News On the Radar: 4/26/17

Here is a brief round-up of information and news that crossed NCWIT's radar recently and which we think will be of interest to you. The practices or content of the news gathered (while not endorsed or vetted by NCWIT) is meant to spark new conversations and ideas surrounding the current diversity statistics and trends in the tech workforce. We encourage you to add your two cents on this month's topics in the comments below.

Prestige Can Put Women at a Disadvantage for Obtaining Faculty-level Positions

A recent study, as reported in Science Magazine, explores how the role of prestige in the academic labor market puts women at a disadvantage for obtaining faculty-level positions, in essence because more men are accepted into prestigious PhD programs than women.

Women are at a disadvantage in competing for doctorates from these top-ranked universities, which “presages gender inequality in the jobs for which the doctoral degree is a gateway,” note authors Kim Weeden and Dafna Gelbgiser of Cornell University and Sarah Thebaud of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “On average, between 11 and 13 percent of female doctoral students would need to ‘trade’ programs with men in order to” gain equal representation in the most prestigious PhD programs.”

Though the the authors don’t cite a reason for the observed gender disparity in PhD prestige, one likely cause is differences in GRE scores, especially in math, part of what the authors call “readily observed indicators of ability.” On average, men score higher than women on these tests. Because these programs receive far more applications than they can accept, and faculty members must choose among many comparably ranked candidates, in the interest of time they default to using GRE scores and grade point averages to rule out the majority of candidates and only grant a small percentage of applicants full, serious consideration.

Other possible contributors cited by Weeden and her co-authors include differences in “the talent of incoming students, the quality of the training they receive, the level of financial support they enjoy, the professional networks they develop, the ‘halo’ effect of obtaining a [previous] degree from a high-prestige program, or some combination.” Further, they note that women tend to underestimate their abilities relative to men’s, especially in male-dominated pursuits, which may discourage women from even applying to top-ranked programs.

The authors conclude that the prestige differences appear to be “an expected, albeit underappreciated, outcome of more general social processes” related to gender. Until elite departments recognize and mitigate the factors that may be disqualifying able women from getting in, the faculty gender gap is likely to persist.

NCWIT resources related to this topic include the following:

The Pros and Cons of Hiring Who You Know

Having employees recommend people they know to fill positions within their company is generally considered a win-win situation: It reduces hiring costs for companies, referral hires tend to have higher job satisfaction, and the referring employee often gets a cash bonus, not to mention a new work friend. However, as discussed in a recent Bloomberg article, referral hiring isn’t a win for diversity.

"Referral networks can lead to lesser diversity or — to put it another way — exacerbate between-group inequality," said Ian Schmutte, an economics professor at the University of Georgia. "It's very clear that people who get referrals tend to get referrals of the same race, gender, ethnic group, or national origin."

Beyond the issue of valuing diversity itself, companies with more diverse workforces have been shown to perform better. A 2015 McKinsey report found that among 366 companies, those with gender diversity outperform those without it by 15 percent, and those with ethnic diversity outperform those without it by 35 percent.

Despite the challenges, employee referrals should remain an option. Schmutte concludes, "Social interactions provide information that is useful to firms that are trying to screen workers for jobs where the skill set is not that obvious or easy. You want to know: Is somebody going to show up to work? Are they going to be a good worker? But because they operate along lines of race or ethnicity, they might still block people off from certain types of jobs."

History Can Change Present Day Misconceptions of Women in Computing

A recent EdPurge column by Sheena Vaidyanathan suggests a unique way to break stereotypes about STEM and computing: by looking at computer history.

The story that immediately comes to mind, thanks to the movie Hidden Figures, is that of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, who worked at NASA in the early years of space research. Crossing both gender and race lines, these African-American women were behind John Glenn’s launch into orbit — one of the most significant achievements in history. Though Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, on which the movie was based, provides a more detailed accounting of the challenges faced by these women and others, the movie has played a helpful role in highlighting the fact that women, particularly black women, excelled in math, engineering, and in programming the early computers.

A new documentary, The Computers, tells the story of the ENIAC programmers, six women who programmed the first all-electronic, programmable computer, the ENIAC, during World War II — using only logical diagrams. The women weren’t mentioned when the ENIAC was debuted to the press in 1946, and their story had been lost for decades until the ENIAC Programmers Project began researching their work and recording their oral histories.

The stories of Ada Lovelace, considered the world’s first computer programmer, and Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler for a programming language, are two additional sources of inspiration for young students.

Vaidyanathan advocates that these stories be part of every student’s education so that all children, regardless of gender or race, can identify with STEM and computing. Further, they reinforce the importance of persistence, hard work, and pushing ahead, even under the most challenging circumstances. Last, the more attention that stories like these receive, the greater the likelihood that the media will pay more attention to diverse portrayals of technical women such as these.

Toward these ends, NCWIT has created a Hidden Figures campaign to promote the movie and the important message it sends about women and technology. Visit the campaign webpage to find out how you can show your support for diversifying media portrayals of technical women by spreading the word and how you can use practical tips for building confidence in students, creating more inclusive environments, discovering pathways to a career in technology, and more: Shetterly will also be a keynote speaker at the upcoming 2017 NCWIT Summit.