Pushing People into Your Profession

Is it a good thing to try to change the demographics of your profession?

On Facebook my friend Helena Forbes Harbour posted an interesting question, asking people who are in professions where their gender is in the minority:

How do you feel about networking organizations/events which are targeted to your minority? Do you feel they highlight your otherness? Give you a forum which makes you more comfortable? Are they useful in giving you tools to work in your opposite-gender environment or is it more helpful just to hear about similar experiences?

I haven’t ever been to an event where I was targeted as a minority in the profession, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the idea–mostly because they so often seem to focus on recruitment. After beginning as a web development entrepreneur, I’ve been running dance studios for the better half of a decade, and if there were a “men in the dance profession” mixer it would take a lot to get me interested. I’m similarly skeptical of major pushes to get women into under-represented fields. When I was a computer science undergrad, women were less than 20% of the enrollment, and just about every guy dreamed of meeting a smart girl who knew her way around a BSD machine. But nobody wanted girls to join the department if deep down, they hated computers.

A networking event that focuses on a minority group within a profession should have a raison d’être beyond merely celebrating certain people choosing to be different–or worse yet, trying to recruit more of the minority.

It’s valid to ask ourselves if there are artificial barriers to entry for a minority, and to address those. But to make it a crusade to recruit people into any profession they weren’t otherwise interested in, is just a naively bad idea. For one thing, it creates a value judgment that some professions are better than others, or that people should be pushed in some professional direction.

We see a much stronger drive to push women into areas like engineering than to get men to become ballet dancers or even elementary school teachers. Why? Is it because engineering is inherently a worthier endeavour than teaching or dancing? Is it because engineers tend to make more money? Or even simply because we view “male-concentrated professions” as more desirable for both men and women?

A great anecdote by Bruce Webster, from The Art of Ware [Download for free from this site]:

When I was teaching computer science at Brigham Young University in 1985-87, the number of students enrolled as computer science majors has [sic] increased dramatically — by a factor of five or so — from when I had been a student there a decade earlier. One of the professors, who had been around since the early 70’s, observed to me that the number of really good students in the department was still pretty much the same; the five-fold growth of enrollment hadn’t brought a five fold, or even a two-fold, increase in excellent CS majors. Why? Because those students with interest, aptitude, and native talent has been signing up all along; the surge in enrollment had come from students who saw computers as a way to get a great paying job, much as my friends during my undergraduate days had signed up for pre-law or pre-med.

But once you are a minority within the profession, as Helena points out, you have two conflicting feelings:

  1. You want to belong to the community, and be recognized for your contributions as a professional, not merely because you’re a demographic anomaly.
  2. Yet since being in the minority in a profession can present unusual challenges, you might really want the chance to find solutions to issues that are related to your minority status.

You can look at some of the recent development of “geek girl” style meetups to see what this kind of event should be:

  • Organic, not orchestrated – ie. based on the real needs of individuals right now. Even if it doesn’t seem lofty enough for you, if male nurses want to talk about dating strategies, or female programmers want to just play retro video games, stick to what people actually want. Then again, if what people really want is to discuss pay equity legislation as it pertains to the profession, go with that.
  • Focused on the people who are in the profession, not dreams of recruiting a different kind of person. Chances are you wouldn’t even know how to appeal to those other people anyway.