I was recently chatting to Hazel Moore, co-founder of the investment bank FirstCapital, and she used a phrase that has really stayed with me: “There are these subtle signals that science is for boys.”
It’s so true. Subtle signals. Unconscious bias. They’re phrases that can make you despair. Especially when you consider how these things feed off each other: subtle signals generate unconscious bias; the unconscious bias then leads to more subtle signals. And so on. It can seem as if the forces working against inclusion – insidious and invisible – are too shadowy to control, too deeply stitched into the fabric of society. Like we’ll call them out and people will tell us they don’t even exist.
And let’s not mistake subtlety for mildness. It’s in their subtlety that these signals are powerful and it’s in their numerousness that they are overwhelming. Factor in the gender inequality-reinforcing mechanics of Facebook and Google and you see what we’re up against.
So what can we do? Well, our reaction does not have to be the grand gesture or the protest march. As I’ve said, subtlety is powerful. Our response can be effective through subtlety, too. We can go on that march or start that Twitter thread – but we can also go about this work in a relatively quiet, determinedly effective way.
Hazel told me about taking her 10-year-old daughter to check out a secondary school, one that Hazel really liked, partly because “All around the place they had posters of inspirational women in all walks of life, not just science.”
For me, those posters are subtle signals (well, quite subtle!). They’re subtle in the sense that they’re gestures that are not grand or difficult to undertake: introducing such reminders of the very existence of successful women is something we can all manage.
And from posters to flesh and blood: let’s seek to connect up our local female tech representatives with schools so that young people hear their stories. Not just young women but young men, too, who must also understand that tech is not just for them.
We can talk to others. We can, for instance, tell some of the less frequently told stories, from Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s to any number of forgotten female tech pioneers who should be celebrated – the challenges they’ve overcome only make their stories all the more captivating.
If that kind of talk doesn’t wash, we might remind people of the business case for diversity, which is a powerful one. One study showed that diverse management teams produce 19 percent more revenue than others.
For those of us in a position to affect hiring practices, there’s so much we can do for this cause, from ensuring job ads are not using gender-biased language and ensuring the same of interview assessment criteria to providing proper maternity leave and offering support and encouragement to prospective returnees.
The subtle signals are everywhere – and everywhere we can change them.