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Andrea Goldsmith: Diversity is essential to success in technology

The Stanford electrical engineer explains why increasing diversity in technology is more than a moral imperative.
Absent multiple perspectives, it’s not possible to develop the best solutions. | Illustration by Sarah Rieke

If there were any lingering doubts that a bro-culture exists in engineering, a new global survey should put them to rest. When IEEE, the world’s largest association of tech professionals, polled 4,500 women in the field, well over half said they had not been treated equally. Roughly 70% said men had snubbed them or ignored their expertise in professional gatherings, and more than half said they had endured sexist remarks at off-site meetings. Nearly three out of 10 women reported having experienced sexual harassment. Stanford electrical engineering professor Andrea Goldsmith leads two committees focused on diversity, inclusion and professional ethics. She discussed what it will take to change the status quo and how she became involved with the issue.

Were you surprised by the results?

No, in part because of my own experiences and because I was familiar with similar surveys like the Elephant in the Valley report on Silicon Valley and last year’s study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which examined how sexual harassment in academia hurt the career prospects of women in the scientific, technical and medical workforce. But the IEEE findings may surprise people who think things are much better than they are. The data shows that we haven’t progressed as much as some may think. And it’s not just a problem with the older generations. Undergraduates tell me the same things.

At the risk of sounding naïve, why is it still happening?

People are not necessarily blatantly sexist or racist. Much of it has to do with implicit bias. Studies have shown that if people see otherwise identical resumes, they’re more likely to favor the ones with men’s names. Words like “leader” and “visionary” are much more often associated with men than women. This implicit bias affects both women and men. So, if people are thinking about who to nominate as the president of an organization, the first people who come to mind are usually men — white men. I experienced this when I chaired the medals committee for one of the IEEE’s biggest awards. I looked at the IEEE award data and saw that very few of the medals or mid-career awards had gone to women. In many years, no women had even been nominated. When I solicited a nomination for a very deserving woman, the conversation around it was really eye-opening: “Didn’t her adviser do all the work?” or “Was this work in the right area?” or “Was it really so good?” She didn’t get the medal.

What will it take to make headway?

People must come to recognize that diversity is not about political correctness or fairness. It is essential to excellence and success in technology. Many people today don’t believe there’s a problem. They think women and minorities have the same opportunities as everyone else, or that they may even have better opportunities. That’s one reason why we need diversity metrics. How many women and minorities are being hired at companies or hold faculty positions at universities? How many women and minorities are editors-in-chief of journals? Who are the distinguished lecturers and panelists? Who gets awards?

Here’s a personal anecdote that was transformative for me. Shortly after I became tenured at Stanford, our dean had a meeting of all the women engineering faculty and we got to talking about student evaluations. My evaluations were very good across almost all aspects of my teaching, except that I was rated in the bottom 25% on my knowledge of the field. I wondered what it was about the way I taught that made so many undergraduates think I didn’t know the material. But it turned out all the women had low scores on knowledge! It wasn’t about me, or my teaching. It was about implicit bias. That’s something that metrics can help you understand if you’re a woman or underrepresented minority who feels like you’re not as good as your peers. It may not be about you.

The IEEE report refers to “diversity” and “inclusion.” What’s the difference?

Diversity is something you measure. You create metrics that you think are important, such as gender and ethnicity, and then track them. Inclusion is creating a climate and culture in which everyone thrives and reaches their maximum potential. It is about making sure that diverse people get the same opportunities, benefits and recognition as everyone else.

How did you become a champion for women?

I’ve always been a mentor and supporter of women students and colleagues, as I knew its importance based on my own experiences. But I did not expect to find myself working on these issues within an organization like the IEEE. I’m an engineer, an academic and an entrepreneur, not an expert on diversity and inclusion. But at some point I said: “If not me, then who?” It’s not easy. Some people view my efforts as complaining or self-serving, but I’m willing to take that criticism to try to make things better for the next generation of engineers. If we don’t find effective ways to improve diversity and inclusion in engineering, we will not be able to recruit and retain the best minds to our profession. That will hinder our ability to develop technology that can address some of the grand challenges society faces today.