Sunday, June 20, 2010

Well, that was interesting!

I spent half of last week sequestered in a conference room (with windows this time!) with a diverse group of people.  When I walked back to my office after the workshop adjourned with a coworker, he told me it was the most interesting thing he has done on the job in a long time.  I also found it very interesting, even though it wasn't very technically challenging.

We were all invited to the workshop for our expertise. Many people wore more than one hat; I was invited for both my physical science and software background and experience on similar past projects.

We discussed a complex technical and legal issue and then came up with recommendations for decision makers.  We did not make any recommendations until everyone who wanted to speak was given a chance to speak and a general consensus emerged.  In fact, if the vote wasn't unanimous, we kept discussing and rewording the recommendation until all the nay votes agreed that they could support the recommendation, even if it wasn't their first choice.

Coincidentally, the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly arrived at home and I read Hanna Rosin's cover piece, The End of Men*. Ms. Rosin and I clearly live in parallel universes because I am not as optimistic about the future of women in our society.

In our discussions, I looked around the room.  Hanna Rosin is right, women are making strides into the workplace.  30% of our group were female, including one of the two workshop co-leaders.

But nearly all of the women were there for their legal and programmatic experience, and not for their technical expertise. 

There were only two female engineers plus myself and one of them is a systems engineer (which, along with civil engineering, is a female discipline).

Ms Rosin argues that the future belongs to women because, "Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women."

I think she was referring to Table 2 of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Overview of the 2008-18 Projections, Occupations with the largest numerical growth.

The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor posts the median weekly earnings of those 15 occupations. The highest-earning fast-growing occupation is computer software engineer ($1529/wk), a job dominated by men.   Our sisters will dominate the lowest-earning categories such as home health care aides ($429/wk).

That does not make fill me with optimism.

Rosin continues, "Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains since the 1970s."

Actually, that is a subject of fierce debate.  The numbers of women in science is increasing primarily because of the growth of biological sciences in general.  The number of women in the 'hard sciences' the world in which I inhabit, does not appear to be growing.  If you remove foreigners, the number of American women studying engineering and the physical sciences might even be declining.  (I and one of the female engineers in the room are foreign-born immigrants.  The other woman engineer is near retirement age.)

And, if that wasn't heartbreaking enough, you should have seen the age breakdown of the room.  Just about all the people younger than 40 were NOT there for technical (science/engineering) reasons.  The young people were all there as experts in law, scheduling, budgeting and contracts.  For extra bonus points, guess how many blacks and latinos were there for their science and engineering expertise.

Oh, and why was it so interesting, despite the lack technical challenge?  Because I had never seen the other side of decision-making.  I can tell you if something is not possible because it defies the laws of physics or is not technologically feasible at this time.  But I have never before been privy to discussions where we weigh the cost of a system (based upon physics, technology and industrial readiness) against what will fly in Congress.  That was really interesting.

*  Net neutrality is a really hot news topic right now.  I was surprised to learn at a CS seminar that ISPs monitor their customers' applications so that they can dynamically allocate bandwidth.  OK, I wasn't surprised.  I was just surprised by what they did with the information.

Ironically, bandwidth hogs watching streaming video are actually given priority over users such as myself because the ISPs don't want them to view jerky movies.  So they reduce the data delivery rate to users that are not watching streaming video.

This is a rather long warm-up to rant about a total waste of internet bandwidth; the 5 minute video embedded into The End of Men, in which the Rosin/Plotz family debates which sex is better.  What makes a 13 year old girl, who has not entered the workplace yet, qualified to pronounce that girls are better suited for the modern workplace?  Honestly, I don't even think her mom is qualified to discuss that topic. 


1 comment:

  1. I am (rather childishly) refusing to read the Roisin piece. Her piece on breastfeeding was such an annoying mix of personal experience masquerading as universal truth and incomplete review of the data that I wasn't surprised to see critiques of this latest piece showing up on the sites I read. I don't feel the need to make my blood pressure go up by going and reading it myself!

    I was once part of a project that involved collaboration from many different government agencies. That was interesting to watch....