How Should the Innovation Community Solve Its Gender and Diversity Problems?

It’s been one of the hottest-button topics of the past year—and it’s not going away anytime soon.

The under-representation of women and minorities in technology and innovation jobs is a real issue, particularly at the highest levels of organizations. The question, as I see it, is what to do about it. But not everyone sees it that way—and that’s a big part of the problem.

We at Xconomy reached out to a select group of sources and informal advisors across our network (the Xconomists) to ask them a series of questions, including this one on diversity. Several answers have been posted already, but something interesting emerged from the rest.

I’ll let the responses below speak for themselves, but you can see who answered the question—and who took issue with it.

Jacqueline NorthcutJacqueline Northcut, President and CEO of BioHouston: STEM diversity inequality is a huge issue with 49 percent of the workforce being women, yet only 24 percent of the STEM jobs held by women. STEM jobs grew at three times that of all other jobs in the last decade and is projected to continue at that rate. It’s time to do something about the gender diversity issue. After reading the Girl Scouts Research Institute’s report on STEM, I realized that we at BioHouston were sitting on a gold mine. About five years ago, we created our “Women in Science” awards. There were so many rock-star quality women in Houston and I thought others should know about it. It has turned out to be a very popular event—attracting up to 450 people.

We are working on a launching a new major initiative with the Girls Scouts, so stay tuned! We are also launching a specific website featuring the Women in Science honorees. We hope to expose the inspiring stories of these women to a much wider audience.

Christy ShafferChristy Shaffer, Managing Director of Hatteras Discovery and Venture Partner at Hatteras Venture Partners: The life science community can help support women and minority organizations in the life science space, encourage entrepreneurship, aid in facilitating mentorship programs, and support STEM initiatives. As an example, the Women in Bio (WIB) initiative in RTP has created a Young WIB (YWIB) initiative and is working with the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics to mentor young people. It is critical for young women to interact with role models in the life science community to understand the opportunities available to them. In addition, the North Carolina Science Festival, which was the first-ever, state-wide, Science Festival will place an emphasis on minorities and women in 2015.

All of these activities serve to increase awareness in the community. From the early STEM exposure to the recognition of success in advanced careers, it is essential to bring this to the forefront. Great support brings awareness and passion will follow.

Michael SchrageMichael Schrage, author and MIT research fellow: Speaking as a long-time beneficiary of white male privilege, I find that question a delicious blend of ignorance, insult, and presumptuous political correctness.

Innovation communities are successful when they produce innovations that satisfy a diversity of CUSTOMERS, not provide jobs for a diversity of EMPLOYEES. Innovation is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Consequently, the better question is, how can or will gender/ethnic diversity contribute to better innovation?

That is the more interesting and important challenge. MIT—where I have held appointments for over two decades—is one of the world’s most diverse and stimulating innovation environments. Why? I think we’re not more innovative because we’ve become more diverse; we’re more diverse because we’ve become more innovative. We’re always looking for that unusual mix of people to best deal with our unusual mix of problems and challenges. Diversity in innovation invites diversity of participation. This holds true no matter what your age, melanin content, or gender orientation. Quotas may, indeed, be easier than authentic diversity, but they’re not better or as honest.

Art MellorArt Mellor, CEO of Zero Locus: I don’t think lack of diversity is a problem. It might be symptomatic of a problem. You need to define the problem, explain the harms, connect the current diversity situation to being part of the cause of the problem—then you have a question. I hate leading questions like these.

[Editor’s note: To tap the wisdom of our distinguished group of Xconomists, we asked a few of them to answer this question heading into 2015: “How should the innovation community solve its gender and diversity problems?” You can see other questions and answers here.]

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Liftstream

    In late 2014, Liftstream published a comprehensive study of gender diversity in biotech, one of the key pathway industries for STEM. It proposes key recommendations for companies, investors and female professionals coming from these areas of expertise. The report is freely accessible.

  • R J Del Vecchio

    Here we see again the fallacious concept that there must be equality of results in everything, so that not having 50% women in a field means there is something wrong. What freedom is about is equality of opportunity, and when that is in effect among human beings, we will usually see something other than statistical equivalence in results. 75% of the people in veterinary school are women, 80% of the people in mechanical engineering are men, but there are no barriers by gender for admission to either program. Men and women will make different choices about many things. As contributors above have noted, one must show there is a problem that requires a remedy. When opportunities are essentially equal, there is no problem, and putting a lot of effort into “fixing” what isn’t broken is not a good idea.

  • Robert

    So, in the ongoing discussion of the ‘need’ to have an inclusive working environment, which characteristic is crucial: a) technical competence (can a candidate do the job effectively, or b) gender / ethnic background? I’ve seen many ‘equality’ outcomes where the ethnic or gender candidate weak on technical skills . . .

  • DMM

    The answers by the men provide a crystal clear example of the problem. It’s pretty easy to dismiss a problem if you can’t see it or haven’t lived it.

  • AJ

    DMM is blowing smoke . . .

  • Tyrone O.

    As a male African-American Chemist, I personally find DMM’s comment offensive, and way off-target.