Thursday, November 15, 2012

"More than Just a Princess" - GoldieBlox

We hear all the time that women are underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics), with the solution usually being proposed that education and encouragement needs to happen for girls when they are young.  But just how do we make that happen?

A new startup called GoldieBlox will soon be manufacturing a toy specifically designed for young girls to teach them concepts related to engineering.  Founder Debbie Sterling raised nearly double the funding goal she set on Kickstarter, from over 5500 donors giving on average $51.  She spent a year researching the way girls play and how they would best engage with an engineering tool, discovering that girls enjoy reading much more than boys do.  By combining reading with building, Sterling has provided an enticing new way for girls to engage with engineering concepts very early on.

There is clearly a need for more STEM-inspired toys that appeal to girls.  Without getting into the whole ultra-gendered nature of kids toys and whether that's good or bad, I think we can all agree that if you walk into a toy store, there are clearly "boy" toys and "girl" toys.  Some brands, like Lego, have tried to get around this issue with gender-neutral advertising - there's a great piece on the Sociological Images blog about this campaign and why it failed.  We can learn from marketing efforts like the Bic for Her fiasco, that simply making a pink version of something is not going to cut the mustard.

And that's what I like about GoldieBlox.  It's designed from observing how girls and boys differ in how they play (whether we socialize it into them is another whole issue).  And it specifically targets those differences to get girls more interested in engineering concepts.  It doesn't just focus on making something "pretty" or smell nice or whatever it is that girls are supposed to aspire to with most of their other toys.  It looks much deeper at how girls like to play, and how that enthusiasm doesn't have to be limited to dolls playing house.

I'll end this post with a personal note about why it's so important for girls to learn about engineering at an early age.  When I was a junior in high school, I received an award from the Society of Women Engineers because I excelled at math and science.  And I and NO IDEA what an engineer was, and no idea what that meant for my own career.  And all I learned about the Society of Women Engineers is that they give high school girls awards and then never contact them again.  But maybe they've changed in the last decade.  Anyway, it did get me to look up what engineering was, and I did apply to (and was accepted to) a top engineering program for college (though opted for a traditional liberal arts college instead).  But clearly there this is not an efficient way to get girls into STEM.

There's much more work that needs to be done to encourage girls and young women to go into STEM fields, and I have personally felt this need.  We need more entrepreneurs like Debbie Sterling to develop thoughtful approaches to encouraging girls to engage in fun STEM activities.  I wish her all the best in developing her line of engineering toys that engage girls.

What do you think of STEM toys targeted at young girls?  I'd love to hear your feedback!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Broad Experience Podcast Series

I've recently discovered a podcast series about professional women that is really fantastic.  Ashley Milne-Tyte, a British-American journalist based in NYC, publishes a series of interviews with an array of accomplished leaders, all around the topics of women and work.  Each addresses an important issue for professional women, from entrepreneurship and technology to ambition and power.

She even has one on diversity training for white men, which addresses what sociologists would call intersectionality (see?  I'm bring in the Sociology here).   Intersectionality is a theory that describes a situation where two characteristics of a person, such as race and gender, when combined, amplify social inequality associated with each of the characteristics.  Two (or more) statuses can interact, usually in a negative way, to cause worse discrimination than if the person only had one of the characteristics.  So, in general, being a woman and being non-white in the US is related to more discrimination than being a white woman or a non-white man.  Of course there are always exceptions, but these terms help us to understand the unique experiences that different kinds of minorities face in work and entrepreneurship.

Each podcast is about 10 minutes, and she brings on a ton of interesting, articulate guests from a variety of industries.  Worth a listen for anyone interested in gender and social psychological processes as they happen in the workplace.  Or anyone who is looking for career guidance, or who is simply interested in understanding more about how gender affects work.

So take a break and check out The Broad Experience.  There's also a newsletter you can sign up for, as well as a Facebook group.  I, for one, look forward to seeing what she comes out with next!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why Aren't There More Female Programmers?

I usually don't get too excited about days dedicated to some historic figure, but yesterday National Geographic published an article about the October 16 being the day dedicated to the first person to write a computer program.  Why is this so interesting?  Because the first person to write a computer program was none other than poet Lord Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace in 1843.  Very interesting considering computer most computer programmers in the US are men.

Ada Lovelace Day is marketed as a day to recognize the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. While you can read all about the many accomplishments of women in STEM fields elsewhere, what I wonder is why did something that was developed by a woman become a field entirely dominated by men?  And why aren't there more women programmers?

It could be that women just aren't good at learning how to program, and Ada Lovelace was just kind of strange.  While she may have been strange, it's unlikely that other women can't be good programmers.  Time and time again, studies show that women don't lack the brain capacity needed for programming.  First off, women are better at learning new languages than men, down to the biological level.  Second, women now score higher on IQ tests than men.  Third, women and men show no difference in the old analytical reasoning section of the GRE nor in the new analytical writing section.  So we really shouldn't be seeing differences in ability to program by gender.

Maybe women don't want to be programmers.  That's what Justin James argues when he writes that "women are not attracted to programming at all."  But if that were really so, we wouldn't see any women in programming, and it doesn't explain why 30 years ago there were nearly equal numbers of men and women in computer science courses at universities.

If it's not ability or preference, then it must be something outside a woman's control.  I don't have all the answers or explanations.  But, my earlier post on stereotype threat and organizational culture discusses how the culture of technology firms and university departments systematically excludes women, leading many to abandon the career path they otherwise would have wanted.

So on this day that at least a few people are talking about Ada Lovelace, it's a good time to think about what we can do to diversify the programming workforce and create an environment where all people can and do pursue their desired career.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Three reasons why information technology won't save health care

Between rising health care costs, increases in chronic illnesses, an aging population, and the complexity of health care reform, the US healthcare system is facing an onslaught of challenges in the coming years.  In particular, the fragmentation of health care services is a particularly strong challenge to the system as people are living longer while living with more chronic conditions that require some level of monitoring.  On top of this, administrative costs make up at least 7% to 14% of health care spending.

Some argue that administration is the problem, and that it's things like paperwork that clog up the system and make it inefficient.  Leslie Ziegler asks "Can designers and developers save health care?"  and suggests that what we're really dealing with is a design problem. She recommends that entrepreneurs focus on creating better user experiences for patients and providers.  She describes some of the innovative new products and services that have recently been developed by entrepreneurs, like an online diabetes management support group and an app for spine surgery patients to better understand their diagnosis. 

But can a few gadgets really save health care in the US?  Probably not, but it may help some people have better outcomes.  Here's a few other reasons why launching a bunch of technology solutions at health care will not save the system.

1. Too many payers and a lack of transparency.
 Many restaurants have their menus, including pricing, posted outside the front door.  Ever seen this at a doctor's office?  Didn't think so.  Transparency in pricing of medical services and procedures is remarkably absent in a so-called private "market" for health care (I guess it is so private that the prices are hidden).  While some people may argue that health care providers don't disclose prices because they are shady people, the real reason is that prices vary depending on who's paying.  Each insurance company negotiates a reimbursement rate, individuals paying out of pocket pay another rate, and Medicare/Medicaid have yet another rate with the SAME doctor for the SAME procedure.  So posting a price list clearly becomes problematic. 

As high-deductible plans and HSA accounts become more prevalent, some entrepreneurs have developed searchable price databases.  Healthcare Blue Book is one of these, as is OkCopay.  While these don't solve the transparency problem, with people becoming responsible for a larger portion of their health care payments, such databases may force physicians and hospitals to compete on pricing, potentially reducing some of the out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

2. Technology requires people who can effectively use it
3/4 of physicians say that electronic health records distract from patient care.  Less than half believe that electronic health records are designed with physicians in mind, and the percentage of physicians who have a favorable opinion of electronic health records has decreased from 39% in 2011 to 32% in 2012. Design may be a large part of the problem with successful use of digital technology in health care, but that's only part of the answer.

Your new app may be super easy to use, but integrating new technology into an existing organization with its own culture is about more than just learning how.  People come with all kinds of preconceptions about how technology can enable or hinder their goals.  And they might feel like the new technology is just out of place with their daily activities. Enter Christian Briggs and Kevin Makice of SociaLens, who have developed an assessment tool for organizations aspiring to implement new technology, measuring what they call "digital readiness."  Understanding digital readiness can help an organization (or an entrepreneur) to figure out how users might respond to an innovative technology in the context of their work environment.

3. Human error.
The recent story about a nurse throwing away a kidney that was being donated by a living man to his sister illustrates that no matter what else is going on, and no matter how important the task is, people do stupid things.  Wasteful things.  Things that can kill people.  200,000 people die every year from preventable medical errors, more than the number of those who die in car crashes each year.

There is no technology that can completely solve this problem, but if patients have better ways of educating themselves about their health and health care through the use of new technology, we stand a chance at being advocates for ourselves. 

Technology has the potential to drastically change the way that health care is delivered, financed, and taught.  But it's no panacea.  We need to be aware of the ways in which health care, technology, and culture interact when proposing new user-friendly designs.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why age matters for startups - it's not a young person's game

When it comes to startups, and especially tech startups, there is always buzz about the breakthrough startup companies that have made it big.  Everyone knows that the founder of Facebook is a young man who's now a bazillionaire before he's even turned 30.  And there are many more stories of young people, usually dudes, who have made millions in their twenties.  Even awards for inventors and entrepreneurs are often limited to those under age 30, for example, the Alva Emerging Fellowship, and the Inc Magazine 30 under 30.  While certainly commendable for the individuals featured in these prestigious awards and publications, all this focus on youth can seem daunting to the over-30 crowd.

But fear not - Looking at successful CEOs and heads of engineering and product development at technology companies, a research team at Harvard and MIT found that twice as many successful tech entrepreneurs had started businesses in their 50s as did those in their 20s. 

Why are older entrepreneurs more successful?

It shouldn't be surprising that older entrepreneurs are more successful than younger entrepreneurs.  Tthe longer you're around, you've had more time to build up your personal network of people who are able to support you in your startup, whether financially, instrumentally, or just with plain old advice.  Pierre Bourdieu, a famous sociologist, called this "social capital," and it's thought of as a sort of bank account that gets built up depending partly on age, but also on other factors like level of education, wealth, and work experience.

Social capital helps to explain why college dropouts (particularly those from Harvard and other prestigious institutions) can make it big in tech startups.  The very same social capital that helped them get into the college in the first place is the same social capital that enables them to connect with investors and obtain other kinds of support that startups need to survive.  There's a reason we don't see many students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds dropping out of college and giving up their scholarships to start businesses - they don't have access to the social capital that young people from a more privileged background have.

Another important concept is "cultural capital."  This is the social knowledge you need to get by in a particular type of social situation, such as knowing whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek as a greeting.  It's knowing that wearing a three-piece suit to an interview at a tech company means you're probably overdressed and look like you're trying too hard - where's your 5 o'clock shadow?  Or that certain words should not be used in certain company.  This is the kind of capital that also enables success in multiple areas, and why those who blend in with the kinds of people already in the field have a greater chance of obtaining venture capital.  Do you talk the talk and walk the walk?  Come right in!

So don't think of your age as an impediment, think of it as an asset, a form of capital that can be used to obtain the kind of capital that really matters for your startup, whether cash or guidance or access to people who can help you.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Women, Technology, and Stereotype Threat

It's no secret that women are underrepresented in the tech world.  With a smaller proportion of women receiving computer and information science degrees in 2009 than in 1985 (it went from 37% women in 1985 down to 18% in 2009!), the future for women in computer science looks bleak.  A recent article on the Women 2.0 blog by Christian Fernandez highlighted the lack of female representation in computer science courses in universities, with women representing only 10-20% of students graduating with computer science degrees, despite some programs starting with a 50/50 gender ratio.  He attributes this to women feeling intimidated by a hostile environment that leaves them feeling inadequate.

The sociological term for this phenomenon is called "stereotype threat," and it means that the individual (woman in this case), being part of society, recognizes that there is a negative stereotype about them. In this case, the stereotype is that women are not as good as men at technical stuff.  Because they recognize this, they become anxious that they will inadvertently confirm the stereotype.  In response, they behave in certain ways that can undermine their success, or, they may overcompensate for what they think will be a negative reaction by working harder than everyone else.  In the first case, they are faced with failure, and in the second, with burnout.  Sociologists have studied this phenomenon in great detail when it comes to racial stereortypes.

But stereotype threat is also a concept that tends to blame the victim.  By saying that women's worries about confirming negative stereotypes are causing them to drop out and feel inadequate, we are missing out on the importance of the social context in contributing to women's under-representation in technology.  In particular, Fernandez's report that women felt the environment in computer science courses was "hostile" towards women, indicates that this is not just about how these women feel about themselves and their abilities.

The context and culture of the university (or workplace) are critical in creating this hostile environment.  This includes things like whether women are in leadership positions, whether the work is structured as competitive or collaborative, and whether efforts are made to highlight the contributions of minorities and ensure they are included in activities.  Thus, it is one thing to prepare young women for university-level coursework, but it is altogether another to create an environment in which they can thrive without gender being an issue.

What's the solution?
Universities and high schools need to place an emphasis on structuring the work environment in a way that doesn't privilege the status quo.  For example, women may feel isolated from the community of computer science students if study or work groups are divided by gender.  Providing opportunities for more interaction among students in a non-competitive environment may help to bring down some of the barriers women face in these programs.  Young women may also be looking for role models, and either bringing in guest lecturers or hiring more female faculty members would provide young women with an opportunity to learn from those who have been there before them.

Why does this matter for startups?
In industries where there are few minorities, like women in tech, it's important to be aware of ways you may be alienating those who are not typical of your industry.  For example, while Beer Fridays can be a great team spirit-building time for small companies, they may also exclude those who choose not to drink alcohol, or who feel obligated to drink alcohol when they'd prefer not to.  This is something that women think about because they are physically smaller and cannot process as much alcohol as men, so two beers for a petite woman could make her quite tipsy while a 200 pound man would barely notice it.  Because of this, some women or people who do not drink alcohol, may remove themselves from otherwise fun group activities.  So try to make your events as open and welcoming to all kinds of people in your business.

What else can universities or businesses do support gender equality in computer science and technology programs?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Know Thy Customer

One very important thing I've noticed in participating in startup events is the need to focus on the value your business provides to the customer.  The simple way to address this issue is to say it solves some problem for them.  But the "problem" goes far beyond simply defining the value of your product for the customer.  It involves knowing your customer on a deeper, dare I say, sociological level.

How can I get to know my customer?  
Talk to them!
Yes, I mean literally talk to them.  Don't just ask your friends who are just like you.  Talk to people who a different age, gender, whatever.  Think about who might use your business or service..  You may be surprised at what you hear.  Here are a few questions you can ask:
  1. Here's the product/service I'm working on.  Do you think you'd use it?  How often?
  2. Would you pay for my product/service?
  3. Where do you go now if you're looking for a product/service like mine?
If you're concerned that people are giving you overly-positive feedback and are hiding their real feelings out of politeness (sociologists call this response bias), ask these types of questions in terms of friends, as in, "do you think your friends would use this?"  By putting the focus on someone else, people sometimes feel more comfortable giving negative feedback. And getting constructive criticism in the beginning is much better than launching a lousy business model!

Find out what else they like.
Knowing the kinds of activities your customer is interested in may help you better understand how to relate to them.  Do they like fast cars?  Gadgets?  Sparkly things?  All of these can help you design the feel of your brand around the customer you've already figured out wants your product or service.  Be targeted, but make sure the market is broad enough that you're not shortchanging the potential size of your market.

But won't everyone want to use my app?  It's so awesome!
No.  And if you think your market is "everyone" you are wrong.  Before getting into more specifics, check out this graph from Nielsen that shows the proportion of people who use smartphones by age.

Note that even in the group with the highest use of smartphones, age 25-34, only 62% of them actually have a smartphone.  That means that 38% don't even have a smartphone on which to download your app.  That doesn't mean your app won't make money, it just means that you need to recognize that your market is not "all people ages xx to zz." 

What else should I know about my customers?
Once you get a handle on the basic demographics of your target market, find out how much money they spend on stuff related to your business.  A great place to start is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provides FREE (paid for by your tax dollars) information on how much people spend on various items, broken down by demographics like income and age, in the Consumer Expenditure Survey.  This is a great resource to get a feel for the market size.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How can I use social networks to grow my business? Understanding Multiplexity.

As a sociologist who dabbles in social network analysis, I sometimes get asked questions about social networks from a business perspective (what does Sociology say about how to use social networks?).  Though it would take more than a dissertation worth of research to answer these questions fully, the concept of "multiplexity" is a great starting point.

If you think about people in your own social network, you'll have a variety of people.  Family, friends, work colleagues, acquaintances from a social club, your doctor, and many other kinds of people make up your social network.  Each of these individuals represents one social tie - or does it?  What if your work colleague is also a friend?  Or if your doctor is your spouse?  Or your church friend is also your child's teacher?  These kinds of network ties are multiplex, meaning multiple kinds of relationships embedded in one network tie.  These "ties" are also real relationships that operate in a real context.  Understanding the different contexts in which relationships take place is a critical point in understanding how different types of information are shared in social networks.

What does this mean for business?
Blindly targeting "social networks" and "key opinion leaders" is not a good strategy if you don't understand the type of social network your customer uses to find purchasing information. If you want to leverage social networks in the digital age, just as in traditional marketing, you need to understand your audience.  Where do they go for information about your product or service?  Do they ask friends?  Do they look for anonymous reviews?  Do they use Facebook, Twitter, Google?

The chart below, from eMarketer, shows that female Internet users are more likely to use social networks such as Facebook to keep up with friends and family, while they will go to specific niche communities for information on specific products or to make purchasing decisions. 

Many internet advertising venues would have you believe that simply targeting certain demographic characteristics will get you to reach your target market.  But think of it this way: would you rather capture a woman's attention while she's checking out pictures of her niece's kindergarten graduation on a social networking website, or while she's on a niche website looking for information about a product like yours?  I know where I'd put my advertising spend!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Sociology can Learn from Infographics

One thing that stood out when I returned to graduate school after working in market research was the horrible data visualizations used in sociological publications.  The top journals are published only in black and white, and the only "visual" data representations are simple line or bar charts, sometimes executed poorly, and all too often with missing axis labels and having awkward titles.

For example, take this chart from a 2009 paper by Cedric Herring, published in one of the top three sociological journals, American Sociological Review.  I chose this article because it is available publicly and it illustrates my point.

Before I pick on the visuals in it, I do have to say that it is an impressive, peer-reviewed academic paper that makes a substantial contribution to organizational sociology.  Looking at about 1,000 randomly sampled businesses around the US, Herring shows that gender and racial diversity each are associated with better business outcomes.  Diversity in the workplace is better for the bottom line, in terms of sales, relative profits, number of customers, and market share, regardless of industry.  Pretty important stuff, and something any entrepreneur should be aware of in building their team.

But back to the visuals.  Herring has one chart in this paper.

It's called: Figure 1. Percentage Distribution of Racial and Gender Diversity Levels in Establishments.

He is trying to show the percentage of organizations that fell into each category, with high, medium, or low levels of gender or racial diversity.  Despite missing a vertical axis label, this 3D grayscale bar chart takes us back to 1994.  Furthermore, when you're showing data that adds up to 100% and you really want to use a chart, you should use a stacked bar chart or a pie chart, depending on the complexity of the data (more than 2 pie charts side-to-side is too many). The rest of the data in the article was presented in standard boring tables that every Sociology journal uses.

What can sociologists learn here?
Take a look at the infographic from Social Media Chimps below.  It explains why visual representations of data are important.  Now imagine if Dr. Herring had used these tips in his article.  Would you be more likely to read it?  Would you share some clever graphic that showed that diversity in the workplace benefits the bottom line?  I would.  Especially if it had cupcakes.

(Citation: Herring, Cedric. 2009. Does diversity pay? Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American Sociological Review 74:208–24.)