Saturday, October 31, 2009

Perspective and Exclusion Bias

I heard my colleague Martin Fowler present a keynote the other day where he called attention to the severe under-representation of different groups of people in the IT industry. As one example, he pointed out that it's odd that although women are 50% of the general population, they're nowhere near 50% of the population of technology professionals. Among other things, this means that the IT profession suffers from an extraordinarily narrow range of focus. IT solutions, by definition, suffer an acute exclusion bias.

We see exclusion bias in many different ways in technology. Consider smartphones. The bias of each of the leading smartphone firms - Nokia, Blackberry and Apple - comes through loud and clear in their products. Nokia is a mobile phone and network company. They make a fantastic phone that also happens to have mobile e-mail and PDA capabilities. Blackberry is a mobile e-mail company. They make an amazing mobile e-mail device that happens to be a phone and also has PDA capabilities. Apple is a computer company. The iPhone is an outstanding PDA (it vindicates the Newton) that happens to have phone and support mobile e-mail.

There's no doubt that, in general, IT solutions have a predominantly male bias, a result of the fact that IT is a male dominated industry. But the fact that it is male dominated isn't a result of innocuous gender preference. If anything, it's self-inflicted: we do things that perpetuate this bias. Intentional or otherwise, the introduction, education and work patterns of IT are probably geared toward how the male mind works. By definition, this excludes women.

Consider how we teach music. Teaching rhythm by counting off integers (1-2-3-4) is probably more effective for a boy than a girl. A girl may very well respond more to patterns (ta-ta-tiki-tiki-ta). The absence of a pattern aligned with how girls learn creates a barrier and, by extension, an automatic exclusion.

After hearing Martin speak the other day, I am more acutely aware that I am very likely contributing to that exclusion bias in how I communicate and collaborate. As another colleague, David Leigh-Fellows put it, we must "understand before being understood." I need to externalize more.

As an IT professional, I do want IT to be a destination career for people. I don't want IT to be unappealing to top talent because we have institutionalized behaviours that turn people away. I also want the profession to be as robust as possible, and therefore inclusive of as much experience and perspective as there is in the general population.

As father of a little girl, I am highly sensitive to this. I don't want my daughter to be excluded from pursuing something for which she may have aptitude just because she processes information differently.