One of the messages that I frequently share is that we need more women in our teams. By now I’ve faced the whole spectrum of reactions to this message, from calling me a feminist to furious attacks pointing how I discriminate women. If nothing else people are opinionated on that topic and there’s a lot of shallow, and unfair, buzz when it comes to role of women in IT.
Personally, I am guilty too. I’ve been caught off guard a few times when I simply shared the short message – “we need more women in our teams” – and didn’t properly explained the long story behind.
The first part of the story is the one about collective intelligence. We can define the core of our jobs as solving complex problems and accomplishing complex tasks. We do that by writing code, testing it, designing it, deploying it, but the outcome is that we solved a problem for our customer. In fact, I frequently say that often the best solution doesn’t mean building something or writing code.
If we agree on problem solving frame a perfect proxy for how well we’re dealing with it is collective intelligence. Well, at least as long as we are talking about collaborative work.
Anita Woolley’s research pointed factors responsible for high collective intelligence: high empathy, evenness of communication in a group and diversity of cognitive styles. These are not things that we, as the industry, pay attention to during hiring. Another conclusion of the research is that women are typically stronger in these aspects and thus the more women in a team the higher collective intelligence.
Role of Collaboration
There are two follow up threads to that. One is that the research focused only on one aspect of work, which can be translated to collaboration. That’s not all that counts. We can have a team that collaborates perfectly yet doesn’t have the basic skills to accomplish a goal. Of course all the relevant factors should be balanced.
This is why at Lunar Logic, during hiring process, we verify technical competences first. This way we know that a candidate won’t be a burden for a team when they join. Once we know that somebody’s technical skills are above the bar, we focus on the more important aspects, but the first filter is: “can you do the job?”
The decision making factors are those related to the company culture and to collaboration.
Correlation and Causation
Another thread is that “more women” message is a follow up to an observation that women tend to do much better in terms of collective intelligence. I occasionally get flak for mentioning that women are more empathetic. It would typically be a story about a very empathetic man or a woman who was a real bitch and ruined the whole collaboration in a team.
My answer to that is I don’t want to hire women. I want to hire people who excel at collaboration. If I ended up choosing between empathetic man and a cold-blooded female killer it would be a no-brainer to me. I’d go with the former.
What is important though is that statistically speaking women are better if take into consideration aforementioned aspects mentioned. It’s not like: every woman would be better than any man. It’s like if we’ve been hiring for these traits we’d be hiring more women than men.
And that’s where a discussion often gets dense. People would imply that I say that women are genetically better in, say, collaboration. Or pretty much the opposite, they’d say that in our societies we raise women in a way that their role boils down to “good collaborators” and not “achievers.”
My answer to that is: correlation doesn’t mean causation. I never said that being a women is a cause of being empathetic and generally functioning better in a group. What I say is that there is simply correlation between the two.
The first Kanban principle says “start with what you have” and I do start with what I have. I’m not an expert in genetics and I just accept the situation we have right now and start from there.
The Best Candidate
A valid challenge for “hire more women” argument is that it may end up with positive discrimination. My point in the whole discussion is not really hire women over men. In fact, the ultimate guidance for hiring remains the same: hire the best candidate you can.
It just so happens that, once you start thinking about different contexts, the definition of “the best candidate” evolves. A set of traits and virtues of a perfect candidate would be different than what we are used to.
And suddenly we will be hiring more women. Not because they are women. Simply, because they are the best available candidates.
Such a change is not going to happen overnight. Even now at Lunar I think we are still too much biased toward technical skills. And yet our awareness and sensitivity toward what constitutes a perfect candidate is very different than it was a few years ago. That’s probably why we end up hiring fairly high percentage of women, and yet we’re not slaves to “hire women” attitude.
Finally, I’d like to thank Janice Linden-Reed for inspiration to write this post. Our chats and her challenges to my messages are exactly the kind of conversations we need to be having in this context. And Janice, being a CEO herself and working extensively with IT industry, is the perfect person to speak up on this topic.