Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Is gender inequality in technology a good thing?

I’ve just seen two talks back to back. The first was about AI, where the now compulsory first question came from the audience ‘Why are there so few women in IT?’ It got a rather glib answer, to paraphrase - if only we tried harder to overcome patriarchal pressure on girls to take computer science, there would be true gender balance. I'm not so sure.
This was followed by an altogether different talk by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (yes – brother of) and Adam Feinstein, who gave a fascinating talk on autism and why professions are now getting realistic about the role of autism and its accompanying gender difference in employment.
Try to spot the bottom figure within the coloured diagram.
This is just one test for autism, or being on what is now known as the ‘spectrum’. Many more guys in the audience got it than women, despite there being more women than men in the audience. Turns out autism is not so much a spectrum as a constellation.
Baron-Cohen’s presentation was careful, deliberate and backed up by citations. First, autism is genetic, runs in families, and if you test people who have been diagnosed as autistic, their parents tend to do the sort of jobs they themselves are suited to do – science, engineering, IT and so on. But the big statistic is that autism in all of its forms is around four times more common in males than females. In other words the genetic components have a biologically sex-based component.
Both speakers then argued for neurodiversity, rather like biodiversity, a recognition that we’re different but also that there these differences may be also be sexual. Adam Feinstein, who has an autistic son, has written a book on autism and employment, and appealed for recognition of the fact that those with autistic skills are also good at science, coding and IT. This is because they are good at localised skills, especially attention to detail. This is very useful in lab work, coding and IT. Code is like uncooked spaghetti, it doesn’t bend, it breaks, and you have to be able to spot exactly where and why it breaks.

Some employers, such as SAP and other tech companies, have now established pro-active recruitment of those on the spectrum (or constellation). This will mean that they are likely to employ more men than women. Now here’s the dilemma. What this implies is that to expect a 50:50 outcome is hopelessly utopian. In other words, if you want equality of outcome (not opportunity), in terms of gender, that is unlikely. 
One could argue that the opening up of opportunities to people with autism in technology has been a good thing. Huge numbers of people have and will be employed in these sectors who may not have the same opportunities in the past. But equality and diversity clash here. True diversity may be the recognition of the fact that all of us are not equal.

1 comment:

Brian Mulligan said...

Inequality in outcomes is not proof of inequality in opportunity. By the way, it's not just about ability, it's also about inclination, priorities and values.