Monday, August 10, 2009

How High Tech Can Learn From Norwegian Businesses

I remember hearing about a law that Norway had put in place a while back. It had something to do with mandating that a certain number of women must sit on boards of corporations. Could the same be done to improve diversity in the computing industry? It seemed like a tricky thing - I often don't really think quotas are a good thing. Yet many businesses were not hiring women for these positions despite that fact that there were enough talented and qualified candidates to choose from.

Today, She_is_in_biz, the Twitter account for She Geared based in Canada's capital, posted an article called How Women Have Changed Norway's Boardroom. If there was ever an article to convince me about these kinds of quotas, this would be it (though I'm still not sure I'm sold - see below).
Two years ago, most publicly-traded Norwegian boards themselves had to be forced by law to accept women in any sort of real numbers. ... [M]en in charge of corporations everywhere who have genuinely tried to on-board women and either 1) not found them, or 2) found them lacking will have to re-examine how well they actually tackled that task.
The most interesting thing about this article is that it uses the perspectives of men on the boards to explain how women have benefit them. Here's one summary of how women help:
Women, in sufficient numbers, change board dynamics for the better. Why? Because as a group, women tend to display a different set of characteristics from men as a group — characteristics that broaden discussions, reduce unnecessary risks that a corporation takes on, and punish people who would increase foolish risks.
Even if this is a generalization, there are definite benefits of this change in dynamics for any team, including technical ones. As one former CEO and current board member put it:
"If I had to generalize about the differences between men and women on boards? Women are more interested in getting the facts. Much more prepared; ask many more questions. Men tend to shoot from the hip. Women on boards are also more interested in how the organization will actually work. ... Women tend to see the organization as more of a living thing." (emphasis added)
I suppose this might be what some people describe as the more 'social' nature of women. One might also surmise that the extra preparation women take could be related to the higher prevalence of the impostor syndrome. Either way, the result is that problems get tackled from new angles, and perspectives shift. On a software team, this could mean anything from finding better ways, to organize requirements to improving relations between team members, to bringing the end users closer to the product. Perhaps all things that might be accomplished by an all-male team, but more likely with more diversity.

Here's an interesting one:
Women are less about jockeying for position in the group, and more about understanding and solving the problem with as much information as feasible: "In my observation, women don't drive for prestige as much as men do," said one experienced male board chair.
Perhaps this means fewer women will be cowboy coders, trying to save the day in a blaze of glory, and more will be the types who believe that slow and steady produces higher quality results? Having a good balance between the two types seems to be the best idea for success.

One section of the article discusses the fact that women need support in order to enter their board positions successfully. Sound familiar? What was also pointed out, though, is that many men need a little help getting comfortable with the addition of women. Perhaps we need to pay attention to this fact when joining all-male technical teams. Many of the men want to make the women feel welcome, but don't want to misinterpreted. We should help put them at ease!

There's even more in the article, so be sure to check it out.

Now, in terms of whether I'm convinced about quotas...

It certainly does seem to have helped in this case. But I'm still not comfortable with the idea that X number of women must be hired by such-and-such date. I'd rather see a policy that states a goal rather than a rule.

Because there have been studies suggesting that the name at the top of a resume can inadvertently influence hiring decisions (by both men AND women), it might be a good idea to implement blind resume reviews and perhaps careful training for recognizing talent and ability during interviews. Then, in the end, if it comes down to a set of completely equal candidates, then choose the female to improve diversity.

I hope this topic will stir up some strong opinions - please leave a comment and let's get a discussion going!


Shrutarshi said...

I like the points you bring up, but my concern is, even if there was to be some mandatory hiring law, are there enough people to actually fill those positions? Only about 17% of new college CS grads are women, so a law saying that any more than 17% of a team must be women will be very hard to enforce. The problem of there not being enough female CS students is one that should be addressed before anything. The problem, as I see it as a student myself, is that CS isn't sexy anymore. We need a very thought-out, very smooth, marketing campaign.

Gail Carmichael said...

Definitely a consideration. I wonder if, while we work on improving the image of CS etc, getting more women into the workforce would help that goal anyway. Role models are pretty important after all. While it might not make sense to enforce a certain number that's higher than the number of grads, this is where a goal could work well. If you reach for the stars and don't quite make it, you may still reach the moon! :)

Shrutarshi said...

Having more women in the field would definitely help. Perhaps some sort of in-house tech training programs would be helpful for women who were interested in computers, but for whatever reason didn't actually get a CS degree

Katelyn said...

Hi Gail!
Love the post. I just wanted to leave my two cents. I am all for gender equality and all that jazz. However, if companies implemented a "required" quota of female employees I think it would always keep me wondering if I was hired for my abilities or just because I was a woman. I wouldn't want to be hired over some guy who was more skilled than myself just because of my gender.

Also, I agree with Shrutarshi. I think getting women into the profession/university programs in general is more of a problem than companies not hiring enough women.

DrSkrud said...

You're right that women often play a social catalyst role in a lot of high tech projects, and that this is a great benefit.

However, I think quotas are a fallacy. Hiring women just because they are women is wrong. At one point you will be shortchanging talent and skills simply to fill an arbitrary quota.

Case in point, when interviewing candidates for an internship, we made sure to give nearly every woman an interview. The unfortunate result was that most of these were very poor candidates. We had been overlooking faults in resumes just so that we could increase the number of women we hired. We ended up hiring not a single one.

I don't think gender is an appropriate differentiator when it comes to high tech jobs (I don't want to generalize to other fields). Having more women in the workplace is often great for the environment, but not at the expense of talent.

The two most important factors should always be skills and personality. If you're looking to hire a person to act as a social catalyst, then that should be an aspect of their personality, not their gender.

Gail Carmichael said...

So true! I also would hate that feeling of never truly knowing...

Does anyone have the hard facts about the percentage of women available in the workforce vs. the average percentage of women in highly technical jobs? Are there many women who get into management instead? Are there women not able to get development jobs that want to, and instead can only get, say, general IT support? (Not to say IT support is a bad thing, just that perhaps some want something else but can't get it. Just a random example, not the only one that could be used.)

JL said...

Personally, I've always been frustrated with quotas for two reasons. For one, I would hate the idea of someone thinking that I was only hired to fill a quota. And secondly I think that they put focus in the wrong area, where they are still primarily judging an applicant by their gender. I just think there has to be a better way of encouraging companies to hire women. Just like there should be a be a better way to encourage woman to study computer science.

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