If I were to ask my readers to take a math test right now, approximately 1/2 would perform worse than if I had used a more neutral title such as “Math Quiz Below”. I’ll let you as a the reader guess which 1/2.
This is a subtle form of priming. Multiple studies have shown that by priming people before taking tests or making decisions, we can influence their outcome. It isn’t quite subliminal advertising, but it can be close.
I’m currently reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and it’s quite the read. I recommend it to my audience here. She goes into the studies showing how priming can impact outcomes and references them in more detail.
Overall, we know that women are less represented in STEM fields, but this lack of representation doesn’t start out this way. Studies show in grade school the interest in STEM by gender is about equal. But over time, there’s less representation of women in most STEM fields and often when they are represented, their positions either carry less weight (not as much advancement) or perceived to carry less weight (ignored, spoken over, etc.) And before anyone comments, “but I know a woman who is a CTO at my company” or similar, keep in mind that those are noteworthy because they are the exceptions, not the norm.
Now, no single solution will solve the problem of women’s representation in STEM. But there are things we can do. First, we need to recognize that the human brain is probably built to be primed for certain responses. But don’t confuse this with saying that we can’t change what we’re primed for or how we respond. And, we can also avoid priming.
One study that is cited by Fine appears to suggest that collecting gender-biased demographic data AFTER a test or survey doesn’t cause a gender based result in the test. In other words, if you simply give a math test and then at the end ask questions like gender, or even to put ones name on it (which can often have a influence on self-perception) it appears to remove the bias towards poorer performance by women. Similarly if you don’t ask at all.
But, most of us aren’t giving math tests are we?
But we are doing things like looking at resumes, deciding what conferences or seminars to attend, what blogs to read or respond it and how we interact with our coworkers and bosses.
One technique to consider is blind recruitment. Here much if not all demographic data is removed from a resume. This sort of work goes back to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. But note, there is some evidence that it’s not the panacea some make it out to be. So proceed with caution.
When attending a conference or seminar, you can do one of a few things. For one, try to read the session descriptions without seeing the name of who is presenting. This can be a bit hard to do and may not quite get the results you want. Or, and I’m going to go out on a limb here because some people find this concept a bit sexist and I don’t have a great deal of data to support it, but…. go based on the names, and select sessions where woman are presenting. Yes, I’m suggesting making a conscious, some would say sexist, choice.
So far I’ve been pleasantly pleased by doing so. Over a year ago at SQL Saturday Chicago 2017 I decided to attend a session by Rie Irish called Let Her Finish: Supporting Women’s Voices from meetings to the board room. I’d like to say I was surprised to find that I was only 1 of 2 men in the room, but I wasn’t. I was a bit disappointed however, since really it was men who needed to hear the talk more than women. Oh and the other gentleman, was a friend of Rie’s she had invited to attend. And a related tip, when attending such topics, generally, KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. But that’s a different blog post for a different time.
Other great talks I’ve heard were Mindy Curnutt‘s talk at SQL Summit 2017 on Imposter Syndrome. Or Deborah Melkin’s Back to the Basics: T-SQL 101 at SQL Saturday Albany 2017. Despite her being a first time speaker and it being a 101 class, it was great and I learned some stuff and ended up inviting her to speak at our local user group in February of this year.
Besides making your fellow DBAs, SQL professionals, IT folks etc feel valuable and appreciated, you’re also showing the event coordinators that their selections were well made. If more people attend more sessions given by women, eventually there will be more women presenting simply because more will be asked to present.
But what if you can’t go? Encourage others. Rie and her partner Kathi Kellenberger (whom I’m indebted to for encouraging me to write my first book) are the leaders of the PASS WIT (Women in Technology) Virtual Chapter of PASS. Generally before a SQL Saturday they will retweet announcements of the various women speaking. It doesn’t hurt for you to do the same, especially for women that you know and have heard speak.
But what about when there are no women, or they’re poorly represented. Call folks out on it. Within the past year we’ve seen a “Women in Math” poster, which featured no women. There was a conference in Europe recently (I’m trying to find links) where women were extremely underrepresented. When women AND men finally started to speak out and threaten not to attend or speak, the conference seemingly suddenly found more women qualified to speak.
I’ve heard sometimes that “it’s hard to find women speakers” or “women don’t apply to speak”. The first is a sign of laziness. I can tell you right now, at least in the SQL world, it’s not hard. You just have to look around. In the second case, there may be some truth to that. Sometimes you have to be more proactive in making sure that women are willing to apply and speak. For my SQL/PASS folks out there, I would suggest reaching to Rie and Kathi and finding out what you can do to help attract speakers to your conference or user group. Also, for example, if you don’t already have women speaking or in visible public positions within your organization, this can discourage women from applying because, rightly or wrongly, you’re giving off a signal that women may not be welcome.
Math may be hard, but it should not be because of gender bias, and we shouldn’t let gender bias, primed or not allow under-representation to occur.
PS – bonus points if anyone can recognize the mountains in the photo at the top.
PPS – Some of the links below may end up outdated but:
And that’s just a small sampling of who is out there!