Sexism and fairness in science and technology

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The Times reports on a study (press release here) by the Center for Work Life Policy on women in science and technology fields. The study isn't available yet, but the press release and the NYT article seem to confuse a number of issues:
The 147-page report (which was sponsored by Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Pfizer and Cisco) is filled with tales of sexual harassment (63 percent of women say they experienced harassment on the job); and dismissive attitudes of male colleagues (53 percent said in order to succeed in their careers they had to ?act like a man?); and a lack of mentors (51 percent of engineers say they lack one); and hours that suit men with wives at home but not working mothers (41 percent of technology workers says they need to be available ?24/7?).


The result, she said has been a work environment that dismisses women. Female employees come up against "the kind of culture that evolves when women are in the extreme minority," she said. (Think "Lord of the Flies.") The ideal worker in this realm is "the hacker who goes into his cubicle and doesn't emerge for a week, having not showered or eaten anything but pizza. Those people exist and they are seen as heroes."

So, there are five complaints here:

  1. Sexual harassment
  2. Dismissive attitudes
  3. Lack of mentors
  4. Long hours and inflexible schedules
  5. A culture that rewards lone work

When evaluating these complaints, we need to examine two axes: the pragmatic question of what would benefit companies, and the fairness issue of how companies ought to behave. In many cases, these are aligned. For instance, it's clearly unfair to subject women to sexual harassment and it's doubtful that it's somehow favorable to the company either, since at minimum it demoralizes a significant fraction of your workforce.

On the other hand, in some cases these forces may be in tension. To take one example: if engineers willing to work 80 hours a week are a lot more productive than engineers who can only afford to work 40 hours week (I'm not saying this is so; I suspect the relationship is a lot more complicated than this), then expecting your engineers to be willing to work long hours might well benefit the company; it's a tradeoff between the additional effort you get out of your existing staff and the reduced population you're able to draw from (assuming that some people simply can't work those hours). Similarly, it could be true that lone hackers slaving away in their cubicles is the best way to produce software (it's far from clear that that's true, but I've certainly seen plenty of high quality software produced that way), in which case again it may be in the company's best interest to rely on such people, even if they're harder to find than the average programmer.

Now, obviously one could say "yes, it's true that practice X would be more efficient, but it's so difficult for a large segment of the population that it's unfair to engage in it". It's not clear to me that this argument has anywhere near the moral force that (for instance) an argument against practices that aren't beneficial to the company are, since you're asking the company to do something that's against their interest. Ignoring the question of male vs. female, if I'm the kind of worker who would like to put in my 40 hours and then go play PS/2, I'm going to be at a disadvantage compared to my co-worker who is prepared to spend 70 hours a week at work. It's not clear to me that when he gets promoted and I don't that that's inherently unfair.

Let's try turning this around and look at a job where most of the employees are women: day care workers and day care. Now, I haven't done a scientific study, but it seems to me pretty likely that the reason that most of these workers are women is that women like working with kids a lot more. Yet, I don't think it would be reasonable to say that this was an anti-male environment and that employers should find some way to remove the aspects of the environment that make it less congenial to men (i.e., the kids). That would obviate the whole point of the job!

So, at minimum we've got some kind of spectrum of practices that are preferential to some types of employees:

  • Practices which are actually detrimental to job performance (these absolutely exist)
  • Practices which are neutral.
  • Practices which improve job performance.
  • Practices which are essential to job performance.

So, I think we can all agree that we should move away from practices that disadvantage women and that are also bad for job performance and we can probably agree that practices which are neutral should be changed as well. This leaves us with how to handle practices which are beneficial to the organization but preferential to some types of employees. [I should note at this point that it can be hard to assess which category any given practice falls into. The people in charge of the organization will generally defend any existing practice, no matter how stupid.] The general social consensus seems to be that organizations should have to make accomodations as long as the hit to their productivity isn't too large. But of course, this leaves us in the uncomfortable position where the organization which is faced with making a change which would probably reduce productivity somewhat is incentivized to claim that it would result in a huge productivity reduction while activists for whoever is on the disadvantaged end of the practice (in this case, women), have an incentive to claim that there wouldn't be any impact on productivity, with neither side being much interested in the truth.


It's unclear to me that we need to worry too much about practices that are detrimental to job performance. In a competitive market place for labor, such practices will eventually get selected out. It seems to me that women in science and technology have the education and marketability necessary to vote with their feet.

Note that I'm not saying their shouldn't be a tort for sexual harassment. I'm more speaking against some sort of regulation to address what you've listed as complaints 2-5. It seems like in the long run, it will hurt efficiency more than help.

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