnover in the companies surveyed, so there weren’t many hiring opportunities).
Emily Blakemore pointed out that a growing body of research on recruitment is looking at cultural differences among women, and it’s important to realize that women from different cultural backgrounds have different priorities and perspectives. It is important to approach employees as individuals—not treating them as men or women employees and not necessarily being gender neutral but recognizing differences in priorities and values that stem from cultural or generational differences. These differences need to be teased out and are an interesting area for future research, she said.
Melissa Carl of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and ASME noted that SWE just celebrated its 60th anniversary, with the theme “Success on our own terms.” CEO Betty Shanahan wanted to encourage female engineers to find success on their own terms and not feel, as she had, that
they have to be “white men in high heels.” We have come a long way, she added.
Referring to the earlier comments on gender neutrality, Romila Singh commented that when people talk about “gender neutral,” it is really a code word for the modern form of sexism. People are now so politically correct that overt “-isms” aren’t allowed to surface, she said. Thus when people say “I don’t see a woman” or “I don’t see a person in a wheelchair,” it’s a coded way to refer to something that makes them uncomfortable. Even if a company doesn’t have a diversity outreach officer, it can help to simply have a conversation: “I don’t know what you want, but let me know if there’s something that can make you happier or more comfortable.” Just talk on a personal basis, instead of putting on the “diversity” hat and saying, “Now I have to talk to a woman.”
Constance Thompson of ASCE said that her role is really about leveraging diversity, which is inclusion. “Inclusion” appeals more to organizations than “diversity” and is more relevant because it leverages existing diversity. So the first thing is to “change our language and understand that what we are really talking about is inclusion.” And professional societies need to acknowledge that they too struggle to engage underrepresented audiences. She suggested further investigation and maybe commissioned studies to look at why, for example, African Americans are leaving engineering.
Fouad pointed out that the definition of success in any company is determined by management, and often by how those managers themselves have been successful. She illustrated with the example of a proxy for a large technology company in Silicon Valley that was having trouble keeping women. Occupational analysts discovered that male employees were solving crises at 3 a.m. A closer look at when these crises were surfacing and whether it was necessary to solve them at 3 a.m. showed that it was not. When the analysts changed the definition for success in identifying and solving problems in a timely fashion, the metric revealed more successful women. This shift was the result of someone who stood back and asked who is defining success and whether there is a differential effect by gender.
Catherine Didion observed that the discussion showed the importance of language and ways to engage. It is necessary to avoid making assumptions about how we should engage and to “acknowledge that we are all part of the problem—and therefore that we all need to be part of the solution.”
It’s a big and complicated issue, and there’s a lot that goes into understanding what creates the problem and how it is maintained, said Cohoon in closing the discussion. Even if people understand the problem, they do not necessarily know what to do about it. There was much talk at the workshop about valuing diversity and recognizing that it really contributes; but Cohoon acknowledged that probably every manager knows that diversity can create problems. So there is a management issue; people are not just going to swallow the “diversity is great” perspective. And because people already feel like they are overcommitted and overworked, it’s important to think about changes they will actually be willing to make—changes that have both a low bar to implementation and an appreciable impact.
It is difficult to spur action, even when people know what the right behavior is, because everyone is part of this culture, and both men and women perpetuate stereotypes about who is good in technical roles. How can each individual and institution structure practices in ways that make it more difficult to act on those stereotypes? Those are the solutions to try to identify and propagate.