Thursday, February 19, 2009

Avoiding barriers to innovation

Like everyone else on the internet, I recently watched the NASA Barriers to innovation and inclusion video produced by astronaut Andrew Thomas. It actually kept me up at night. “Process” is one of the main reasons that I’ve remained a technician/ project scientist ever since graduation- I have neither interest in nor a gift for bureaucratic fluff. I don’t even like verbosity. So one of the things I was thinking about last night was how fortunate I am to have a manager who basically throws himself under the bureaucratic train so that the rest of us scientists in the group can work relatively unhindered. He spent the day talking about process with suits; I changed a turbo pump in the morning and prepared analytical standards in lab all afternoon.

But as I was thinking about it, I realized that my luck wasn’t random chance. In part, it was natural selection.

I have terrible career skills. I’m terse in interviews, my resumé is plain, I don’t meta-analyse or talk in points. As a result, I am simply not hired by process-oriented employers, even when I do apply for such jobs. So the chances of me ending up in a situation like Heather’s are slimmer than they would be if I was an attractive candidate to such organizations.

I do intentionally pursue jobs that involve doing stuff, as opposed to arguing about what the best way to go about it is. But in addition to that I have this unconscious defense mechanism against red tape employment. This is good for me, but I wonder, how does it apply to the less privileged.

Now, I watched this video over at Sciencewomen’s blog. And one of their themes is how to improve the academic system to be more female friendly. But I wonder, could this be counterproductive?

Suppose the following:
1. Women and men are equally talented.
2. We remove systemic, but not personal barriers to women in academia.
3. Environments which favor systemic approaches stifle innovation.

If all three conditions are met, then women will be preferentially selected for jobs with stronger systemic structures, for the same reason that I don’t get those jobs. Assuming that these jobs stifle innovation, then it would be reasonable to expect these equally talented people to be less productive than equivalent folks in less structured environments. And the washed-up emeriti set could then use this productivity gap as evidence for an inherent gender-based lack of ability.

So I guess my point is that without individual change, systemic change is insufficient for producing equality of opportunity.


Kim said...

Wait. Is "systemic" being used differently in each case here? (A rigid institutional style that inhibits innovation, organization-wide barriers to advancement by women, and a personal style that includes a gift for fluff?) It's possible that attempts to get rid of widespread bias against women can result in a rigid bureaucracy, but maybe there are ways of changing the system without making it impossible to innovate. (And although the gift of gab might make it easier to move up in an organization, I haven't seen any sign that the verbal skills often attributed to women result in more women running organizations.)

C W Magee said...

At no point do I discuss fluff. I don't understand.

C W Magee said...

What I am saying is that by fighting bias with institutional solutions, you increase institutionalism, and thus reduce productivity.