Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Gender Disparity Problem - A Fishing Story

This past week, I visited my home town of St. Louis, Missouri.  Along with getting to be with my parents and sister,  I got to meet my first newborn niece who is just 6 weeks old.  During most of my stay, we spent the time talking in our pajamas, watching Netflix, and waiting for the baby to get hungry again. 

As I do on occasion when visiting home,  I also went fishing with my Dad.  We started our Sunday waking up at 4:30 AM.  We said our goodbye to my sister who was awake giving the baby a drowsy, early morning meal.  We drove for an hour out to a small bass lake in Wentzville, MO just in time for the sunrise.

Once we arrived and set all of the rods,  I started casting a top feeder lure, setting the reel, then winding and jigging the lure across the water surface making sure to keep the right amount of tension on the line, feeling for a hit.  When a fish didn't catch, I'd do it over again.  Again and again for 3 hours... without much action.

At first, I wasn't awake enough to think about anything beyond casting and reeling.  But when the sky finally started glowing orange, and I was nearing what felt like my hundredth cast, a provocative thought bubbled up - a thought about gender disparity in Silicon Valley.

I know it's a strange moment for such a thought, but it's been on my mind as of late (we're in dire need of more females in the VR space).  For the past 2 years, whenever I get a pulpit opportunity, I have talked about how a woman's mentality is sorely lacking in the male dominated tech world.  I just know from experience that a mixed gender team performs better than a male dominated one.  But what is it that's missing about an all male team?  What is it about a male way of thinking that needs female balance?

One thing I've observed more in men than in women is an obsessiveness when solving a problem - a drive to keep going even when there's probably a good reason to stop or take a break.  Playing games late into the night passed a reasonable bed time, banging our head against a difficult problem set instead of changing context, coding past the point of dehydration and an inability to think straight – it's probably this kind of male dominated thinking that has fostered the unhealthy Silicon Valley culture of working late into the night beyond mental exhaustion.  Furthermore, this obsession with solving a problem can sometimes make us lose sight of whether we should be solving it in the first place.

I've been lucky to work with some great women problem solvers at Pixar (as well as be in a long term relationship with one), and I've found that women are better at considering the bigger picture, often augmenting technical thinking with other intelligences, like social engineering and logistics.  They are better at setting priorities and have the discipline to temper when needed and the patience to rethink an approach instead of drilling deep on the first one they tried.

And that brings me back to that provocative thought.  This all seems to make sense from an evolutionary point of view.  The men worth their genetic salt should have been able to hunt or fish over long periods of time with an obsessive drive.  Even if the trail ran cold and the fish stopped biting, the men who stuck it out had a stronger chance statistically of bringing home some calories for the tribe.  And while the men were away on long hunts, women had to deal with everything else that made a tribe work including nursing the newborns and foraging for reserves in case the men came back meatless.  So it makes sense that task prioritization and big picture thinking is their natural strength.

Now, I'm not apologetic about my male way of thinking nor do I speak in absolutes.  Some great things have come out of an obsessive drive.  Men are capable of big picture thinking as much as women can be obsessive.  My concern for VR is that without mixing in more women, a room full of men are more naturally wired to have blind spots. We are more prone to obsessing over barren rabbit holes or dead lakes.  It's a gender balanced work place that builds a healthy, long lasting, well focused product and team.

And it's around that moment of clarity that the bass finally started biting.