Why Tech is Failing at Diversity and How It Can Succeed

By Kelly Nolan

July 11, 2017

Kelly Nolan, co-Chair for the PEARC.org 2017 conference Workforce Development and Diversity Stream and Compute Canada’s Executive Director, External Affairs, offers this perspective piece. PEARC17 is taking place this week, July 9-13, in New Orleans.

The sectors that are supposed to be all about innovation and the future continue to fail spectacularly at gender equity and diversity.

UK, US and Canada still haven’t managed to break the average 20 percent threshold for gender equity across STEM academic disciplines. And in some cases, the numbers of women are actually declining. Certain disciplines like to boast higher numbers but are still well below parity.

High-Performance Computing (HPC), Scientific Computing, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) academic departments and the IT industry are the epicenters for wealth, power and our future prosperity.

These sectors are dominated by men who in general are blind to their privilege and of the negative experiences of women and other underrepresented groups in their fields.

A growing body of evidence makes clear that diverse teams that include women executives equal increased competitiveness, creativity, innovation and profitability. ​Forbes and McKinsey Global Institute conclude diversity and cultural competency will be the #1 skill for competitiveness in the knowledge economy.

The IT sector and STEM research are the most vulnerable to talent shortages. Yet, a​ccording to the ​Glassdoor.com, ​computer programming is the worst place to be if you’re expecting equal pay for equal work.

Women in HPC reports​ that the UK, US, Europe, and Canada have not achieved anything higher than 17 percent participation of women at HPC industry and academic conferences.

Of more than 5,000 respondents in a Compute Canada survey (non-profit that provides high performance computing services to researchers across Canada) showed only 22 percent identified as women, only 722 indicated they were visible minorities, and even more distressing only 22 were Indigenous researchers.

Efforts are focused on the wrong problem

For more than a decade, these sectors have adopted initiatives to motivate girls to study STEM and support, attract, train and retain women. None have succeeded in any big way because the focus is always on the group that is marginalized and not ​the dominant culture. Women are leaving or not joining these fields because the work/team environment is uncomfortable at best and unsafe at its worst.

The Elephant in the Valley project ​asked more than 200 women in Silicon Valley to share their experiences. ​65 percent of women who report unwanted sexual advances had received advances from a superior, with half receiving advances more than once. 1 in 3 have felt afraid of their personal safety because of work related circumstances. 66 percent felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities because of gender and 59 percent have felt they have not had the same opportunities as their male counterparts. 90 percent witnessed sexist behavior at company events and/or industry conferences.

The Dominant Culture Must Adapt

Women no longer willing to put up with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace in Silicon Valley have gone public with their experiences. Disgraced executives, lost business and large payouts have followed. So now that we have a stick to force gender equity, what will it take to increase men’s participation for diversity and inclusion beyond the usual photo-ops and lip service?

We need to push the burden of adaptation on the shoulders of the dominant culture ​and that means challenging colleagues in ways you may have avoided in the past.

Researchers at the Universities of Colorado, Texas and Singapore found women and minorities are judged harshly when promoting diversity in the workplace, and are often viewed as less effective, and receive poor performance reviews.

Understanding privilege is difficult when it is so prevalent and most men do not understand that their own experience is radically different from a colleague that is not part of the dominant culture.

Research shows punitive or obligatory diversity or cultural sensitivity training fails. However, champions for change are born through understanding and men can become informed and be powerful ambassadors. Women and visible minorities all have a story to tell; it is time to start listening.

We need more leaders to develop cultural competency as a strategic goal that is measured and supported. Managers, professors must be held accountable for closing the gender gap and it needs to be linked to performance or access to funding. We know it doesn’t just happen on its own.

Our current leaders need to think carefully about mitigating resistance to change within their organizations. Most STEM teams have similar interests, experiences and education.

These teams need to invest in understanding the experience of women and communities, professions and disciplines that are not the part of their current professional or social networks. The game has changed. Those that fight to maintain the status quo in STEM, IT and HPC are investing in a failing model that has reached its expiry date.

About the Author

Kelly Nolan is Compute Canada’s Executive Director, External Affairs to which she brings strong experience in marketing, strategic relations, diversity and inclusion and business development.

Kelly is Co-Chair for the PEARC.org 2017 conference Workforce Development and Diversity Stream. PEARC17 is currently taking place in New Orleans (July 9-13). Kelly is presenting and chairing several sessions on unconscious bias and the diversity in advanced high-performance research computing sectors.

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