Breaking the Silicon Ceiling

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has been asking the question for years: Why are there so few women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? These careers are lucrative and vital to our economy, but according to AAUW, women make up only 12 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computing professionals.

I don’t think I have any answers, but I do think there is reason to hope that young women coming up through our universities may be poised to change that equation.

First, let’s look at an ignominious moment in recent history: the release of Dell Computer’s “Della” site. According to Jenna Wortham’s 2009 blog post, “The site originally featured tech ‘tips’ that recommended calorie counting, finding recipes and watching cooking videos as ways for women to get the most from a laptop.” So a mere six years ago tech companies thought that women wanted cute, colorful machines to help them with lady computing. Heck, maybe they still think that. Seems a  little depressing if you are an aspiring female programmer.

But here are some things to give you hope. At the same time Dell was gendering its netbooks, the President of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, was quietly building an engineering program that was designed to bring more women to the field.

NPR profiled President Klawe in 2013, and her story makes a fascinating read. By hiring more women faculty, adding more introductory courses, and by integrating research experiences and conferences, the college became a case study in how to break the Silicon Ceiling. By 2014, the college awarded more engineering degrees to women than to men. Take that, Silicon Ceiling!

Finally, let me circle back to AAUW. They recently posted 10 Ways to Get More Women into Engineering and Tech, which includes practical and simple ideas for those who have the power to help: employers, practitioners, and….parents? That’s right. If parents show their little girls that science is cool and encourage a problem-solving mindset, those girls may grow up to be the engineers of tomorrow. A simple yet powerful message to take to heart.

Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster

January 28, 2015 marked the 29th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded high over the ocean, sending the astronauts to their deaths. The nation and the world were shocked and grief-stricken at the loss of life. Furthermore, thousands of schoolchildren were watching the launch live, and were psychologically scarred for years to come.

In the immediate aftermath, people couldn’t fathom how such a thing could happen. As it turns out, engineers had known for years that there was a potentially fatal flaw in the shuttle’s design. Even though they had tried up until the night before the launch to warn NASA of the likelihood of failure of the O-rings (a part designed to prevent blow-by of hot gasses), the engineers were overruled and ignored by their own management.

Roger Boisjoly (1938-2012), a mechanical engineer working for Morton Thiokol (the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters) participated in that late-night conference with a heavy heart. In late 1985, Boisjoly explicitly warned his managers that if the problem was not fixed, there was a distinct chance that a shuttle mission would end in disaster. He and the others watched the launch and witnessed their predictions coming true.

Boisjoly’s testimony during the investigation of the disaster cost him his friends and ultimately his job. But it also led him to speak out against ethical lapses in the workplace, earning him the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988.

Doing the right thing

In the workplace, we are faced with ethical dilemmas every day. Writing ethically might not require us to rise to the level of Boisjoly’s bravery, but it’s important to understand what stops us from doing the right thing.

Bruce Weinstein, the ‘Ethics Guy’, believes there are three obstacles:

  • Fear of not being accepted by peers, or of reprisals
  • A focus on short-term benefits, not looking to the future consequences of a decision
  • Foul mood: one’s own emotional or physical health prevents you from acting selflessly.

Boisjoly and his colleagues overcame those obstacles, and did their best to prevent the disaster. As writers, we can follow some practical rules for our communications.

  1. Use language and visuals with precision. Don’t use “weasel words” or play with statistics to make things seem better than they are.
  2. Prefer simple, direct expression of ideas. Avoid “legalese” or Byzantine language that hides the true message.
  3. Hold yourself responsible for how well the audience understands the message. Don’t violate your readers’ trust in you. If someone tries to get you to back down, stand your ground.
  4. Observe copyright laws & avoid plagiarism. A no-brainer, I think. Litigation is no fun.
  5. Respect your audience’s privacy. Don’t spam them or sell their names to spammers.

Anything else? Please add a comment!

When you are The Decider


I like to think that I base most of my workplace decisions on facts, not biases, but there’s no denying that we humans are imperfect. How might subconscious biases affect the decisions or judgments we make in workplace communication? You may be surprised.

A couple of months ago I wrote about The Halo Effect. This week, I read a terrific related article by Buffer’s Belle Beth Cooper. Citing numerous examples and experts, Ms. Cooper describes eight ways our minds can play tricks on us. I’ve added some workplace context to each of her points, but I’m greatly indebted to her for pulling together all of the research!

1. Confirmation bias happens to the best of us. Confirmation bias happens when we gravitate toward those who think like us. Ms. Cooper acknowledges the need for confirmation of our beliefs and acceptance by our peers, but there is a downside to this need. Gradually we tend to ignore or dismiss anything that doesn’t match up with our own beliefs. Considering the rate of change we deal with in most modern workplaces (technology, globalization, economics…), a confirmation bias can lead to significant problems down the road.

2. We confuse selection factors with results. This one is sort of a “chicken and the egg” situation. Ms. Cooper gives the example of a swimmer’s body: did the body become suited to swimming after training began, or was it already naturally suited to the sport because of broad shoulders, strong arms, etc.?

Or consider a high-performing university. Is it a result of great teaching or the careful selection of great students? Even if the answer is not completely clear, it’s important to understand how people (particularly advertisers) are prone to blurring the lines between causation and correlation. If you are marketing your company’s product, you may need to make the distinction at some point.

3. We fall for the sunk-cost fallacy. This one is tough to overcome. We are hard-wired to feel loss very strongly, and we can make some pretty poor decisions based on this feeling. Ms. Cooper cites the example of buying a ticket for a movie, only to belatedly realize that the movie is terrible. Should you stay to “get your money’s worth” or cut your losses and leave? Most of us would probably stay. But a more reasonable response might be to let go of the monetary investment–it’s over and done–and just move on.

In the workplace, we hang on to sub-standard software, hardware, processes, and many other things just to prove to ourselves that the investment was worthwhile. When do we make the decision to kiss that investment goodbye and cut our losses?

4. We fall for the gambler’s fallacy. If you play cards, this one is probably well-known to you. When you’ve lost, say, five hands in a row, you figure that the odds are in your favor for that sixth hand–surely this will be the winning hand–it has to be!

But probability doesn’t work that way. A coin toss has a 50/50 chance of landing on heads, no matter how many consecutive times it lands on tails, right? The lesson is that in both cards and the workplace, we can’t rely on luck or hope to turn things around. It usually involves a tough decision and some hard work.

5. We avoid cognitive dissonance by rationalizing our behaviors. This is a fancy way of talking about how we deal with situations that induce “buyer’s remorse.” To resolve the mental discomfort (cognitive dissonance) when we make a bad purchase, we either find a way to justify it (“I needed a new Porsche for my commute to work”), or censure ourselves for poor judgment (“I can’t be trusted with money.”) It’s important not to let one bad decision convince us (wrongly) that we’re bad decision-makers.

While it’s also important to avoid “analysis paralysis” in decision-making, it’s almost comforting to know that a certain amount of post-mortem rationalization will be in store when decisions don’t pan out; cut yourself a break when it happens.

6. We get fooled by the anchoring effect. As explained by Dan Ariely, we tend to make decisions by comparing the value of two or more options rather than making a decision based on pure value for investment. We do this all the time in the workplace. Whenever we choose the lowest bid simply because it is the lowest bid, the anchoring effect is at play. Lowest cost does not always equal the best value.

The takeaway: Calculate the value and cost of any option independently from its competitors. Then begin the process of choosing the winner.

And as Ms. Cooper notes, any marketer knows that the word “free” is a surefire hit. Even if what we’re getting for free is not so hot, we consumers can’t resist when the headline includes that magical word. If you are the marketer in your company, use this power wisely.

7. Memory and gut instinct can be wrong. It’s more than a little disheartening to realize that we don’t always remember things reliably. If you need to make decisions in the workplace, look at the facts and data to confirm what you think that you know. While gut instinct can be spot on, you’ll rest easier knowing that you can back up your decision with facts.

8. The conjunction fallacy leads to illogical thinking. This one has to do with the way preconceived notions and a love of detail affect our thinking. The conjunction fallacy was documented years ago by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. As stated in Michael Lewis’s fascinating Vanity Fair article about Daniel Kahneman,  “The human mind is so wedded to stereotypes and so distracted by vivid descriptions that it will seize upon them, even when they defy logic, rather than upon truly relevant facts.”

Relying on stereotypes that assume that people are always logical and uniform in their thinking is bound to cause problems. Popular culture offers stereotypes ranging computer programmers (nerdy, pudgy guys who play World of Warcraft) to uptight librarians (ask any modern librarian if he or she goes around “shushing” the patrons, and you’ll get an earful.)

Well, that’s where my mind is today. Let me know where your mind is in the comments below.


Photo credit: unknown

The Halo Effect

Statue with haloIf you’ve ever chosen a product based on its packaging, taken an instant liking to a person because he/she was tall & good-looking, or defended the merits of your hometown against all others, you’ve experienced the Halo Effect.

According to Wikipedia, the halo effect (or “halo error”) is “a cognitive bias in which one’s judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one’s overall impression of him or her.” Some speculate that it grew from our most primitive ancestors: a tall, good-looking person was well-fed, had won (or avoided) battles, and seemed to be a good candidate for fathering one’s children.

Around here, we’ve been looking at our current and future needs and trying to figure out which products will help us achieve what we want. Some of us take an instant dislike to a product because of a  seemingly-trivial factor. It could be color, the salesperson, or almost anything that triggers a negative memory about a previous product. That’s called the “Devil Effect,” by the way: we demonize something because of deep-seated and inexplicable feelings. Imagine the consequences of the devil effect in a jury trial!

If you think about it, the halo effect is just as treacherous. We might overlook a product’s failings because we like the color, the salesperson…you get the idea. The halo effect makes it tough to be impartial.

While we can’t do much about our cognitive wiring, knowing about the halo effect can help us be more aware of the potential for bias. It can even make us more aware of how we present professional writing: even if my message is rock-solid, if I don’t present it cleanly, the reader might not receive it favorably.

That’s why we care about good page or screen design, sometimes even more than the content. There are cognitive reasons to pay attention to alignment, balance, contrast, consistency–what some of us refer to as the CRAP design principles.

Finally, the experts at Nielsen Norman Group applied the halo effect to web usability testing, and the results are interesting to say the least. Take a look at Alertbox: The Halo Effect and see for yourself.

 Photo Credit: bossa67 via Compfight cc

Aristotle wants you to ace your job interview

AristotleMost of us learn about Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle in high school and again in freshman English. The concept is simply this: in order to persuade your listener or reader to do what you want, your argument should be informed by ethos (credibility), logos (fact, logic) and pathos (emotional appeal). In case you were wondering, that rhetorical triangle sure comes in handy outside of school, too. Here’s a YouTube video that applies the rhetorical triangle to images from advertising.

So how does the rhetorical triangle fit in to your job interview?

  • Each of the three rhetorical strategies can be accomplished through metaphor or storytelling
  • Success depends upon your delivery and the audience’s reaction

 Telling the story via the CAR method

The CAR formula (also known as STAR) is borrowed from many, many other people. And it works beautifully for an interview situation.

To answer most interview questions, you need to tell a story. To structure your story, use CAR:

  • Context
  • Actions Taken
  • Results.

To illustrate, let’s pretend that the interviewer has just asked The Little Engine That Could (LETC) to describe a situation when he (it?) was challenged. The LETC begins with context: A train full of toys and candy needed to be pulled over the mountain to the children of the neighboring town. None of the big engines in the rail yard wanted to take on the task of pulling the heavy train up the mountain. I knew that the children would be sad if they didn’t get their toys and treats.

Then the LETC describes the action: I didn’t want the children to be disappointed, so I volunteered to pull all the cars of the the train myself, even though I am only a Little Engine. I went very slowly, but I kept going. All the way, I said to myself, “I think I can, I think I can.”

And then, the results: I made it over the mountain, and I said, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” I delivered the goodies to the children. They were so happy! And now I am well known for my determination.

There you have it–a way to plan for both the common interview questions and the ones that come out of left field.

The audience reaction

rhetorical triangle

Aristotle believed that rhetoric was effective only if the audience was moved to take action. And what moved them? A credible speaker (ethos), backed up by solid facts (logos) and an appeal to what we value in our hearts (pathos). In the triangle illustration at right, we can see movement from the writer (or speaker) to the audience.

The triangle encompasses trustworthiness, passion, and any number of character traits.

  • You build credibility through your appearance (classic, tailored clothing), your actions (greeting each person cordially, arriving on time or just a bit early), and your words. (My advice? Take time to plan what you want to say before you speak!).
  • The facts you emphasize should be sprinkled throughout your résumé. Bring work samples and references to further support these facts.
  • Research the company and the field, particularly if you are just starting out, and understand what they value. Understand who the competitors are, what problems this particular industry faces, and identify ways to align your skills to help them reach their goals.

What do you think? Please leave a comment!

The humanity of social networking technologies: phatic communication


The other day I was chatting with the parents of some incoming first-year students, and the topic turned to the ways technology has changed since we were in college. One dad bemoaned the increasing preference for texting over telephone conversations (not to mention face-to-face conversations.)

He went on to point out the dehumanizing effects of social media–a viewpoint that many experts agree with. In fact, heavy Facebook use has been linked with higher rates of depression and general dissatisfaction with life in college students. Yikes!

In their article On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Victoria Wang et al define  a phatic technology as one that “serves to establish, develop and maintain human relationships.” An outcome of this relationship is the formation of a social community (44). If that dad and I had more time (and if I weren’t trying so hard to be agreeable), I might have pointed out some of the ways that texting, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social tools have actually given us additional chances to maintain community and the human touch, especially from a distance.

Because I work in technology, I know all too well that social media has its pitfalls. And I have seen enough cat videos to last for three lifetimes. Yet social media has also enabled me to keep in touch with family on both coasts, receive urgent news instantly, and to experience a sense of community with colleagues, friends, and relatives who may never meet each other in person. (I won’t pretend to speak for traditional-aged college students, who may experience both the need to connect and the need to strike out on their own.)

Writing in Awareness Systems: Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design, Frank Vetere et al found that online phatic interactions fell into four categories:

  1. maintaining an existing relationship
  2. initiating a conversation
  3. developing a new relationship
  4. being polite and observing social norms (183).

It is this fourth category, the idea of being polite, that critics seem to focus on the most. Can it be that people understand the rules of “Twittiquette,” but they have in the meantime lost their ability to function in polite society? For example, in a humorous video treatment, YouTube user evmoneytv pokes fun at our apparent struggles with understanding how to wait in line (“How to stand in line”). We clearly need help relearning our manners.

In fact, as Frank Vetere and his co-authors point out, phatic systems are designed precisely to convey significance and meaning by taking the shortest path possible — cutting the line, if you will (178). The real differentiator for modern phatic technologies is not rejection of good manners, but an emphasis on speed. We can complete social transactions almost instantaneously, compared to some of our older methods (like letter-writing). We shorten our messages or leave out some of the details in order to keep up the pace. For some of us, the speed adds a sense of anxiety as we try to stay connected to our communities. And when we’re anxious, we can forget our manners.

Certainly we feel wistful about the joy of reading a beautifully-written letter or the thrill of hearing the voice of a loved one, but let’s not assume that new technologies completely eliminate the human touch. Remember what your mama taught you, and follow the Golden Rule–we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go along.


evmoneytv (2010).  How to stand in line.

Gibbs, M. (2009). The first 10 rules of Twittiquette.

Markopoulos, P., De Ruyter, B., Mackay, W., eds (2009). Awareness Systems : Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design. (2013). Is Facebook Ruining Our Social Skills? [Infographic] .

V. Wang, J. V. Tucker, T. E. Rihll (2011). On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Technology in Society, Volume 33, Issues 1–2. (

Disney’s MagicBands: Magical contextual marketing

Disney CastleHave you ever been to Disneyworld and wished you could skip the long lines, pay for the food without digging out your wallet, or just make the experience a one-of-a kind memory for your children? Disney is spending billions to roll out RFID wristbands that allow you to smooth over all the transactions a typical Disney vacation entails.

It’s all part of the My Disney Experience, which also includes a website, smartphone apps, and FastPass+, which allows you to skip long lines at the rides.

On the surface, this idea sounds like it could be useful: imagine how excited your child would be if Mickey greeted him by name. Imagine the ease of room key and credit card on a wristband. But when the longterm implications for privacy, marketing, and data are considered, there are more questions than answers..

Big data? Try enormous data. The ability to collect from an audience of minors–who normally can’t opt in to Facebook  or other data-rich experiences–may raise ethical concerns that have yet to be explored.

What do you think? Is it all a tempest in a (Mad Tea Party) teacup? Or is this something else?

Big Brother Mickey Mouse to monitor behavior via Disney’s MyMagic+ RFID wristbands