WORMS at INFORMS

So, I’ll get one thing out of the way at the start: I’m a guy, and I’m an officer (Jr. VP of Communications) for the Women in OR/MS Forum at INFORMS. Did you do a double-take at that? I know a lot of people do. In fact, I met a person this morning at the INFORMS new member breakfast who said, “What can a guy do to help out with women’s issues?”

I sorta fumbled around and gave a totally incoherent answer to his question, mostly because it was early in the morning and I don’t do mornings. So I thought I’d use this space to try to give a better answer to his question, because I think it’s a pretty common one. However, I don’t think I can fully answer his question before trying to articulate why I care about diversity and equality in general.

The truth of the matter is that diversity and equality issues are really important concerns in all walks of life. It’s brought up a lot in conversation around STEM fields, and it’s a sticky subject: understandably, people don’t like being accused of sexism or racism, but people also don’t like it when they’re the object of such discrimination (shocker, I know). So there’s a lot of potential to make people angry on all sides of the issue. But what’s really at stake here?

From my perspective, there are two big issues that often get conflated. These issues really don’t have much of anything to do with each other, but people use the same words when talking about both of them, and then confusion and angst run wild.

The first of these issues addresses “bad” things, that is, conditions and behaviors that (as a society) we’d like to avoid: namely, sexism and racism. When this issue comes up, people get defensive: “I’m not sexist!” they’ll say. “I love women! My mother was a woman!” Which is a totally inappropriate response, because it completely misses the point. The point is (usually) not that any one person is sexist or racist (though harrassment is still a big problem at all levels, in both academia and industry). Rather, the point is that there is institutionalized discrimination against women and minorities. This is the type of discrimination that you’re not even aware that you are committing. It’s the type of discrimination that means that women are generally paid less for the same type of work than men. It’s the type of discrimination that means that a person with a “black-sounding” name is less likely to get hired than a person with a “white-sounding” name. It’s the type of discrimination that calls women “abrasive” or “too confrontational” for behaviors that would be called “assertive” or “confident” when done by a man.

This stuff happens. There’s lots of data to support it. And (much of the time), these aren’t conscious choices that are made. So how can we possibly change, if we don’t even know we’re doing these things? Well, we have to talk about it, out loud, openly, and across racial and gendered lines, because nothing’s ever going to change if the conversation only happens among those being discriminated against. And that brings me to the first part of my answer to the question I was asked this morning. How can a guy help with women’s issues? By being willing to have the conversation. By being willing to listen and engage the issues that exist, and by working to change the culture that surrounds us. (Though, here’s a protip — make sure you emphasize the “listening” part of that equation. Otherwise, you’re just part of the problem).

The second issue that comes up a lot in this conversation addresses “good” things: it turns out that when you put a group of people together from a diverse range of backgrounds and life experiences and ask them to create something new or solve a problem, you get better results than if the group was homogenous. It seems really obvious when you put it that way (or at least it does to me), but I rarely hear it described like that. Instead, I hear statements like “You’re just favoring women to get your numbers higher so your institution looks better!” or “Why should I give up my spot to someone who’s less qualified just because I’m a man?”

Statements like these again miss the point. I’ve never heard of any institution lowering their standards just for the sake of diversity. You know why not? Because there are plenty of women and minorities who are just as qualified as anyone else! There are lots of them here at this conference. Moreover, it’s almost impossible to compare people directly. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone is unique. So the argument that you’re “lowering standards” doesn’t even make sense. You’re just getting a different set of strengths and weaknesses. The point is that, all else being equal, more diversity is better. You get better results, because people from different backgrounds will have different ways of approaching and solving problems.

And that’s the second way that a guy can help out with women’s issues: favor diversity. When you organize a panel, ask yourself: “Have I invited women and minorities on this panel?” If the answer’s no, don’t kid yourself by pretending there aren’t any who are qualified to be there. When you organize a conference, ask yourself if you’re doing things to support the women and minorities who are attending (did you know that INFORMS has a lactation station for women who are breast-feeding now?). If the answer’s no, start asking questions about what you can do differently. When you hire a new faculty candidate and you’ve got a few different options that are all equally qualified, ask yourself which one adds the most to the diversity of your school. When you vote for officers for the INFORMS board, vote for the ones which increase the diversity of the group. Oh, and maybe you could also submit some names of women and minorities for INFORMS Fellows? We need some more of those.