I want to talk to you a little bit about snakes. Specifically, pythons and vipers. (Well, sorta.)
When I was researching this topic, I pretty much thought a snake was a snake. After all, they all have scales and embody the devil — right? But I was wrong.
Pythons move in rectilinear progression. Scientists actually used to think they used their ribs to "walk." Instead, they use their scales and muscles to pick up parts of their body off the ground and move forward in a straight line by scrunching and expanding. Like a very scary inch worm. They're big, slow (they move at about 1 mph) and non-venomous. They're constrictors, so they squeeze you until you die and then eat you. Fun!
Vipers use undulatory locomotion — favorite phrase of the week! — to propel themselves. It's that serpentine movement we're all used to. They're small, fast and venomous.
But humans aren't like snakes. Humans are herd animals.
I know we don’t like to think of ourselves as equal to the other creatures that walk this earth. We cook our food and use computers, after all. We build robots and shoot humans (and monkeys and dogs) into space! We must be more advanced.
But at our core, we are herd animals.
We’re just not as fierce as some other animals — specifically the predators I think we like to associate ourselves with. Who doesn't have a CEO who considers himself or herself a "lion of industry?"
We don’t have the speed of cheetahs, the strength of bears or the armor of rhinos. In fact, we’re pretty weak.
Take me for example. I don’t have a lot of fat to survive a long winter. I’m not strong enough to fight off large predators. I have no camouflage, venom or other defenses.
No, humans have only survived because we have each other. Once we figured out the basics of food, water, fire and shelter, we were able to create specialization and division of labor. Some of us hunted. Others gathered. We shared food. We protected each other and raised children together.
I don’t know about you. I think that’s pretty cool.
Group > Individual
But this evolutionary dynamic has one critical repercussion: The group is held far above the individual.
As a result, our brains desire conformity.
Think about your group of friends. Shut your eyes. Really take a minute.
- What do they look like?
- What are their characteristics?
- What do you like most about them?
Most of my friends are white, college-educated and have a similar socio-economic status. I prefer being around people who are smart, strong-willed, hard-working and ambitious.
If I’m honest, they’re not too dissimilar to me. Or, more likely, they reflect my favorite parts of myself.
This affinity for conformity goes well beyond our friendships. Which brings me to social influence and social conformity.
We all conform to social norms. We follow (most) traffic laws. Sure, we speed, but usually within that grey zone of 10 mph over the speed limit. We dress up for weddings and funerals. We bring a class of wine to parties and speak quietly in libraries.
These are all behaviors we don't even think about. They were taught to us through our everyday social interactions throughout our entire lives. And these social norms dictate our behavior.
Think back to high school. (I'm sure it was a super awesome time for all of us.) The popular kids set the canon for what was “cool” and the rest of us spent way too much energy trying to catch up. We wanted to belong.
Some conformity is referred to as non-conscious automatic mimicry. Like when we yawn after seeing someone else yawn.
But conformity generally describes how we adjust our behavior and thinking to the rules of the group. It’s something psychologists have been interested in for a long time.
Asch + Conformity
In the 1950s, Polish-American psychologist Solomon Asch performed a simple test on small groups of people sat around a table.
His study — looking at conformity and social influence — was presented under the guise of a study on visual perception.
Volunteers were shown a standard line and three comparison lines. Then they were asked to identify which of the three lines matched the comparison line.
Now anyone with their glasses on would be able to tell you it’s B.
But imagine sitting there. You're in a room with 5 strangers. You'll respond last. The person to the left of you says the answer A.
Huh? You shrug it off. He looks a little weird anyway. Then the next person responds with A.
You’d probably start wondering if you were stroking out. Or going blind. Or have a brain tumor...
What the volunteers didn’t realize was that everyone else in the group was a plant. The last person to respond was the only true participant. A common deception in studies — sneaky scientists.
In every group, the real participant struggled. Should they trust their own eyes or go with the group?
And here’s the disturbing part: more than a third of participants gave the wrong answer.
Asch and other researchers have found people more likely to conform if:
- They’re made to feel incompetent or insecure
- They’re in a group of three or more
- Everyone else agrees
- They feel as if others are watching
Think about a time you’ve been excluded from a group. Or different in some way. Again, think back to high school.
Were you bullied? Didn’t quite fit in? Perhaps you were defined by your group of friends — nerds, goths, athletes or mathletes.
Remember how you felt? Different. Rejected. Alone. It sucks in the short-term. And absolutely brutal to experience for years, even decades.
You may be the oldest engineer on your team. Or the youngest. Perhaps you use Emacs and everyone else uses Vim. You're the only woman or person of color. The only person with depression or anxiety. Maybe you have diabetes or a disability. You're married. Have children. Care for an ailing parent. You're gay. You're straight. You're transgender.
We’re all a bit different. I think that should be celebrated.
But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, often, our differences divide us. Or create subtle social norms that drive our behavior — and the behavior of those around us.
I’m an extrovert. But I was raised in a household of three extremely sensitive, introverted artists — talk about stereotypes.
Through years of attrition, they taught me to be sensitive to the way introverts communicate. I recognize that the quietest voices in the room are sometimes the most valuable.
Against all my extroverted instincts, I hold my words to allow the thoughtful introverts around me to gather and convey their thoughts. It takes energy but it is absolutely worth the effort.
It's Hard But Worth It
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that embracing differences is hard. Especially at work. We all have a job to do.
Social diversity — the kind that comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation — can cause conflict, discomfort, distrust, disrespect and more restricted communication.
That all sounds awful. Is there an upside? Hell yes.
Being exposed to diversity alters the way you think.
- Diversity enhances creativity and innovation
- It encourages teams to seek out different perspectives
- It improves decision-making and problem-solving
- And it increases the bottom line of organizations
I’m not making this up. There are decades of research to support this. NCWIT — the National Center for Women and Information Technology — located in Boulder, is a great resource for more information on this topic.
Unsurprisingly, I’m a woman in tech. This term gets thrown around a lot. And god knows everyone is well aware of the diversity problem in tech.
I’m not asking you to solve it. Or implement changes at work. Or even really care.
What I’m going to ask you to do is pay attention. For a few minutes, I want you to let go of assumptions or questions or rebuttals. I want you to hear me. To feel empathy for my experience. And the experience of so many others around you.
I’m the only female engineer on my team. In 95% of the meetings I attend, I’m the only woman in the room.
And while that in and of itself isn’t that bad…
A lot of the time, it doesn't feel like the left picture below. It feels like the one to the right.
I’m different. And that subtle social cue makes it just that much harder to speak up. To take a risk and share an opinion. Because if I go against the group again, I risk being further isolated.
That’s heavy, I know. And I want to be clear: I’m not asking you to solve diversity issues in tech. It is so much bigger than you and me.
What I am asking of you is to do one thing. Just one thing.
At your next meeting observe those around you. Who’s different and who’s the same? Is their behavior equal? Are those who are different given a chance to speak and are their ideas really heard? If the idea is implemented, is credit given to the correct person?
Search your own assumptions and actions. We can all share more empathy with those around us. And make tech more awesome in the process.