Monday, November 26, 2012

The Disruptive Effects of Gender Equality

Last week's blog entry from John Johnson and the responses to it summarized well the cultural divide between those departments which celebrate diversity and the others. Both sides are represented even within one department like my own, which combines physics and astronomy. (Note that the diversity advocates are not preferentially astronomers, although some subfields of physics appear to be distinctly less female-friendly than others.) What determines whether a department with diverse perspectives describes itself as "defender of excellence" or "champion of success"?

When it comes to such questions I am not an unbiased observer. I believe strongly that departments with a supportive environment for everyone which fosters the development of talent have an inherent advantage. Would you send your students to a department with a poisonous atmosphere for women? Would you send your male students there?

Individuals aren't the only ones who suffer from the accrual of microinequities, or "molehills piled one on top of the other" (Virginia Valian, Why So Slow?). Institutions do, too. A toxic environment promotes conflict and decreases collaboration, which excludes a significant percentage of high-impact research opportunities. Hiring from only the club of the "Big-4" severely limits the talent pool; it is a form of implicit bias, whereby PhD department is a stereotype for quality. Schemas apply to more than just gender.

In the corporate world, giants can be felled by innovative dwarfs through the process Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation". Bethlehem Steel was driven out of business by mini steel mills who used cheap scrap metal. The low-cost producers kept improving their market and capturing market share until it was too late for the old-fashioned behemoth. Might the same fate be in store for the academic titans who fail to add value to their faculty by maintaining inequitable environments?

I'm putting my money with gender equality as a disruptive transformation in academia.