Friday, April 15, 2016

Silicon Valley Diversity II

In previous posts I have mentioned what I call “trigger words.”  These are words that fire off an automatic judgment in our brains as either good or bad.  We have been conditioned to react to these words.  Words like natural, green, organic and sustainable automatically draw a favorable review.  Words and expressions like chemicals, carbon, big business and radiation automatically make us scared or less trusting.  Although everyone learned in school that the entire universe is made of atoms and compounds, also called chemicals, and it’s common sense that nicotine and snake venom are all natural; many people still have the predictable gut reaction to these words.  Advertisers and advocates use these automatic responses to draw us on board, hoping that a trigger word will get us to act before we spend too much time thinking.

Another trigger word is diversity.  When it is thrown into conversations and arguments, it carries an automatically favorable connotation.  Another assumption about it is that you can tell by looking at a group of people whether or not it is a diverse group.  Diversity, we are told, leads to more creativity and better solutions in all cases, sometimes even when the pursuit of diversity supersedes the pursuit of competence.  If these are facts rather than beliefs, I would like to see the data on those studies.

Mohamed El-Erian in his book The Only Game In Town devotes several chapters to the advantages of diversity for companies and governments to meet financial challenges in the near future citing several experts on the subject.  Even after his high praise for the power of diversity he warns:  “This is not to say diversity should be pursued at the expense of competence…it is about getting the right mix.”  But there may be another issue.

A couple of summers ago the big crisis of the month was the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley.  There were too many white men and not enough men and women of color, or women in general.  My conclusion was that to reject anyone because of some prejudice against his or her physical appearance, whether conscious or unconscious, is wrong.  Likewise to favor anyone for the same reason is to risk producing a substandard product.  I would rather that the applications on my computer not crash than to feel an inner glow knowing the programmer was hired based on his or her ability to represent some victim class and thereby help even up the score.

With all the fuss at the time, there was no mention that all Americans might soon become underrepresented.  Look at the tables below.  The first shows the proportion of graduate students in several graduate STEM majors in US universities. The second shows the number of US colleges with a majority of international students and their overall proportions in graduate electrical engineering and computer science programs.  These numbers do not reflect well on America’s continued leadership in this area, nor do they proudly represent how well our school system is doing.

Perhaps if the country spent more time educating students and preparing them for difficult courses, and less time worrying about things like diversity, problems would sort themselves out.  We’d have qualified and interested men and women, blacks and whites, and everyone else.

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