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.

Two diverse women in tech discussing work in front of a laptop.
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. 

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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