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Engineering field must have diversity

Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos says greater diversity needed for its own sake as well as competitiveness.

A recent study conducted by the National Academies confirmed what we mostly take as obvious: There are no biological or intellectual differences that explain why so few women are working in the fields of science and mathematics.

The study also unsurprisingly found a significant bias in academia--what it called "outmoded institutional structures"--that has contributed to a paltry representation of women in these disciplines.

It's been my experience that corporate environments are challenged as well: A common symptom is that the higher up in the engineering leadership hierarchy, the less the diversity.

All of this troubles me--and not just, or even principally, on the grounds of fairness and opportunity. It troubles me because our field is in serious need of greater diversity simply to remain competitive, let alone to further advance society.

Why? Because engineering is an art. A constructive art, yes, but still very much an expression of the life experiences that one brings to the drawing board. The quality of what engineers create, from the core approach to the problem being solved all the way to an artifact's usability, are all informed by judgment, sensibilities, passions and taste.

Women need the same attention for inspiration, guidance, mentorship and rewards as men, whether they are undergraduates or professional engineers.

Most people are surprised when I describe engineering as an art. The common perception is that technology is dispassionate and formulaic: Engineers (simply!) follow textbook procedures to go from a problem statement to a design, with little room for individual expression or interpretation. (And we engineers smirk or cringe at that description, as we think about the intensity at some recent review session or of some extended e-mail exchange on a subtle point of design.)

Here's the crux of the issue for me: We as engineers do indeed passionately argue for approach A versus B, and we are limited by the perspectives of those participating in the process. In what I call the "Nerd-Y Syndrome," when those participants are mostly nerdy guys, you get designs that are most appealing to, well, nerds with Y's.

That's a bad reflection of society and of the consumers with whom we must connect. We must connect because the booming growth opportunity in IT is continuing the broad consumerization of technology. Things like the Web and mobile communications have become essential, integral parts of many people's lives. What gets used and how it gets used has more to do with social utility, coolness or simply fashion.

So how can we possibly decide approach A versus B, or even imagine that there is a C, if we don't tap into a deep well of diverse people and diverse life experiences? How about we start by being far more inclusive with (more than) half the population: women.

Technologists, especially leaders, don't just materialize out of thin air. Women need the same attention for inspiration, guidance, mentorship and rewards as men, whether they are undergraduates or professional engineers. This is a long-term and systemic pipeline problem. It doesn't happen overnight.

At the academic level, thankfully, we've seen some progress. According to the National Academies study, today 20 percent of engineering students are women and more women than men are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in life sciences.

It's a start, but it's vital that Sun Microsystems and other companies do our part to make sure we capitalize on this momentum.

Beyond corporate initiatives, it's critical to provide a broader sense of community for aspiring female engineers and leaders. Organizations like the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and Women in Technology International serve such a purpose, giving women the opportunity to share ideas and experiences at conferences like the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which opened Wednesday in San Diego.

In the end, society is influenced by a variety of motivations. Whether yours is social justice, personal experience or the old-fashioned profit motive, there is no doubt that being more inclusive in engineering will make the whole field richer, wealthier and more connected to society.

Consider this. When was the last technical conference you attended called a "celebration"?

My point precisely.