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, scientopia.org, 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?