Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gender and Swag

Each year when the Grace Hopper Conference happens, there is the inevitable discussion about the swag (the freebies in registration packets) given out. I have to confess that the first year I heard that companies gave out nail polish and "girlie" things, I was totally offended, but that was before I attended Grace Hopper. After attending, my whole attitude changed. Engaging in this year's debate made me stop and think a bit more about the phenomenon.

The high order message is that if you have not been to Grace Hopper, talked with the attendees, and experienced the event, you cannot even begin to comprehend it, so commenting on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of some of the details is risky.

This year, those not in attendance found it "offensive" that some of the swag included nail polish, a sewing kit, and a whistle. What I found interesting about these three particular selections is that those discussing them felt that they were sending a message that "you should look pretty," "sewing is for girls," and "if you don't carry a whistle, you'll be raped." I found these comments fascinating, because in at least two of the cases, my reaction was totally different. A whistle? Great -- I just had to buy half-dozen of those, because my son and I use them to referee soccer. And a sewing kit? Excellent -- I always scoop those from hotels so that I can fix a button or have a safety pin when necessary. Neither of these felt "girlie" to me -- they are items used by both genders in my household. Nail polish? Not my thing, but if it were clear, it would be way high on my list of handy things around the house.

I started thinking about some of the other swag I'd gotten at Grace Hopper in the past: I still use my NetApp manicure set (it lives in my office and I've had both men and women borrow the nail clipper), NetApp lip gloss -- a bit shiny for my taste, but still useful in dry climates. Girlie? Not really. A large nail file -- don't recall who gave those out, but it got used by everyone in our house. A collection of highlighters, tape measures, small toolkits, etc -- one from NSA, one from ACM. Love them all.

But let's imagine for a moment that I did think some of these items were targeting me as a woman, how would I feel? I thought about this long and hard and I realized that it's actually a feature not a bug. The thought process goes like this.

If you are purchasing swag for Grace Hopper, you know something about your attendees -- they are women. Why not put things in the bag that you think they might like? You needn't limit yourselves only to things that have to do with technology. After all, the most common conference giveaway is a T-shirt. Last I checked, that had nothing to do with technology, it was clothing. People asked, "What message are these companies sending?" I think the message they are sending is, "We know you are women and we're happy to put our name/logo on items that might appeal to you, because we value you."

Let's contrast that with the message sent when you give me a men's T-shirt. To me it says, "Hey -- here's a piece of clothing that isn't going to fit you well, but you are such a minority that it isn't worth my time to get a woman's shirt." Yeah, it really feels that way. When we ran Sleepycat and bought polo shirts, from day one we asked people to request a size and gendered shirt. Guess what -- not a single woman ever requested a men's shirt. Not ever. Our little company of 25 could afford both the time and cost (which was 0) of ordering both men's and women's shirts, but fortune 500 companies can't?

I still recall a conversation with a company, who I will politely not name. It went something like this:

  • University relations person: Can you help us recruit women? We get so few women applying for engineering positions.
  • Me: Is that a men's polo shirt you're wearing? (Said person was female and wearing a university relations polo shirt.)
  • URP: Yes.
  • Me: What kind of message do you think that sends? I think it says that your company has so little respect for its female employees that you make them wear men's clothing as a uniform. I think that sends a message that most women don't find attractive.
  • URP: Well, there are so few of us that it would cost more to order both men's and women's shirts. [Note: I don't know about all vendors, but when I order logo wear from Land's End, they do not charge me based on the gender of the shirts, they charge me based on the total number of shirts.]
  • Me: Are you really telling me that can't afford to buy women's shirts?
  • URP: Silence.

To the best of my knowledge, said company still makes its women in University Relations wear men's polo shirts.

I can hear you, "Is this really what we should be worried about? Women can and do wear men's T-shirts all the time." Yes, we do. But why? Because historically, T-shirts were men's clothing and it took decades for manufacturers to realize that your standard men's T-shirt is about as flattering to a woman as a burlap bag. Yes, I do like baggy T-shirts to sleep in and to wear to the gym, but these are probably not the most effective locations to give visibility of the T-shirt's message to the rest of the world (I work out alone in my basement 99% of the time). But if I were getting dressed to attend a function, even if it were casual, I would not wear a baggy men's T-shirt. I might, in fact, wear a women's T-shirt.

Then I got thinking more about that nail polish. OK, I don't wear nail polish (those of you who've seen my nails will immediately understand why). But wait, I am one of those women who already feels comfortable in this field. Maybe part of being a women in CS is that you don't (or can't) like nail polish or want to wear it. Maybe, the idea here is that we need to tell women that even if you do like nail polish, this field is for you. Yes! That's the part that everyone seems to miss -- outreach is designed to help those who see our field and think it isn't for them reconsider. So when companies put their names and logos on products that appeal to the women who are not present in our community, maybe, just maybe, it should be viewed as an invitation to those women. "C'mon. We're not so bad. You really can be the person you want to be and still feel comfortable in this field."

It reminds me a lot of clothing. I frequently wear dresses and skirts (yes, you may all gasp now). This is actually a conscious decision on my part. It's not that I like dresses all that much (although I've grown fond of them over time) -- it's my little message to young women out there. It's supposed to say, "Yes, you can be a girl and an engineer! You don't have to look like and dress like the guys." Now, it's certainly OK to dress casually, but that message already comes across loud and clear. The other message does not. So, that's where I come in. I have no idea if it matters or not, but I do recall a young woman telling me that a male colleague at her first job after school told her that, "She dressed too nice." (She was a tech consultant who liked to wear skirts.) If she'd never seen me wearing a dress/skirt, would she have spoken with me about it? I don't know, but I told her that as long as she was dressed professionally, her colleague was way out of line -- looking nice and/or caring about your appearance is not a crime.

So, no, I do not find it offensive that when companies put things in a bag for women at an event for women that they select items they think might appeal to some women, who we don't frequently find in our community. Nor does it offend me that one of the most popular social events at Grace Hopper is a dance party. And guess what -- a lot of people attend. Attendees describe it as one of the best parts of the conference or one of the things they most look forward to. I'm going to guess that the typical conference attendee from the conferences I attend would have a very different reaction to a dance party.

Let's try another thought experiment. What would a typical attendee at OSDI (or your favorite systems conference) think if a company handed out skirts instead of T-shirts? I'm guessing most people would think it ridiculous. And if you think it's ridiculous, but T-shirts are OK, then you're saying it's OK to give out swag specifically designed for one gender, but not OK to give out swag specifically designed for the other. And you might rationalize it and say, "Yeah, but skirts are appropriate for so few attendees ..." And then you'd be sending the message that those very attendees don't matter.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land: An Engineer at the B-School

I am an engineer. I like problem solving; I like to build things. I can also read financial statements and understand terms such as ROI (return on investment), EBITDA (earning before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization), and break-even analysis. So, when offered a chance to co-teach at Harvard Business School, I leapt at the opportunity.

I was nervous at first. After all, I'd heard all about "the case-based method" and knew that HBS offered its new faculty courses on how to teach this way. I figured it involved many secret handshakes, implicit knowledge and many other mysteries that we in engineering had never seen. Alas, just a few weeks into the semester, I no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land -- there is much at the B-school that is familiar, but also much that is different, and perhaps, worthy of importing into SEAS.

Let's start with the similarities. It turns out that teaching via the case-based method is really quite similar to teaching a paper-based graduate seminar. The students are expected to read the cases (papers) before class, and class is an interactive discussion about the subtleties of the case (paper). In my classes, the story is frequently in the graphs and tables, known as the experimental results. In cases, the story is in the financial statements and market research. Is the company making a profit? (Does the suggested technique improve performance?) Where do they make their money? (Which part of the design is responsible for the improvement?) How well does the business align with existing forces? (How practical is the proposed solution?) And as we see on the engineering side of the river, there are frequently no right answers. Smart people can hold different opinions and interpretations. But, in both places, the intellectual content and the quality of the discussion relies on deep, technical analysis.

Conclusion? Intellectually, there are more commonalities than differences between my two current homes.

Culturally, however, there are differences. Now, before I start, let me disclose that I am doing a very bad thing here: I am generalizing from a single data point, that of the class of my esteemed colleague Regina Herzlinger. However, one of the case writers, who had been at the school for four years, assured me that these features were universal. Now that we've had full disclosure, let's move on to those differences.

The first thing you notice entering a classroom at the B-school are the laminated name cards. Each person has one and the tables are constructed so that you can easily display your name tag. This means that the faculty learn their students' names and the students know each other too. Our class attracts students from many other Harvard schools (the Kennedy School of Government, the Medical School, The School of Public Health, etc). Once everyone has a name tag, boundaries disappear, and the group becomes an entity of its own. The students own their nametags and bring them to each class. If someone forgets one, you'll often see them creating a makeshift one. I confess that I noticed this at a few events I attended at HBS several years ago, and I've been doing it in my classes ever since. However, since it's not part of the culture, I end up owning the nametags and bringing them each day. And after a few weeks in a small course, I typically know everyone and nametag usage drops off. But, what would it be like if we totally changed the culture in engineering and everyone did this and students had nametags for all their classes? Could we change the culture in the entire college????

The next thing you might notice at the business school is that at the beginning of each lecture, the professor will introduce guests. Guests might be friends accompanying students (which means that the students have checked with the professor and told him/her that they are bringing someone to class), executives from the companies being discussed in the day's cases, and the case writer (the research analyst who wrote the case). When guests are introduced, there is applause. It's a lovely way to make the guests feel part of the group as opposed to uncomfortable outsiders.

Then class begins. If you look around the room, you will be hard-pressed to see a laptop. Instead, you see people's faces. The students are paying attention to the discussion. No one is reading email, cruising facebook, or even checking their smart phones. What a difference from your typical college or engineering course (or faculty meeting -- I wonder what those are like here). When the professor solicits input, while there may be initial silence, within five or ten minutes, half the class are raising hands to offer their perspectives on the case. Cold-calling is OK, but is often unnecessary. Sometimes students give answers that aren't quite right, but you'd never know it. There is little direct attack although there are polite suggestions of alternatives. It's also both comforting and disconcerting to see someone else use the same tactics I use when discussing research papers. "Do you agree with him/her?" "Is there anything else you noticed?" However, there is significantly less "pulling of teeth" to get people to engage, and even though there are about 75 students in the class, it seems like all of them participate in meaningful ways. It's quite impressive.

I am also pleasantly surprised to see how often conversations around ethics come up. One of the ways that we evaluate ventures in this class is through a framework that includes the phrase, "Do good, do well." The message, oft repeated, is that only businesses that are genuinely doing good for the world are viable. A business that makes money, but doesn't actually deliver on the public good front is voted off the island.

In a similar vein, current events are sometimes part of the class. In one case, the day after we discussed it, the former CEO of the company was indicted for allegedly receiving kickbacks. This led to a discussion about ethics and came back to details in the case that hadn't quite made sense. The message? Pay attention to details. Do your due diligence. Don't enter into arrangements if something doesn't seem quite right. In other words, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The last thing I'll comment on may be pecuiliar to this course -- after all, we're not talking about innovation in general, we're talking about innovating in health care. It's possible that healthcare attracts a different type of person. I've met with many students in the class, usually to discuss the business plans they are developing for this course. They are a sincere, passionate bunch, who are looking for a way to make a difference; not a way to make a buck, but a way to make the world a better place. Their backgrounds are as varied as their business plans, but each one has done something interesting since graduating from college and is determined to do something both interesting and good.

The business school is a quite wonderful place; I'm grateful to feel less like a stranger there now.