Universities want to push the limits of knowledge. We do that through creating the circumstances for the best possible research and the best possible teaching. And the most important resource we have is brainpower.
Most research happens in teams, groups, labs or in some other social context. There are few examples of great breakthroughs made by people who don’t work with other researchers. Teaching programs are built in the same way, through teamwork.
For me, that means that when we hire people, we should think not only about finding the best individual, but also about building the best team. What do we need in order to do that? How can we find what we need? What are the properties of great teams?
One property of high performing teams is that they include people of diverse backgrounds. The intuitive explanation for this is easy: If your group consists of individuals with different backgrounds, they are likely to have different perspectives. And if they bring these different perspectives to the projects you are pursuing, it enhances the likelihood of finding creative new solutions.
If we think just about gender diversity, about making sure that our teams include men and women, the research is compelling. For example, a recent publication on group intelligence (popularized at Science Daily) finds that the creativity of groups is not related to the intelligence of individuals in the group. But one of the things creativity is related to, is the number of women in the group; mixed groups perform best. Few pursuits have a greater need for creativity than research and teaching; the consequences begin to be clear.
McKinsey’s series of reports, called Women Matter, document how the quality of the workplace is better in companies with nearly gender-balanced leadership teams. And they document that those companies are also more profitable, something discussed at length in Avivah Wittenberg-Cox‘s book How Women Mean Business: A Step-by-Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business.
What does this mean for a university, especially for a department or a research team in a hiring situation? Is there research showing that mixed gender research teams perform better by certain criteria? Can we say that the quality of science is better when the team is mixed?
There are some straightforward answers to these kinds of questions. For example, we know that gender-balanced workplaces are better workplaces, and we know that productivity and performance are related to the quality of the workplace, so we know that gender-balanced workplaces give higher performance.
But what about the science itself? Can we say that the research behind drug development will be better if it is carried out in a mixed team? Can we say that we’ll get higher quality bridge design from mixed teams of engineers? Research on topics like these is emerging, too. Leaders of universities need to learn about this and initiate appropriate actions at their institutions.
The evidence suggests that it’s smart to have gender-balanced groups. The arguments aren’t about social justice; they’re about the quality of the work. I’ve written some about this in an article called Scientific (E)quality, in the June issue of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews.
Much more important is an exciting opportunity to discuss the relationship between gender equality and scientific quality. This is a central topic at the European Gender Summit in November, 2011. I’ll be speaking there, as will many others from the Gender in Science (genSET) project. Join us!
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