What we can learn about effective, meaningful and diverse organizations

December 4, 2014

Posted by Beryl Nelson, Software Engineering Manager

By becoming more conscious of our own stereotypes and biases, and making use of the insights revealed by the research on bias and stereotype threat, unconscious decision making, and cognitive illusions, each of us can bring more to our work and create diverse, innovative, and meaningful organizations.

Since 2009, I’ve been reading literature about the challenges and successes in making diverse teams effective, and speaking about this research. My goal is to help everyone understand more about unconscious decision-making and other barriers to inclusion, and through knowledge, combat these effects.

A short summary:
  • A team that is heterogeneous in meaningful ways is good for innovation, and good for business.
  • There are many challenges to making such teams effective, such as unconscious decision making, stereotype threat, and other cognitive illusions.
  • There is repeatable quantitative research which shows ways to combat some of these effects.
  • The barriers to effectiveness may seem overwhelming, but there is hope! Meaningful change is possible, and some examples of successful change are cited below.
In a bit more detail:
  1. Diversity is good for innovation and business. There is a correlation between financial success and the diversity of leadership teams, as shown in research by Catalyst, McKinsey and Cedric Herring. Further, research shows a strong correlation between having women on teams and innovation; concluding that there is a strong correlation between the presence of women and the social skills required to get ideas percolating into the open.
  2. We all make decisions unconsciously, influenced by our implicit associations. As an example of these effects, a large proportion of CEOs are taller than the average population and height is strongly correlated with financial and career success. It’s long been argued that women and underrepresented minorities are not represented in CEO leadership because there aren’t enough qualified individuals in the labor pool. This “pipeline issue” argument can’t be made for short and average-height people, however. Simple, repeatable tests measure, via response time and error rate, the implicit associations we have between concepts. These associations are created as an adaptive response, but we must understand our own implicit biases in order to make better decisions.
  3. Stereotype threat plays a role in preventing people from being fully effective. The low representation of women and minorities in Science has long been the source of a troubling question: is this an indication of a difference in innate ability (see Ben Barre’s response to Lawrence Summers’ remarks), or the result of some other effect? Claude Steele and his colleagues elegantly showed that two groups of people can have similar or opposite reactions, depending on the way a situation is presented. These and other experiments show that stereotype threat can compromise the performance of the subject of a stereotype, if he or she knows about the stereotype and cares about it.
  4. Change is possible. The above and other challenges may make it seem nearly impossible to create a diverse and highly functioning organization, but dramatic change can be made. Take, for example, the discovery of biased decision making and effective changes made via the use of data in the MIT Science Faculty Study, or the amazing changes at Harvey Mudd college, which not only increased participation of women as Computer Science majors from 12% to 40% in five years, but also increased the total number of CS majors from 25 to 30 per year to 70 CS graduates in the class of 2014.
If you’re interested in learning more, watch the video about the data on diversity below. You can read the full research in the November issue of Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery. You can read even more using the full bibliography.