Agenting Change: PEARC20 Keynote Encourages Cultural Change to Make Tech Better, More Diverse

By Ken Chiacchia, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center/XSEDE

July 29, 2020

The tech world will need to become more diverse if it is to thrive and survive, said Cherri Pancake, director of the Northwest Alliance for Computational Research. But that change will not come quickly, and it will not be easy.

Pancake, a retired anthropologist-turned-engineer in a career that included a faculty position in the Department of Computer Science at Oregon State University and the presidency of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), presented a kind of “user manual” on how to enact cultural change in a community that, like all communities, will resist such change. She offered this manual as the keynote speaker at the PEARC20 virtual conference on July 28, 2020.

Cultural change “doesn’t happen by the masses suddenly waking up one morning and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been unfair’…If you’re going to wait for that moment, you’re going to wait a long time,” she said. Immersed in the culture, community members simply do not see the problem and will need help in acknowledging it before they can change to address it. “Change can be frightening or offensive to people, so a good agent of change learns how to make that change more palatable.”

The Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing (PEARC) Conference Series is a community-driven effort built on the successes of the past with the aim to grow and be more inclusive by involving additional local, regional, national, and international cyberinfrastructure and research computing partners spanning academia, government, and industry. Sponsored by the ACM, the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, PEARC20 is now taking place online through July 31. 

This year’s theme, “Catch the Wave,” embodies the spirit of the community’s drive to stay on pace and in front of all the new waves in technology, analytics, and a globally connected and diverse workforce. Scientific discovery and innovation require a robust, innovative, and resilient cyberinfrastructure to support the critical research required to address world challenges in climate change, population, health, energy, and environment. 

Immersed in the Land of the Tech Peoples

Cherri Pancake

Pancake’s journey into tech began when, as a young anthropologist, she had no employment prospects and someone suggested she try engineering. But her role as an anthropologist in the land of the tech peoples, so to speak, started when a grad student wanted to develop a debugger for parallel applications.

“I asked her, ‘In the lit search I want to see, what do we know about how [people] develop code?’” she asked her student. The student came back with the answer: “‘Nobody knows,’ because nobody had ever asked them.”

That interaction got her interested in studying the culture of the tech world, and how the needs of computational scientists and engineers could be better met. And diversity, whether they fully realize it or not, is a need. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost a million tech jobs went unfilled last year in the U.S. That number could swell to a million and a half by 2028. Changing demographics practically demand that these positions must be filled by a more diverse workforce.

Filling positions is not the only thing that makes diversity in the field imperative, however. A non-diverse workforce, and the assimilation necessary for the occasional “other” to fit in, leads to uniformity in world view and in approaches to problem solving, which in turn limits innovation.

“All I have to do is mention the words, ‘facial recognition,’” Pancake said, referencing the field’s failure to incorporate diverse faces in learning sets, leading to embarrassing biases in AI performance in the real world.

Good News, Bad News

Pancake had good news and bad news for virtual attendees who would like to see tech become more diverse.

“I was lucky when I moved into the techie culture,” she said. “I was an outsider but not completely alien. I quickly learned to adapt to the techie world view.” While such assimilation can be useful for an individual outsider to succeed, it fails when the issue is addressing a more global cultural and workforce change.

The bad news, Pancake added, is that cultural change is painful and slow, with change coming incrementally, indirectly, and by trial and error. Occasional failure is a given, as are false starts that turn out to be unproductive. And currently, the community may be in the throes of a big false start: treating diversity numbers in the educational pipeline as an end-point.

“I’m not going to dispute that we need more ‘others’ in the pipeline,” she said. “But we’re focusing on the wrong thing.”

The high proportion of minorities—defined not just by the traditional definitions involving sex and gender, race, or ethnic background, but also in terms of disciplinary training and origins outside the traditional pipeline—who fall by the wayside is problematic. But even more so is that many of the people who leave do so from surprisingly senior positions in the field.

“When you see high-ranking ‘others’ leave, it discourages the people in the pipeline who you were trying to keep.” Retaining these people will depend on more than just shoving more into the start of the pipe—it requires changing the culture to be more accepting of diversity in a meaningful way. “Demographics is a symptom of the problem, but it isn’t the real problem.”

The good news, Pancake said, is that despite a few exceptions the community isn’t inherently unwelcoming to diversity. It’s just that, like all cultures, it’s insular. Change can come, but it needs to come at an individual level. And while it may be a little unfair to ‘others,’ it will be up to them—and to allies within the community—to make that change start to happen.

Becoming an Agent of Change

“Guess what; it’s the actions of individual people that set off [cultural] tipping points,” Pancake said. “If you can be an agent of change, your influence will be profound…It’s time to stop finding fault and to look for fixes, and find them in ourselves.”

Fortunately, what people need to do to become such agents of change dovetails to a large extent with learning the leadership skills people need to develop their own careers, she argued. For others and allies alike, in order to be an influencer for diversity, people must first focus on demonstrating their value to the community and developing a reputation for getting things done.

Encouraging change is a work of patience and diplomacy, she explained. Speaking up is a must, as when we don’t speak, people assume we agree with the current discussion. Observing individuals’ reactions to ideas can help the agent of change learn to craft suggestions to succeed with a given audience. And strategizing change as a series of “baby steps” takes preparation, patience, and persistence.

For allies, defending coworkers when they’re being ignored or marginalized is a must; it makes the correction less likely to engender a defensive response and leverages the “in” group’s influence. But such defenses need to be more of a “nudge” than a “shove,” couched in terms that the listener can understand and take onboard. Humility on the part of the agent of change is also called for, as it helps in not being accusatory and thus creating more resistance. It also helps the agent to see their own blind spots and not be a part of the problem.

Patience is also needed in encountering responses in the community. Simply acknowledging the problem, or paying lip service to it, may not seem like major successes, but they’re necessary steps before people can begin acting on it. Of course, bad actors will occasionally emerge, and any diversity policy needs to combine patience with effective consequences for those who refuse to change. Also, the best allies of all will be members of the current leadership, as their outsized influence will make even gentle corrections extremely effective. Pancake recommends the weekly free newsletter at BetterAllies.com for tips on how to be a better agent of change.

Despite the long effort ahead, Pancake remains optimistic.

“The dominant culture [in tech] is logical, it responds to rationale and it understands things like iteration,” she said. “We’re not talking about trying to sell our idea to…a herd of goats. They’ve proven they can learn things; what they haven’t learned are these things that they’re… blinded on. The first thing to do is making myself aware of how my actions are perceived, what I can do differently and what the effect will be.”

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