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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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You Go, Girl!

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are male. The British National Guidance Research Forum says that men outnumbered women in Engineering by 4-to-1 to 5-to-1 over the past 15 years. The U.S. department of commerce reports the 2009 ratio at about 3 to 1 even though the job market as a whole is split half and half. And the numbers for women in computing are falling (Beedle et al., “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” U.S. Department of Commerce, ESA Issue Brief #04-11).

Whether you had noticed or not, and no matter if your principles tell you whether it should or should not be so, women and men are different. Men prefer Android phones over iPhones, while for women it’s vice-versa (Nielsen Wire, 1 December, 2010). Whether you’re on the Android or iPhone side of the market you want your work force to understand both perspectives. One tips the work force gender balance at one’s own peril in the market.

Computing and engineering have long been male bastions. Numbers for women grew slightly back when I was in school in the early 1980s, but  fell off again and have never quite recovered. The reason? Maybe because women view male-dominated engineering cultures as less humane work environments than the alternatives. You can guess more reasons. And they’re important.

There’s more. On the average, women in technical professions are better-educated than their male counterparts  (The Gender Gap in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Occupations,, 4 August 2011).  Girls’ academic performance is better than boys’, and the gap is widening (BBC News, “GCSE REsults: Gender Gap Widens,” 25 August 2011).

I’m sure that with research I could find other numbers in women’s favor. However, looking beyond gender alone, diversity is a virtue in its own right. We can find analogous numbers that favor men. We can find other numbers that favor Asians. And others that favor just about any ethnic group you might choose.

Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From, Penguin, 2010) steps outside the “creative genius” engineering model to regard innovation as a result of diversity itself. He says, “This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters. A world where a diverse mix of distinct professions and passions overlap is a world where exaptations thrive.” (Chapter VI)

An exaptation is an inventive use of an old idea in a radically new context. Gutenberg’s printing press was a bastardized wine press. These twists of innovation come from idea migrations in a world of “a diverse mix of ... professions and passions.”

Too many engineering cultures stereotype women as project managers, usability specialists, or executive assistants. Such stereotypes in fact perpetuate what might be dangerous, deeper prejudices. If we believe Johnson, such prejudices break down the very structures that fuel innovation — which in many ways is the heart of engineering. Diversity in the professional environment isn’t only doing the right thing — it props up the bottom line. 

When I teach ScrumMaster certification courses I can predict, 9 out of 10 times, which team will score highest in the Velocity Game production simulation. It’s the one with a critical mass of women. Use your hiring and career development clout to grow diversity in your work force. You’ll be glad you did.

Related: Do Romantic Thoughts Reduce Women's Interest in Engineering?

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My experience as both a contributor and a manager confirms what you said. Diversity leads to fresh ideas and creative solutions. But you must also create a climate in which fresh ideas are welcome. And diversity can lead to conflict which can be a good thing. In some workplaces, conflict is either avoided at all cost, or taken to the opposite extreme and allowed to careen out of control. In either case, leaders must show respect for those with whom they disagree. In this way, they demonstrate that differences lead to discovery and synthesis, not isolation or favoritism.

Posted on 10/3/11 10:59 AM.

Y'know, my recent project teams have been diverse as all get-out, with the exception that there are few women cutting code. On a team of ten we may have no two people with the same native language, especially if you count separate Indian dialects. Unfortunately, I do not see this kind of cultural diversity resulting in increased technical creativity, if anything it can be a burden to coordinate disparate backgrounds into a cohesive, much less productive, team.

Now if you see women excelling at your game, then there is some difference between your game and the (IT) environments I have seen. I'm afraid that this may reflect poorly on the real-world environments in many ways, if they did encourage and benefit from diversity, it might be better for all. But in fact, they tend not to even value feedback, much less creativity, to be very leaden, top-down, do-it-this-way-just-because. If that's the real world in current tech environments, perhaps that's why women do better elsewhere, or simply prefer to be elsewhere? And who can blame them?

Posted on 10/11/11 9:59 AM.

Diversity can't fix a dysfunctional environment, but a dysfunctional environment can certainly strangle the effectiveness of diversity. Y'know, it seems like you gravitate to organizations that have much more serious things to worry about. Want me to point you to some good resumé preparation programs?

Posted on 10/11/11 11:22 PM in reply to Joshua Stern.



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