An issue worth debugging

by Rosie Odsey, Oct 04, 2017

I met with Dr Lilach Avitan the other day. You may see more of her in future: she was chosen as one of the 30 superstars of STEM by Science and Technology Australia and she'll be talking at events like the CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap screening. Over coffee at the best UQ coffee shop (Nano), we talked about the issues facing the STEM females of today as well as her work.

She's a computational neuroscientist and spends her time trying to understand what computations the brain does to generate perception. Interestingly, she started off in computer science and mathematics, only moving to Neuroscience when she started her PhD at Bar Ilan University (which she completed with Highest Distinction). She was raised and finished her studies in Israel before coming to Brisbane to do postdoctoral research at the Queensland Brain Institute.
 UQ Idea Hub is hosting a showing of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap on Monday 9 October 2017 including a talk from Dr Lilach Avitan.
We talked about a range of things that affect females in STEM and a few themes kept recurring:
  • Being one of few women in the room or workplace or field
  • There is an absence of and limited visibility of female role models
  • Decisions are made by boards, committees and institutions and these don't necessarily have female representation
  • No one teaches you how to navigate the boys club issue
There is an underlying current to all of the above: these are symptoms of a major cultural issue.

One thing that Dr Avitan and I discussed was the fact that this is a cultural issue and it also came up that it takes around a generation to change a stereotype. Robin Hauser Reynolds, the director of CODE, said that the documentary found that "the underlying currents which dissuaded women and people of color from pursuing coding jobs and resulted in the dearth of minorities in tech, were systemic, pervasive, and complex." (emphasis added. Full statement here.) Dr Avitan strongly believes that programs like the superstars of STEM which highlight highly achieving women in STEM are a major step toward changing the perception of STEM in the eye of the general public, and encouraging young girls to join the STEM forces.

The words we use matter

Benjamin Schmidt made a great interactive chart where you can plug in words and see how frequently those words have been used to describe male and female teachers on RateMyProfessor (an anonymous online ranking system).

In an article introducing the chart, Schmidt said that "men are more likely to be criticized as "arrogant," but also more frequently praised for being "humble"; they're often "cool," except when they're "weird."
Women, on the other hand, are more often praised or criticized for being "organized" or "disorganized," "helpful" or "unhelpful," or "friendly" or "unfriendly." (If you're interested, a full study was done based on data from RateMyProfessor.)

Couple this with the evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists (there's this cool tool made by the researcher to check if your ad has gender-coded words) and maybe you'll agree that this is not an issue easily solved.
While we can change how we write job ads, how can we change our perception of gender when it's ingrained in our language and culture? And if you don't think you have any perceptive issues, then maybe it's time to talk about how pervasive gender bias is.

The people saying women shouldn't X is decreasing. That said, when people are still referring to women as bossy where men would be considered confident, there is more at play than whether we're being "accepting enough".
"But I'm not sexist" doesn't fix anything.
Gender bias is far more pervasive than you would think. The nature of unconscious bias is that it's unconscious even if you know about it.

"In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant." (emphasis added)
They also found that the gender of the person assessing the applications didn't affect responses: "female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student."

And here's the kicker: the assessors said that it wasn't to do with gender. "Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent." (Full study here)

This carries further than job applicants. As part of research into gender bias in entrepreneurship, a study was conducted where they presented pitches to survey participants and asked them which company they would fund. The videos did not show the entrepreneurs themselves and randomly assigned a male or female voice while holding the visual content and narration script constant. Despite identical pitches, around 70% of participants chose to fund the ventures pitched by a male voice.

This study combined with 2 others led to the conclusion that "investors prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs compared with pitches made by female entrepreneurs, even when the content of the pitch is the same. This effect is moderated by male physical attractiveness: attractive males were particularly persuasive, whereas physical attractiveness did not matter among female entrepreneurs."

It's like how we can't smell our own home. Our brain gets used to environmental smells. Maybe that's how it is with bias (I'm stretching, maybe, but bear with me here). Maybe, if we become overly concerned about equality, if we allow ourselves to see the uncomfortable things, it will actually make us more aware of our own biases.

What is being done?

Governments worldwide are making great moves to ensure better representation. For example, the Dutch government has a statutory target for having minimum 30% of each gender on executive and supervisory boards of publicly traded companies; those that don't reach the target have to explain themselves in annual reporting. Here's a good summary of what governments around the world have legislated.

Companies are starting to come around on the issue. A 7-year-old wrote a letter to LEGO saying that All the [LEGO] girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. And LEGO responded by creating the Research Institute and has continued to quietly add more STEM women to its products.

There are various moves in the media to shed light on the issues. CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap is a documentary exposing the dearth of American female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap and digital divide. Films like this help show a path to closing this gap.

There are programs like Superstars of STEM that exist to put a spotlight on amazing women in STEM and ensure that there are role models in the public eye. There are also organisations like Women in Technology and Women in Digital running events and creating programs.

We at Codebots recognise the difficulty in recruiting female engineers and enjoy a better than average gender mix across the team. We offer our support by sponsoring events like the UQ Idea Hub showing of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap.

What is needed?

In my opinion, more of what's being done would be great: stronger moves by government to ensure better representation, more companies fixing the bias in their products (as well as internally), more creative media and more visibility for female role models in STEM.
That said, it's a cultural shift so it means that each person has their part to play. If you've read this far then you must really care about this issue, so I'm going to ask a few things of you. It's great that this bothers you. And yes, it's cultural and there are a lot of things that need change. But there are things that we can do as individuals, as friends, as colleagues, as companies, and as humans.
So here's what you can do:
  • Recognise that you have unconscious biases (that are more prevalent when you say you don't) and ensure you have checks in place for when these might have an impact
  • If you are an insider of a community (group, team, workplace, boys club, etc.), figure out what outsiders you're excluding and on what basis
  • Go out of your way to make people feel like they belong
  • Look at your role models. Who do you listen to? Who do you read? Who do you follow? Look at the mix and question it if it seems imbalanced.
  • Actually call out people (especially mates)
  • If you get asked to speak on a panel or be involved in an event, question it if there isn't representation from both genders (some people go as far as to boycott)
  • If in doubt, put yourself in someone else's shoes
At the end of the day, what we want is for anyone to walk into a STEM classroom, a corporate office, a lab, or an event and feel like they belong.
Did you know Australian founders are increasingly young, women, and foreign born?