Beware of the monoculture (why diversity is good for crops and tech companies)

monoculture

In the 1930’s, the USA along with a number of other countries, went through a massive economic depression. This was in no small part due to a lack of diversity. Those amber waves of grain, which had only been recently planted, were a monoculture. There was a drought and then, as happens in the Great Plains, a whole lot of wind and the wheat quite simply couldn’t keep up. Wheat was many a farmer’s only crop. Wheat was much of America’s food source. You probably know the rest of the story.

This week a recently sacked member of Google penned a 10 page memo on diversity. It has caused quite an uproar, largely because it stated the boilerplate of the differences between men and women and what this means for work, with not much evidence, complete a big helping of the standard stereotypes:

Women are more cooperative (I was hoping for nurturing, myself)
This has been debunked, mostly, the differences are actually quite small

Women are more neurotic
cue Sigmund Freud no less, I’m guessing the Google-memo dude must think it definitely has something to do with the womb

Men ask for pay raises, women don’t
cue Sir Philip Hampton on BBC women’s pay gap

I am a woman, I have a knee-jerk reaction to these pronouncements about how I am. Women aren’t always more cooperative, I know plenty of men who are neurotic and if you know women don’t ask for raises as much as men then the BBC should have preemptively had that conversation, it’s not like it’s hard.

My reaction aside, I think we are all pretty clear there are differences between men and women, many of which, I would argue are nurture rather than nature, but this is somewhat besides the point. The difficulty comes when people use these differences, however large or small, to assert that ‘women can’t do certain jobs’ because of some ‘nature’ they have. This automatically limits diversity, 50% of the population is out just by gender. This reinforces a monoculture.

This doesn’t only happen to women, it happens to men as well. If men have some personality trait which would be deemed feminine by the proponents of these ridiculous ideas that women can’t do a certain job (neurotic perhaps?), they are out too. This was also suggested in the Google diversity memo:

Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender
role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society,
allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although
probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally “feminine” roles.

This, again, only serves to increase the monoculture. These statements and indeed the whole document seems to support the ‘people like me’ syndrome, the seed of any monoculture. Which in the end only serves to exclude a large amount of talent from even getting through the door for certain jobs. The question proponents of these professional monocultures never seem to answer is – Why would you want to do this? Why do you want to eliminate over 1/2 of your potential talent base by selecting on some kind of random, unproven set of ‘personality traits’ which aren’t necessarily correlated to success? (there are plenty of successful companies with female CEO and/or COOs – such as Facebook) All good investors know it’s prudent to diversify funds, why would anyone advocate not doing the same for a work force, especially in a highly-dynamic ideas-based industry? It makes no sense, and only solidifies the monoculture.

Monocultures are temporally weak. They may have their day in the sun, but in the long run, they are weak because all you need is one bad wind storm and you have no crops. Even if you manage to withstand the storm, imagine how much better it could be if you could keep harvesting in a tempest, which you are much more likely to be able to do if you have a diverse set of crops.

The Google-memo guy had one point I did actually agree with:

My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology. I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

To me, this would include thinking that women or men with ‘feminine’ characteristics couldn’t do a certain job, but I am thinking that he might have missed his own point on that.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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