Recently one of my colleagues pointed us to a YouTube video. It is about “Unconscious Bias @ Work” by Dr. Brian Welle, Director of People Analytics at Google. At first, I thought this is yet another discussion about gender difference. A half way through, I started to see it goes beyond that. Around 34:50 (min:sec) in the video, he shows a graph of networks among employees; i.e., engineers creating their own tight clusters, sales team another, HR being not well networked, and so on. He goes on and answers questions like advantage of different types of social networks, i.e., between broad vs. intensive social network (47:00). He gives an example of how generalist’s broad social network helped draw ideas from different groups, leading for Google to innovate beyond gmail. While for the invention of contact lenses that measure the level of glucose in your blood to help diabetic people, more intense social network was needed among people who makes the machinery very, very small, chemists and biologists.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen to more recent diversity discussion and are interested in finding out more, this video by Dr. Welle discussing with his data driven approach might be of interest to you.
Unconscious Bias: Personal Story
When it comes to unconscious bias, I have a lot of stories to tell. Although I never thought of writing about it before, watching the above video certainly brings back many memories: as a young girl with engineering and science major, as a woman who faced a big wall of discrimination against women at work place, as a woman who fed up with your own society and attempted to look for an opportunity outside, and as a researcher who got an unique opportunity to study in an interdisciplinary environment. Nothing extraordinary. But for my own nostalgia’s sake, I’m writing my little story…
Girls in Science and Engineering
Probably my first encounter with a visible sign of gender difference was during my third year at a high school in Japan. As a part of preparation for university entrance examination, the school offered two types of classes for students to choose from: one for humanity and social science focused, and the other science and engineering focused. I was never good at literature while I liked mathematics. Choosing the engineering focused class was natural choice for me. When the 3rd year started, my class had the total of 43 students in the class, 13 were girls. (Note: overall male and female ratio was more or less half and half.) This proportional distortion became more prominent when I entered the engineering school at the university. Out of 540 students, only six were female. In terms of learning opportunity, I did not see anything different for boys and girls. I was happily studying at the university. Only minor problem was that there was no separate restroom for female students. Female students were allowed to use restrooms for faculties and staffs. They also put a sign on one cube in male restrooms as “woman”.
During my sophomore year, I met a professor/architect Tsutomu Shigemura and his wife, Keiko Arimura, who is also architect who owns architectural design studio. I took apprenticeship at Ms. Arimura’s design studio. Putting aside what I learned for designing architecture, what unique about this office was that Ms. Arimura and other women there seemed more powerful than men. I did not choose this office because of that. It just happened that way. But the experience there probably stimulated my little stubborn nature.
Bias at Work
My real struggle with discrimination against women started when I took a job at a large construction company. My boss was quite clear saying that they hired me because I was cheap in salary wise. In that company, they had a grade system of between 1 and 9, where 1 being the highest position and 9 the lowest. If you are a male with a high school degree, your starting grade is 8, with an undergraduate degree 7, and with a graduate degree 6, so on. If you are female, your starting grade is 9 no matter what degree you have earned. They also believed programming is a type of job that you cannot do when you get older. So female was suited because they were expected to leave the company after they get married in a few years. I was quite vocal about needing a change, which was obviously not welcomed for many people back then.
At this company, there was a program for an employee to study abroad. Every year, they sent several employees to universities abroad mainly in the U.S. When I applied, they immediately rejected me with the reason being that there was no previous example of sending a female employee. There were many incomprehensive explanations like this while I was at the company. Luckily I got a scholarship sponsored by the U.S. government. Eventually I left the company.
Interdisciplinary Research Environment
During my graduate study, I had a privilege of getting funding at a research center, which was the first interdisciplinary research center funded by NSF (National Science Foundation). Their vision was to foster multi-disciplinary study for better industrial design and innovation. Instead of sitting in my home department, I was surrounded by students, researchers and faculties from various disciplines; from computer engineering, robotics, network institute, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, architecture, etc., name a few. Everybody was super talented and so open. As an architecture student, I was working on interactive technique and layout synthesis for architectural floor layout. I learned from my colleague who was working on wearable computer that a similar problem exists for circuit mother board layout design. When a document software company visited our lab, she saw a potential to apply the technology to a document layout. After I finished my study, I joined their research center to apply my research in document design.
My journey continued to another continent, going into the world of interactive web. But I think this is enough for now. I will leave it for another opportunity.
When I look back now, some of what I wrote above sound terribly wrong. But at that time it was norm and widely accepted as a society. It was me who was distracting the order.
As I advance my professional career, I started to face different kinds of conflicts and challenges. Those challenges sometimes seemed to come from cultural differences, the lack of communication skills, and inability to listen and understand from other person’s perspective. (Here “culture” could be at a country level, as a company, as a division within a company, or could be any group.) It is easy to make a circle only among people who share similar values and whom you feel comfortable with. After watching Dr. Welle’s video, I started to question myself; Is there any hidden bias in a way we think now? Are we always making best decisions? Maybe we are not inclusive enough as a team? Is there anything we should do?
Thanks to my colleague for successfully raising the awareness by pointing to the video.
ps. Updated 4/20/2016: I put together a slide deck to introduce Dr. Welle’s presentation in 10 min: https://slides.com/harada/diversity/live#/