Not a Pipeline, it is a Lake!

Monday, November 18, 2019
...it is a Lake

In her essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 6, 2019), Pamela Newkirk, from New York University, laments the failure of academia to diversify despite decades of declared commitment and considerable financial investment. This costly failure is another illustration of the non-intuitive nature of systemic problems. Our impulse is to address them using piecemeal solutions and acting on the “least effective leverage points”. Indeed, Complex Systems scientist Donella Meadows, identifies ten types of leverage points that can be used to intervene in a system, from the most often used and least effective, to the least often used and most transformational. 

Least effective leverage consists of modulating constants, variables, and other visible parameters in a system. Universities attempting to increase diversity have modulated quotas, criteria, and incentives… to little lasting impact.  Complex systems, such as universities, are robust and resilient. They are designed to deliver an outcome; they will adapt to any changes that attempt to deviate from that outcome; they absorb changes, and return to their steady state.

The most effective leverage is “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.” Systems emerge out of paradigms and power structures. They are manifestations of value sets and assumptions. Thus, resilient qualities of systems are imbued with these values and assumptions. The persistent lack of diversity in academia and STEM signals a feature of the system, not a bug; that the lack of diversity is interwoven in the values and assumptions underlying the system. Changing it requires a willingness to re-examine the tacit assumptions and values underlying higher education and STEM.  

Interestingly, almost every conversation about diversity and inclusion in STEM uses the metaphor of pipeline. This conjures the image of a finite, bounded supply, flowing along a fixed timeline. A pipeline is subject to clogging, shrinking and leaking, but it cannot expand and grow. This allows every stakeholder to point to the finiteness and small size of the pipeline at their juncture and lament the impossibility of seeing things change in any significant way anytime soon. 

This pipeline metaphor has been with us for decades and used repeatedly to explain and excuse our failures. Our efforts at diversifying the IT workforce are choked by a narrow pipeline incapable of producing a more diverse outcome. Our efforts at having more African American, women, Hispanic, STEM Ph.D.’s is limited by the size of the corresponding M.S. and B.S. pipelines. Our efforts at attracting more African American, Hispanic, women, in STEM majors are bound by the pipeline coming out of high schools. High school teachers and counselors point back to middle school. The end result is the lack of progress for decades. It is time to examine this metaphor and the assumptions underlying it.

The scarcity of talent myth: The pipeline metaphor implies that human intellectual potential and abilities are fixed at birth. Some have it, and belong in the pipeline, while others do not and are excluded. Our job as educators, parents, employers and mentors is then to simply triage; to “discover” the talents and capacities of students and employees rather than help cultivate and develop them. Along with this myth is also the notion that we are born into one exclusive category, i.e., the math wiz, the tinkerer, the problem solver, the artist, the communicator, and so on. 

In our current pipeline, discovering one talent too often rules out all others, making us uni-dimensional thinkers and performers. This single-track destiny is reinforced by our educational and professional curricula. Choosing a discipline of study progressively builds a barrier to transitioning into other disciplines and occupations. 

In her Growth Mindset research and book, Carol Dweck debunked the myth of fixed destiny. She established that intellectual abilities can be developed in every student; that work and guided practice are far more influential than genetics in determining what people can master. Advances in neuroscience have further confirmed the malleability of the brain and humans’ ability to develop intellectual abilities at any age. Every student can become good in math; every student, with the right mentoring and effort can become a good computer scientist, at any age, at any point in their curriculum or career. (STEM) Education cannot be a pipeline with a single, narrow entry point. Instead, it is a complex web with a multitude of entry points.

The Linear Career Path Myth: We are more than our current profession. With the job market changing more and more rapidly and with life expectancy rising, we are already witnessing adults holding multiple careers and a diversity of careers in a lifetime. In computing, the discipline has changed so much in the past decades than no IT professional is doing today the same work for which they were hired 10 or 20 years ago. Continuous training and retraining are a necessity; and they do not have to be in the same discipline. It is very conceivable, and in fact very desirable, to hold a diversity of careers rather than remain in a single discipline. The richness of one’s itinerary can stem from the variety of disciplines including the sciences, the arts, and public service as examples. This again looks like a web of interconnected highways rather than a linear leaking pipeline.

Forget the pipeline, look in the lake! Once we shatter the pipeline, diversity and inclusion become much more attainable. We do not need to sit at the end of the pipeline and wait for the square fish to come out of it ready for us. We have access to the whole lake with its diversity of shapes, colors, and sizes. There is an abundance of talent, of potential, and eagerness to contribute from students, employees, and citizens, who have not followed the usual linear path, and who for some reason did not fit the narrow shape of the pipeline or were too adventurous and escaped from it preferring freedom in the lake. 

Diversity and inclusion are possible. Diversity and inclusion are a rewarding necessity.

-Dean Fatma Mili

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