Why the time for diversity in tech is now

In 2016, Facebook employees were just 33% female and 2% black; YouTube employees were 30% women and 2% black; Apple employees were 32% women and 9% black; Google employees were 31% women and 2% black.

In 2016, Facebook employees were just 33% female and 2% black; YouTube employees were 30% women and 2% black; Apple employees were 32% women and 9% black; Google employees were 31% women and 2% black. (Credit: Getty Images/Big Think)


This series on diversity and inclusion is sponsored by Amway, which supports a prosperous economy through having a diverse workplace. Companies committed to diversity and inclusion are better equipped to innovate and drive performance. For more information, visit amwayglobal.com/our-story.

Innovations created from the tech field affect countless areas of our lives and permeate through all classes and cultures. In recent years, it’s become increasingly more important to ensure that companies work toward creating a more diverse environment in this sector.

Individuals and institutions need tdo confront our internal biases as we begin to create A.I.-enabled technologies. Not only will this usher in a new era of work, where inclusivity and progress go hand-in-hand, but it’s also good for business. Diversity in tech is critical moving forward, as the ubiquity of the field impacts all areas of our lives. It’s not going to happen overnight; data show that approximately 90% of software developers are men. Bureau of Labor statistics show that in 2015, women filled just 25% percent of computing-related occupations. While there is a lot of work ahead of us there are also opportunities galore.

Women in programming leading the way

Diversity is slowly becoming a core tenant of many tech businesses. A.I. research is one such field that will tremendously benefit from a wider range of participants. Women and underrepresented minorities can add a lot of insight here; different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders all have unique perspectives to add to the programming mix and cultural matrix inside tech workplace cultures.

Unfortunately, women have been reported to leave the field at a 45% higher rate than men. Moving forward, we need to be able to communicate how fascinating and fulfilling a career in tech can be. Drumming up interest in computer science studies during students' undergraduate years is one such way of getting women involved. For example, McGill University increased enrollment in a number of interdisciplinary programs through its McGill Women in Computer Science initiative.

Administrators at McGill found out that a majority of male students know right away that they want to be CS majors, while female students only figured that out in their 2nd or 3rd year. It’s much more efficient to create a program that lets female engineers find and develop their passion early on in their college career. 

In recent years, new organizations and events have been created that are beginning to change and influence the industry. Events like Women in Machine Learning (WiML) and nonprofits like AI4ALL, an initiative that creates summer programs at Stanford to teach A.I. to diverse groups of students in high school, are leading the way. A.I. is a field that not only requires creativity and logical problem-solving skills but diverse viewpoints as well.  

Fei-Fei Li, director at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, says: “If we don’t get women and people of color at the table—real technologists doing the real work—we will bias systems... Trying to reverse that a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible. This is the time to get women and diverse voices in so that we build it properly.”

The solution not only needed in A.I. but in tech in general is an interrelated approach brought on by recruiting greater diverse viewpoints and more female programmers. Behind those algorithms are real people who will bring unique outlooks to their code. Different ways of thinking aren’t just good for greater inclusivity and less biased innovations, but great for business too.    

Wisening up to the benefits of diversity

Organizations that are able to harness diversity from multicultural teams are more likely to come up with better solutions to business-oriented problems.

Social scientist Scott E. Page, who's known for his research in diversity and complexity, wrote a book on the subject. In The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, he dives deep into identity diversity and cognitive diversity and how these ideas play out in the real world. Page goes beyond the notion that because diversity is the “right thing” to do we should do it; he also shows that it's much more efficient to have a diverse team when approaching complex problems in a dynamic business environment.

“In everyday parlance, the diversity of a team will likely be described as a function of the social identities, complex and intersectional as they surely are (arrayed along dimensions such as race, heritage, sexual orientation, class and so on), of its members.

The Silicon Valley CEOs knew this well when they all committed to diversifying the high technology industry. Such group diversity also defined the life and work of the three hidden figures at NASA who helped turn around the space race. It was what educational leaders defended when they asserted, in the affirmative action cases at the University of Michigan, that diversity produces educational benefits for all students.”

There have been numerous studies that point toward how valuable diversity is in the workplace.

But there still is a long way to go. Page reported in his book that:

“Data gathered by the National Science Foundation reveal low representation of women and minorities in many technical fields, and we cannot but infer lost diversity bonuses. In 2013-2014 1,200 US citizens earned PhDs in mathematics. Of these scholars, 12 were African American men and just 6 were African American women. From 1973 to 2012, over 22,000 white men earned PhDs in physics as compared to only 66 African American women and 106 Latinas.”

Many personal accounts have shown that women and underrepresented minorities face a number of direct and indirect obstacles during their scientific careers. Making it easier for these groups to learn and stay in the technical field will pay off in the long run.

As our nation grows more diverse, our technical products and creations need to be represented by this fact. Lessened biases will lead the way to greater cultural inclusion and better business practices all around. 


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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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