Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

Big Data, it seems, is suddenly very big. Among the social scientists with whom I spend time, newly massive, deep-tissue-massaged bodies of data have found currency.  As a research tool, the emergent technique seems to promise a rehabilitation of conventional, sometimes dismayingly narrow, quantitative analysis because it involves the use not just of MORE raw material but also of unprecedentedly nuanced software. So, unlike old “Small Data” projects, the empiricism of Big Data research feels like it is rooted in an especially flexible and expansive kind of inquiry.  As more and more media, public and private institutions, and cultural enterprises of all kinds operate on-line, the idea that our research subject (manipulated data) and method (manipulating data) shall coincide seduces. But perhaps caution is advised.

I recently attended a social science workshop in which the taxonomic, counting, and graphing choices being made with Big Data seemed to be tripping along with a minimum of criticality and reflexivity.  Not one among the sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural historians attending suggested that the new scale of data-collection and warp speed of data-crunching might hold totalizing risks for the analyst.  In the bigger-data-sets-are-better atmosphere, Foucault’s point that in rendering a subject knowable we reproduce power seemed lost amidst the intoxicating possibility of…the comprehensive.  That this feature of Big Data holds profoundly political implications became clear to me when I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Matt Richtel on the role of Big Data in enhancing inclusion in STEM.

“I Was Discovered by An Algorithm” is not about the social sciences per se, but it is about the use of extraordinarily large data sets for ostensibly value-laden purposes. The article introduces readers to “work-force science,” a new-ish field in which human resources personnel mine massive amounts of data to determine both which sorts of qualification and which individuals may best suit a particular job category or position. In the case of computing professions, the growth of on-line code sharing and programming provides a ready-made body of data that can reveal, proponents say, unrecognized talent. This system supposedly corrects for social biases triggered by our faces or resumes to expand hiring pools and individuals’ opportunities, alike.

But the notion of hidden STEM talent is one I’ve long been concerned about and its mention here alerted me to a conservative deployment of Big Data. Defining the problem as one of unrecognized talent is a way of seeing under-representation in STEM without asking questions about opportunities…about discrimination in education that might preclude an individual’s development of technical interests. Nor does it let us ask about the inherent oppressions of segmented industrial labor , a system that minimizes workers’  chances to learn and grow through work. To me, such searches for promising but as-yet-unrecognized STEM workers have presented a seemingly inclusive agenda that manages systematically to ignore such structural inequities.

Consider the framing of data-driven STEM hiring described in Richtel’s piece. Vivienne Ming, chief scientist at the start-up firm, Gild, approaches the mining of Big Data as a way to evade the biases traditionally found in hiring, including gender, race, and the presumptions we make about one another based on university attended or jobs previously held.  The main case covered in the article is that of a young programmer who never attended college but who, once in range of Gild’s “automated vacuum and filter for talent” (as Ming calls it),  was revealed to possess exceptional capacities.  He got the job. To Ming, this approach to recruitment lets the firm “put everything in,” and then lets the “data speak for itself.”

But of course, data can’t speak for itself; only for those who have given it meaning. Despite Ming’s articulated concern with inclusion,  per Gild’s algorithm (and their Nike-esque catchphrase, “Know Who’s Good”), it is only success along existing standards of technical efficacy and productivity that identifies the outstanding programmer. Automating this determination may be great for the firm, but it hardly constitutes a significant push-back at discriminatory conditions. There are doubts expressed in the article about this HR approach, but these are themselves telling about the obfuscatory power of meritocratic logic in industry. Some observers worry that subjective features such as a candidate’s “people skills” are occluded with this kind of data-based hiring. Others want more finely grained objective tools, such as those at Gild who are eager to hone in on prospective employees’ most specialized technical skills. But the superficial differences between these complaints are deceiving. Both thoroughly detach hiring criteria from the social and political conditions in which those criteria arise and which those criteria faithfully reproduce.

I have lately been reading a remarkable book on industrial personnel practices by professor of management Barbara Townley , which considers “power, ethics and the subject at work” from a Foucauldian vantage point.  She reminds us that the field of human resources has always been about constructing the individual as an object of knowledge, not about “uncovering” some essential self in the prospective employee.  Work-force science, predicated on letting data “speak for itself,”  seems exquisitely suited to (in Townley’s phrase) “render organizations and their participants calculable arenas,” and to do so  unceasingly “in service to the profitability and productivity of the organization.”  To claim, as Ming does, that the largest bodies of data ever deployed for HR purposes will somehow transcend the foundational values of corporate HR seems like selective logic. Personally, I will now be mining Townley’s work for ways to understand the social instrumentalities of Big Data.

STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!

With Friends Like This…

An opinion column by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes today, entitled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” maps out for us why it is that girls experience “hysterical reactions” to stress more often than do boys, especially in the pressure-filled teenage years.  She lists separate episodes in which groups of girls or young women from various cultures—two batches of female American cheerleaders, 900 Arab girls in the West Bank and some female Israeli soldiers, communities of Tanzanian schoolgirls—apparently fell prey to shared (contagious?) psychological reactions to stress, exhibiting “Tourette’s like” behaviors, compulsive laughter, or fainting with no apparent physical bases. Flanagan sees here a version of the recurring psychological distress and domestic conflict that many parents of teenage girls she encounters routinely report. Thinking about these seemingly related phenomena compels Flanagan to assert to her readers that boys and girls are different and ultimately, to quote a neurologist’s finding that, “These girls will get better, they just need time and space.”

My own teenage daughter read the column and, with evident disgust (which I suppose, could have been induced by hysteria) said of Flanagan: “It’s like she is just saying ‘Who cares what happens to teenage boys!’ She doesn’t bother to find out why these girls reacted this way, or what other factors might have been involved…the only common feature was their craziness!”

“Girls look weak and susceptible,” she added, “Flanagan makes them look like delicate creatures!” Even at 16, provoked by such insults perhaps, she got it. To treat these females’  behaviors as “extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms” you’d have to be (in my daughter’s words), “looking for extreme behaviors only in girls, just refusing to see anything boys did as hysterical or extreme!”

She said it better than I could have and made me realize why a critique of Flanagan’s points belongs in a blog about STEM equity: Because Flanagan so blithely denies that social structures may set girls up to see themselves as less sturdy than boys, promoting such stress reactions.

Moreover, essentialist expectations of female weakness and incapacity like those Flanagan broadcasts might precondition girls to see themselves as innately physically or psychologically vulnerable. Her perhaps sincere sympathy for the suffering girls in fact  perpetuates such disempowering myths, not least by utterly ignoring the social, educational and economic inequities with which so many young women live.

Are some, or even most, teens emotionally vulnerable? Of course. Do conditions of impending adulthood, or poverty, or war, put people (of any age) in a position of psychological unsteadiness? Without question. But the presumption that we should not be surprised when girls or women reveal such vulnerability because it is inherent in their femaleness is to set the cause of women’s rights, and equal participation in social and cultural institutions of all kinds, back by decades.  Read this quote from the column and see if you agree with me that this might have been exactly Flanagan’s intention:

“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”

“Won’t seem to go away”?? With folks like Flanagan treating psychological upset as gender-derived, primarily biological, and devoid of social or political cause,  it’s no wonder.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Interesting: A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Cornell researchers Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams has gained a great deal of media attention, as these things go. Reading the coverage, I’d say we’re definitely a culture split between those who want to put gender bias behind us, and those who want to put any discussion of gender bias behind us.

Ceci and Williams’ report indicates that “sexual discrimination” (the quote marks capture my uncertainty about what that term means in the report, not their own) is no longer much of a factor in the hiring, promotion, grant funding or journal publication of women in the sciences.  Substantive aspects of reviewing and hiring in STEM occupations are in recovery, no longer suffering from gender bias.  The authors do find that institutional and cultural factors may be limiting the attainments of women in science: the essential conflicts between tenure clocks and biological clocks, between child- or elder care demands and competitive funding structures, etc.  These conditions, which constrain women’s choices of  career and lifestyle,  still have to be addressed if women are to attain parity with men  in math-based fields.

I agree with that last point, absolutely. But as someone who studies ideas about identity in scientific workplaces, something seems not quite right to me in the very design of this study, so I worry about how likely it is to actually encourage reform. That is:  It seems to Ceci and Williams like a good idea to differentiate between the social character of  encounters between individuals in job interviews and manuscript review processes (no longer gendered, apparently) and that of institutional policies (still somewhat discriminatory).   That differentiation lets them cast women’s successes at the application or promotion stages as nicely firewalled from the ideologies that shape tenure and family leave and funding policies; daily relationships in  academic departments are apparently post-gender despite whatever is going on down the hall in the dean’s office or HR department or Office of Research.  

But that these are distinct realms within most institutions–with bias dissolved in one unit while it survives in others– seems highly improbable. Do successful employees  (say, tenured faculty) normally maintain functionally different value systems than their bosses (those who approve their raises, and new lines for their departments)?  On some ideological level, maybe,  but in the actual day-to-day operations of an institution? Not likely. Shared standards of good performance by definition connect the two spaces; short  CV’s and slowed tenure clocks are stigmatized throughout.  I’d be very surprised if the lowered rates of  successful tenure, promotion, and funding efforts by women faculty in STEM  fields are not deriving from distributions of opportunities and resources in their home departments; after all, that’s where opportunity and resources are garnered for faculty (or not, for some) .

And I just don’t think the disunity between institutional spaces that Ceci and Williams imply is characteristic of ostensibly meritocratic enterprises like science (or law, or medicine, or the social sciences for that matter!).  But it offers a picture of scientific labor that conveniently  lets Ceci and Williams suggest that money now being spent on, say, monitoring or improving gender bias in the university departments and labs, where decisions about merit are made,  is no longer needed. The Guardian accepts the empirical findings of the NAS study but nonetheless sees the potential danger in that presumption, headlining its coverage of the new report: “Women in science face a career structure and culture that is weighted against them, rather than straightforward individual sexual discrimination”(itals mine).

Others, sadly, are leveraging Ceci and Williams’ report for deeply conservative purposes.  Leave it to John Tierney’s New York Times column of Feb. 9 to embed this news in a larger indictment of  the “liberal” professoriate’s  lock on social science research topics. Tierney centers his column on the reductive and self-serving arguments of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt defends, to  Tierney’s apparent approval, beleaguered “conservative” social science projects,  like Larry Summer’s argument that men’s overrepresentation in math and science has a biological basis. The widespread critique of Summer’s comments and others of that ilk had awful ripple effects, we read in Tierney’s column:

“…the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.”

According to Tierney,  Ceci and Williams  (like others before them we have regrettably failed to heed) correct that assumption.  But I would ask this: If institutional policies that favor men’s socialization and biology, such as those the new report points to, are not evidence of  “unconscious bias”  then what is?  Tierney’s logic  is selective, at best. I would love to know if Ceci and Williams see it that way.

On Being Retro

From "H.R. Pufnstuf," Gold Key Comics, April 1971

A page from a kids’ comic book,  1971…a single, marvelous page illustrated in a way that brings home the gendered nature of American work in that era. For boys, a future in drafting. For girls, jobs as librarians. Interesting, too, that we can tell at a glance that this is an artifact of an earlier era. From the typeface to the clothes, details date these images. 

What’s more, there are assuredly more female draftspersons and male librarians now than there were when this comic was published. If this same page appeared today with the genders reversed we might notice something a bit unusual, but the images would not ring false.

And yet, in the past  few weeks, attending a range of educator events focused on expanding STEM opportunities in the U.S.,  I’ve heard remarks  about gender differences that would not have been out of place when this comic book hit the newsstand.  Old presumptions about identity in America endure even in settings dedicated to ending discrimination in education and hiring.  Different competencies and opportunities are still easily connected to different genders, races and ethnicities in our culture.  For example, in workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in higher education, I’ve lately heard such characterizations of housework (mentioned as a kind of labor appropriately left up to wives);  engineering (described, as a career option, with exclusively male pronouns),  and the history of engineering (noted as a surprising choice of subject matter for a female social scientist, or, and I quote, “…for a girl.”).

Any of those comments could also have been made in 1971, and they probably immediately strike a lot of us as being on the more retro end of things.  Perhaps more subtle are the comments that could only have been made in our post-civil rights era.  For instance, I recently heard an engineering  instructor, eager to draw in under-represented groups, nonetheless claim that explicit mentions of race or gender relations in an engineering classroom of 2010 will “stigmatize women and minority students all over again.”  He was concerned that conversations about student identities might also lead minority STEM students to feel that their only role within the university is to fulfill unwritten quotas.  From this vantage point, attention to minority experiences may be  just fine when it arises outside of the lab or classroom or office (as perhaps was not widely the case before 1970 or so),  but still creates problems when it arises within those spaces.

The idea that a dominant majority culture plays a role in legitimating those very spaces of STEM practice? Defining eligibility for and occupational equity in STEM fields? Perhaps protecting its own privileges in the process?  Not things that can easily be discussed in settings that customarily claim to exclude matters of identity.  And if whiteness generally goes unmarked in places of science and engineering, non-whiteness is at the same time selectively deployed.  I have heard several university administrators  invoke the documented entrance of more Asian and South Asian students into STEM fields in recent years as evidence that science and engineering are essentially merit based. But such ascriptions of ability, group-based with little thought as to how we define groups, or ability for that matter,  are perhaps part of the problem.

 Again, every one of the speakers I’ve cited here wants to support fairness and inclusivity in STEM.  How do we increase our reflexivity, so remarks like these can be seen as holding back that kind of progress?

We need to shed a bright light on race and gender discrimination, not cast that subject as a distant, historical concern.  A step in this direction would be for me to respond to well-meaning but discriminatory remarks right when I hear them in STEM workshops, rather than be flummoxed into complicit silence until I reach the safety of a blog screen.  Probably, the difficulty of confronting such ideologies within their institutional homes itself bears historical analysis.  Not least important: My role as a participant-observer in these events is murky, my own race and gender hugely meaningful.  But in any case, social awkwardness,  other- or self-imposed, showed itself to be a powerfully conservative social force when I looked back on my silence…a silence both retro and regrettable.

Erring on the Side of…Exclusion

Thank you, John Tierney!  Through your efforts, essentialist thinking about gender and intelligence may keep its hold on Americans for a while longer.  

Tierney suggests in today’s NY Times “Findings” column that we look with skepticism on a new Congressional proposal  to require workshops on gender equity for all those receiving federal science research funding.  The results of standardized tests, Tierney reports, have shown that sex differences are real, gosh darn it;  researchers have proven that gender gaps among the best-performing math and science test-takers  persist from year to year, from generation to generation…why do we insist on resisting the obvious scientific conclusion? Think of the time, trouble,  and money we could save, in classrooms, labs, and HR departments,  if we just accepted the biological fact of women’s innate science and math inability!

The column’s title alone, “Daring to Discuss the Potential of Women in Science”  (my itals.), ensures that this sort of reductive understanding of learning and thinking (something in the brain, that mysterious quaking organ,  makes math easy or hard for people!) will continue to be cast as a brave, selfless, anti-PC act of resistance against…against….Against what? The dangers of inclusive educational programming? Of erring on the side of equity?  Of maximizing occupational opportunities for every American?

No wonder the column’s accompanying illustration is a kooky, retro collage of a pretty blond 1950s “sweater girl,” with gears on her mind and a scientific formula spilling from her lips….Gals in the lab?!  Zany! Let the high-jinks begin!

I know, I know: sarcasm is petty and unattractive.  So before I lose any remaining credibility, let me defer to Troy Duster’s brilliant historical discussion of biological understandings of intellectual capacity. For almost 20 years, editions of his book, Backdoor to Eugenics, have laid out the very worrisome political and cultural implications of our pursuit of biological bases for intellectual and behavioral differences. 

Duster makes it clear that the questions we ask about what counts as aptitude, and the ways in which we measure intelligence,  themselves hide the discriminatory social forces at work in our schools and workplaces.  Where we look for inherited, biomedical, or other biological determinations of human aptitude to explain differences among groups,  we will limit our scrutiny of social, economic  and political causes behind discrepant educational or occupational attainments.  In this way the perceived value of biological research on intelligence is self-reinforcing.

Sure, experimental research on the physiological or genetic endowments associated with cognitive traits seems more objective than study of vague, illusory “social forces” or “values” or “bias.”  But ideology underlies that preference.   As Pierre Bourdieu writes in his forward to the book’s 2003 edition,

Conservatism has always  been linked to forms of thought that tend to reduce the social to the natural–the historical to the biological.

Tierney and the researchers he cites are no doubt concerned about the nature of women’s experiences in science, as they claim; after all, they are probing the matter, not ignoring it. But they don’t really seem interested in the depth and breadth of inquiry that scholars like Duster suggest…that is, in asking questions about their own questions. Those would be the truly daring discussions.

Atop the Turbine: A Fine View of Community College

 

Students stand at the foot of the Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine, in Duracell's adAs we start to see more daily reminders of the critical importance of  junior and community colleges in American job creation and equity –as the recession slogs on without promised new jobs, as the White House actively supports 2-year education–it will be interesting to see how explicitly (or not)  industries associate themselves with this type of education…long treated by many sectors of American culture as marginal to “real” higher ed, and certainly as remote from tech-sector R&D.  Take a look at an interesting artifact of the 2010 American economy: An ad produced by Duracell that celebrates, in as slick a marketing effort as you’ll see anywhere,  a community college program for training wind-turbine technicians.

This has to be one of the only times a community college has appeared in a mass-media marketing campaign, let alone hit our screens in such an unremittingly positive light.  (Surely we don’t count the NBC sit-com “Community”as boosterism, as funny and sympathetic as its misfit characters might be?  With every ethnicity, gender and age group given its own embarassing under-achiever? Its own diagnosable-if-warm-hearted representative in the world of 2-year education?)  The Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program of  Iowa Lakes Community College , in Duracell’s hands, comes across as exciting and cutting edge. The turbine is magnificent, standing tall against the sun-drenched countryside, as uniformed student/workers in hardhats and coveralls high atop the structure test its voltage.

From Duracell's video of Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine

 Not surprisingly, we are told that the students do this by using Duracell-battery powered voltage meters. And the ad is hardly breaking new visual ground: it looks and sounds a bit like recent fast-cut, emotionally uplifting military recruiting ads. But using those images and techniques, the ad makes it clear that this technical work is both physically challenging and intellectually rewarding, not to mention of vital national interest, as a child driving by stares up in wonder at the spinning turbine. If this ad draws more students to training in sustainable technologies, that alone would count as a contribution by Duracell.  If it draws away some of the stigma of community colleges among university-educated Americans, even better.

I have a couple of concerns about the ad:  I think I spotted one or two female students standing in a group shot (see above); hard to tell, though, and why were none visible among the confering meter-wielders, or  intrepid turbine-climbing technicians, that make up most of the video?  Finally, Duracell fudges more than a few environmental issues to associate itself here with the values of sustainability.  Do we really want to promote wind energy as a way to expand our already excessive use of energy? The child in the ad cools herself with a battery-powered miniature fan, as she sits inside a moving car!  Why not just open a window to the turbine-powering breezes obviously blowing outside?  But for the moment, confining ourselves to the image of community colleges, let’s think about what Duracell’s addition of a culturally marginalized institution to the glossy, green television landscape might well do to help chip away at  that marginality.