Are gender stereotypes preventing women from pursuing careers in STEM fields? Do women innately have “softer” skills that could make them successful data scientists? I’m an advocate for STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). I’m also a coach and trainer who teaches collaborative communication skills to technical professionals. Not surprisingly, I find this to be an interesting discussion.
In the field of data science, the numbers don’t lie. While the number of female data scientists is currently disproportionate to men, the employment demands and signs from academia are encouraging. We may have to fight a little harder to break down the stereotypes that have prevented women from entering STEM fields for many years, but it’s worth the fight. Setting the stage now will inspire future generations to see that they too can be a data scientist. (Quoted from Tanja Rueckert’s article Numbers don’t lie: Why women must fill the data science demand)
Rueckert cites three “stereotypically female traits” that make for a successful data scientist: communication, collaboration and perspective. Female data scientists are entering a man’s world…for now. In coaching seasoned female executives or a recent MBA’s entering the workforce, women struggle to find their voice and develop greater confidence and gravitas.
Developing a performance of gravitas means an awareness of intonation when they speak. I listen to how a young woman’s voice rises at the end of their sentences. We play with creative imitation and use other tools of the theatre to transform how they communicate. We can learn to perform both who we are and who we are becoming. A recent female MBA graduate shared how an interviewer asked her how should could successfully manage projects, given how “nice” she is. Was she “aggressive enough” for the role? Female executives might be great at collaboration but they still have to “show teeth if needed,” as one of my coaching clients recently put it.
While stereotypes can hold us back, they don’t have to. They can be a source of creativity for developing new performances. My guess is that the more play and improvisational performance is brought into STE(A)M education and the workplace, the more women (and men) will develop and create new ways of performing as data scientists.
“I feel closer to the participants in this workshop then I do to my team at work.”
We received this comment from a participant in an R&D workshop I recently co-led with my colleague Dr. Raquell Holmes, the founder of improvscience. The workshop was part of an incubation process to develop an innovative approach to strengthen the communication and collaboration capabilities of data scientists, analysts, engineers and developers.
Raquell and I have been seeking ways to help technical professionals at all management levels develop their communication and collaborative skills for a long while. We have both been keenly aware of the need. Raquell is a pioneer in science communications and has worked with thousands of technical people to develop these softer skills. As a longtime recruiter of quantitative talent, my clients are always looking for analytical professionals who are also strong communicators. It is often the case that qualified candidates are hard to find.
Oftentimes a talented data scientist will struggle to communicate the value of his/her work. There is an art to telling the story that lies within the data; these skills are rarely taught to technical professionals. As organizations put more demands on data scientists and other technical talent to work cross functionally, there is a greater need to strengthen communication and collaborative skills. How do you ask questions in the midst of creating new technologies and products? We help people talk to each other so that they don’t get too far down the line without being able to catch important technical issues.
Our expertise is creating playful environments where people have the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence, get out of their comfort zones and learn new relational skills. We bring improvisation, executive coaching, human resources experience and technical expertise together in our trainings through our unique partnership.
Experiential learning environments are particularly helpful to teams of people from different countries and cultures. People acquire a greater ability to collaborate and innovate. When taken further, multiple engagements enable a serious developmental process so that talent at every level can contribute to the overall needs of the organization and their functions.
Earlier this fall I led a workshop at New York Institute of Technology entitled Talking Politics. Amy Bravo, an innovative educator and NYIT’s Senior Director of International and Experiential Education, invited me to design an improvisational workshop that could help undergraduate students talk to each other about the Presidential campaign without rancor. (She also asked me to lead an improv workshop on voter registration.) As a lifelong activist, I was thrilled.
As we head in to the final days of this horribly long and miserably negative Presidential campaign, I have been thinking about this workshop and the hope it gave me and the participants when it comes to the future of our democracy.
In this fun and interactive workshop the focus was on the performance of curiosity. I asked the question, “Can we find a way to our shared concerns as we head into the 2016 Presidential election, even if we don’t agree when it comes to how we will be voting?” By creating and performing curiosity we discovered things we never imagined. By learning the basic rules of improvisation – the ability to say “yes” and to actively listen, accept “offers” and build with them – we found our way to our shared humanity, concerns and passions, even while we “disagreed.”
“I think the learning tools of improvisation help students learn how we typically listen and converse,” said Rich. “We tend to listen to ourselves more when we speak instead of being fully present. We think about what we’re going to say and do not respond to what the other person is saying. Listening and conversing skills become much more vital because conversations can become contentious if we don’t listen to the other’s point of view.”
All too often we engage in conversation about our disagreements in the service of trying to change the other person’s mind, rather than finding out more about why or how they came to have their point of view. We live in a culture that is obsessed with knowing, being right and winning, so much so that we hardly hear what the “other side” has to say. We shut each other down. We are dismissive, judgmental and self-righteous. This is how most Americans engage in political discourse. No wonder so many Americans are feeling angry and fearful.
During the debrief after the Talking Politics workshop I asked the students to share their experience of the political conversations that took place that afternoon. One student said that he was surprised how calm and open the conversations were because people were really listening to each other. Following our curiosity – asking questions to learn more, to open things up and not shut things down – is risky. And it can be very intimate. And intimacy is scary. But divisiveness and rancor is even scarier if our democracy is to develop and thrive.
Join the international performance activism movement – perform curiosity and help recreate our democracy.
I recently returned from a week in San Jose, Costa Rica with Patch Adams, M.D. and 45 other humanitarian clowns. Patch Adams is well known from the Hollywood version of his life, starring Robin Williams. The real Patch Adams is an activist for peace, justice and care for all people. As he says on his website: “My life has been a dance with humanity.” What an honor to be part of his ensemble of healing clowns!
I first met Patch through our mutual friend, Dr. Lois Holzman and my longtime mentor Dr. Fred Newman. Our paths crossed again during the last two Performing the World (PTW) conferences, when Patch led workshops and attended sessions. Two years ago I followed him around at PTW and at the end of the conference he gifted me with rubber snot and said, “I don’t give many people ‘the snot,’ and it’s rare that I give it to women, because they tend not to wear it.” I was honored. Here I am wearing the snot waiting for Patch to begin his lecture at Costa Rica University surrounded by some of the students who came dressed as clowns.
As a longtime community organizer, political and performance activist, it was enormously inspiring and gratifying to study and play with Patch and the other key organizers for the trip, Susan Parenti, the founder of the School for Designing a Society, Dario Solina and Mark Enslin. I learned a great deal from each of them. We spent two days clowning and caring in La Carpio, the slums of San Jose where mostly undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants live in dire poverty right next to the landfill garbage dump for all of San Jose. The other days were spent clowning and caring in a nursing home, a school for disabled children, a women’s prison, a psychiatric hospital and at San Jose University, where Patch gave a lecture to medical students and others in a public forum.
In workshops with Patch and Susan we used the activity of writing “false statements” as a way to envision a better world. What do we want, for ourselves and for our world, even if it is not yet true? The first false statement that I wrote is “There is no poverty.” Later we wrote the intermediary steps towards making our false statements a reality. I wrote the following as my intermediary step towards making “there is no poverty” a reality: Those of us with privilege must use and give it to build and create something new with what is. I am more inspired than ever to do this through my work in New York building the All Stars Project , organizing in the poor community with Dr. Lenora Fulani and others.
This is La Carpio:
There aren’t a lot of words to express the experience of being in La Carpio with the community of caring and loving clowns, but I will attempt to give some flavor with a few words and some photographs. We began by parading through the neighborhood, clowning with the community – young and old. “Payasos!”
One set of parents beckoned me into their home where they showed me their teenage daughter who was disabled in some way – it was hard to tell what she suffered from. They were clearly asking me to cheer/comfort her, which I did. I was very touched by their wisdom and by the development that has been created in this most poor community by local organizers and by yearly visits by Patch and his invading force of loving and caring clowns. It was very meaningful to be invited into their home.
We organized as many adults and children as possible to join us as we headed to the small (concrete) park for a show.
A little girl took my hand and wanted to walk with me (pictured below). She was delightful, so full of life; she was chatting up a storm with me! I kept smiling, listening and saying, “Si!” I learned that language is never a barrier to love someone. She had no shoes on. Shoes are a very sought after commodity in La Carpio. We take it for granted that people have shoes in our part of the world. Also below is one of my favorite photos; I am sitting with a woman who is sorting through a bag of used shoes to see which can be recycled. I was simply there to be with her. Occasionally I’d nod as a way of agreeing that a pair of shoes looked worth keeping. Clowns do not have to be funny, but they do need to be loving.
It was a hot, sunny day so at some point I pointed to the little girl’s feet and asked, “Caliente?” She nodded yes. I tried to carry her but she was too heavy. I asked one of the local male student clowns to help and I saw her later in the park – my sweet friend .I learned a lot about the simplicity of play and it’s healing power. We sat in the park waiting for performances to begin and I handed a small percussion “egg” to a little girl and when she shook it I danced in my seat, and when she stopped, I stopped. Her laugh was so wonderful! The simple joy of play!
During Patch’s lecture at the University he focused on reframing the idea of the clown. Clowning is loving humanity, “it is a trick to get love close.” Patch shared what I discovered is very true: “If you are fully dressed as a clown you can love the world, and the world will love you back.” So much of medicine as practiced by most is a “vulgar
business.” For Patch and his followers “The unencumbered practice of care is an ecstatic experience.” This was certainly my experience. Patch chose to use his life to alleviate suffering. He takes clowns into war as “soldiers of love,” going to refugee camps and into the rubble of Haiti post-earthquake, as a few examples.
He reframed the clown as a “love revolutionary” and an “ambassador who is welcomed as a relative.” I experienced all of this. Importantly, Patch shared that this kind of clowning is not about funny. To the extent to which we are funny in our clown costumes it is important to remember that, “Funny is a trick to get love close.”
Most importantly, I learned from Patch and from my personal experience clowning in Costa Rica that care is bi-directional. We receive so much from the people we care for and clown with. They open their hearts to us. I sat with an elderly blind woman, Margarita, at the nursing home and held her hand. She began to cry and told me endless stories in Spanish that I didn’t understand but I knew it was meaningful for both of us that I was there with her, listening and providing comfort and love. I felt so much energy and love going back and forth in how we held hands. Later one of the Spanish-speaking clowns told me that Margarita was talking about her mother, who had died, and the visions she was having.
I asked Patch how I might incorporate all that I’ve learned into my work in New York. He turned to me and said in the most emphatic and loving way, “Try being happy!”
I will end my post with these beautiful words; Patch recited this poem to me (he has memorized hours of poetry) over dinner one night: You Start Dying Slowly by Pablo Neruda:
You start dying slowly
if you do not travel,
if you do not read,
If you do not listen to the sounds of life,
If you do not appreciate yourself.
You start dying slowly
When you kill your self-esteem;
When you do not let others help you.
You start dying slowly
If you become a slave of your habits,
Walking everyday on the same paths…
If you do not change your routine,
If you do not wear different colours
Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.
You start dying slowly
If you avoid to feel passion
And their turbulent emotions;
Those which make your eyes glisten
And your heart beat fast.
You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice…
As a workshop facilitator, comic educator and coach, I devote a great deal of time and energy to the “performance of appreciation” because appreciating others is not something that “comes naturally” to most of us. We live in a culture that is increasingly focused on rancor and critiques, with a media establishment that insists on constantly highlighting our differences, rather than celebrating our shared humanity. All of this means that we have to work that much harder to appreciate each other.
One of the many things that I love about improvisation is that there is no such thing as “getting it right” or “getting it wrong.” Through the simple rules of improvisation we listen to each other and we build with whatever “offers” we are given. A safe and creative space is built through the acceptance and appreciation of others and what they have to give. In this space people can step out of their comfort zones to perform in new ways. In this improvisational environment people make discoveries, grow, and develop in unexpected ways.
As a leader, I take seriously my own performance of “yes, and.” I accept all “offers” from the people I am working with without judgment. Leadership means figuring out how to build with what you’ve got.
Appreciation is a key component to building the environment needed in order for people to take risks, collaborate, build with our differences, create something new, and innovate.
We don’t have to agree, but we do need to appreciate the other person’s point of view. In this way, we perform as radical humanists.
What an amazing tool we have in the simple act of appreciating others! Perhaps we don’t appreciate that enough.
Given the events in Orlando, many of us have been thinking about fear (or experiencing fear).
As a coach and trainer I work with individuals and groups to help people leave their comfort zones, face their fears and perform other than who they are. My role is to give people what they need to find the joy in this sometimes frightening activity. Here’s a few of the essential ingredients in my recipe for development:
Appreciation. We all know the difference between working with and for someone who appreciates our contribution, it drives us to give more and take more risks. By taking a moment to express appreciation for the people in our lives we can have more of the joy and less of the fear. By appreciating others we touch our shared humanity.
Play and Performance. We may have reached the point in human history where a new paradigm for human development can emerge. My mentor and colleague, Dr. Lois Holzman, gave a talk at TEDxNavesink that is worth watching.
In this talk, Dr. Holzman documents the importance of play in our growth and development throughout our entire lives. Babies and toddlers play their way to growth. They learn how to talk, draw, dance, even think, through playing at what they’re not yet—performing it before they know it. Lucky for us non-babies, the mystery of exactly why and how play is developmental has been revealed and put to use with adults! Across the globe, from board rooms to therapy rooms, from hospital wards to refugee camps, “play revolutionaries” are helping people and communities embrace play as a way to keep developing.
Humor. I take humor seriously; it is fundamental to who we are as human beings! Laughter brings us closer. We face adversity by discovering the joy and the ridiculousness of being alive through the social activity of creating humor with others.
Creativity. As my colleague and author Cathy Salit puts it in her book Performance Breakthrough we can “create with crap.”
Can we take our collective creativity and bring it more consciously and more productively into everyday life and work? Can we create something out of the nasty arguments between colleagues, the disrespectful attitude of a boss or peers, the email system that insists on going over quota with no warning, our impatience with the mistakes of a subordinate, our own belief that everyone else is the problem? The answer is yes (and yes and yes and yes…). Through performance, we can create new ways of thinking, new emotions, new language, new characters and new ideas via new scenes and new plays.
In the face of fear we can – we must – find joy by improvising, appreciating, performing, playing, laughing and creating. Let’s develop!
This past Sunday the New York Times Magazine published a special issue on Worklife: Rethinking the office for an always-on economy. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team gets at the heart of why innovative corporations and academic institutions have embraced improvisation and performance.
A number of the findings of the Project Aristotle researchers appear to be fundamentals of improvisation.
…the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.
“Average social sensitivity” is something that improv training creates in all of us – we learn to create “group mind,” we make others look good, we allow ourselves to actively listen so that we can pick up on tone of voice, expressions and other nonverbal cues – these are the building blocks of good improvisation.
For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.
However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.
Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.
While Google built algorithms to measure and scale “particular norms” that led to the establishment of “psychologically safe environments,” following the rules of improvisation create a safe environment where participants learn to agree, to say “yes,” and to find their way to collaboration, rather than disagreement. I wholeheartedly agree that communication and empathy are building blocks of forging “real connections,” but I would offer that along with building an algorithm (this is Google, after all), we also need to build an improvisational, performance-oriented environment. When we perform we are able to be who we are becoming, we can be other than who we are, we can agree even when we “feel” like disagreeing.
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.
The best theatre directors ensure that their actors feel “psychologically safe” in order to express the messiness of our lives, emotionally and otherwise. The paragraph above made me think a lot about being an actor and about performance. It reminded me of conversations that I participated in as a member of the Castillo Theatre ensemble with our former Artistic Director, Fred Newman. Newman was a brilliant director and public philosopher (he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford) who, as a practicing social therapist, developed a psychology of becoming that introduced performance as a method of growth and development. We used to have conversations with Fred about traditional Method acting and the notion that one could “lose oneself in a character,” an odd notion, as we are always and at once who we are, and who we are becoming. We cannot leave part of our personality or “inner life” at home; we take ourselves wherever we go. What we can do is perform.
Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. Rozovsky herself was reminded of this midway through her work with the Project Aristotle team. ‘‘We were in a meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent out a note afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It was like a punch to the gut. I was already upset about making this mistake, and this note totally played on my insecurities.’’
Along with active listening, saying “yes,” building with what others give you (yes, and…), one of the important tenets of improvisation is to embrace mistakes. In teaching improv and facilitating improv workshops we direct students to joyfully perform, “Yay, I made a mistake!” Why? Because mistakes and failure is where creativity lies.
The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.
The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.
With all due respect to Google, Project Aristotle and “employee performance optimization,” companies – large and small – that care about their employees and improving our lives at work would do well to bring performance, play and improvisation into the workplace.
After seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical, Hamilton and listening (endlessly) to the score, his lyrics and music have been inspiring me on a daily basis.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the professional and personal activity of “taking a shot,” pursuing a dream or making the choice to change careers or jobs. In my work as an executive coach I often help people pursue new professional challenges using a performance-based approach. Many of my clients struggle to fulfill their potential and to see the myriad of possibilities that lie in front of them. We can easily become dispirited living in our turbulent and chaotic world and yet we can…
Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!
Learning to live in the moment means embracing the words that the Schuyler sisters sing:
History is happening.
And we are making history as we create our lives. We perform in ensembles – some of us perform on the Broadways stage in Hamilton, others perform in ensemblesat the office or in our living rooms, but performers we are.
A wonderful thing about being human is that we can (and we must) learn from failure. We can play any scene over or with a new emotion or intention. We can always grow.
Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints,
it takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway,
we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. and if there’s a reason I’m still alive
when so many have died, then I’m willin’ to wait for it.
Don’t wait too long. Take Hamilton’s words to heart:
When this week’s edition of The Economist arrived I looked at the cover story headline and thought, “This is the perfect title for a new blog post!” Although it is true that the media and certain public figures are “playing” with our fears in a negative way, when I saw the word playing the improviser in me started playing in a positive way!
You see, it turns out that I had saved the illustration below to help inspire a new blog post; after all, ’tis the season for joy and it’s a moment when many Americans are fearful:
I love the insertion of IMPROV between JOY and FEAR. Why? Because performance is the human ability to simultaneously be who we are and who we are not/who we are becoming. In the midst of the media assault and events that create our collective (and individual) fear, it can be difficult to embrace the things and people in our lives that create joy. As a member of an improvisational ensemble, we often find ourselves on stage jumping into our fears and in the relational activity of creating scenes with others we find joy.
And so it is in life as lived. Playing with fear means taking Shakespeare’s famous quote “All the world’s a stage” seriously. When we create with others, using everything we’ve got to create with, including our fears, we transform; we can be who we are (fearful) and who we are not (joyous). When we create our lives we embrace all of who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming.
‘Tis the season to be improvising!
Humanize the Interview Process – Become a Relational Recruiter
There have been some interesting reports about employee retention and turnover that started me thinking about why people look for new opportunities and how that impacts recruiting. The Society for Human Resource Management recently published a report entitled “Skills Gap, Turnover Are Top Talent Concerns” in which they found:
About one-fourth of employees reported that they are likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months. They cited unhappiness with current salary (23 percent), followed by looking for a better opportunity (19 percent), not feeling valued (16 percent) and unhappiness with growth opportunities (13 percent).
Indeed.com just published their Talent Attraction Study: What Matters to the Modern Candidate in which they found:
71% of people are actively looking or open to a new job, and 90% of people hired within the past year actively looked for a job within six months prior to being hired. Also, 65% look at new jobs again within 91 days of starting a new job, leading us to believe that no one is “passive” about their career in 2015.
Indeed’s conclusion that “no one is passive about their career in 2015” led me to think about what people mean when they say they want “a better opportunity.” On one hand, there is always going to be a grouping of people who will opportunistically move for better compensation packages. Resumes that show a new position every 2-3 years are often representative of the person who is moving for better salary. On the other hand, the more interesting question is what do we need to do to make people “feel valued” from the moment we reach out to them in the recruiting process.
All too often hiring managers and recruiters can forget that every aspect of the recruitment process is an opportunity to let potential hires know they are valued. Recruitment agencies and internal recruiters ought to convey in their initial outreach that the human equation is what matters, not filling the job; we are in a relationship-oriented business. All too often the relational aspect of recruiting and hiring is second to the need for speed and efficiency in recruiting which can lead to a commoditized process in which candidates feel like a cog in the wheel, rather than a respected and valued future member of an organization.
We are human all the time. We are foolish to turn job interviews, such potentially fun and fizzy human processes, into tense and grovelly affairs.
As a recruiter who is also an improviser, the activity of creating conversation is where I put my focus. Again, I appreciate Ryan’s perspective:
If you care about talent, you won’t want to interview people from a script. You’ll want to sit down with them next to a whiteboard and brainstorm like crazy. How else will you know whether your energies resonate together?
Once I’ve established that a person is qualified for the role, I abandon “interview questions” all together in favor of having a wide-ranging conversation. We can learn valuable information about a candidate when we allow ourselves to explore who someone is in the world, how they express their intellectual curiosity, and discover their goals both personally and professionally. In the long run recruiting is about building rapport. It is refreshing to create the conditions that eliminate the hierarchical framework that comes with a more traditional recruiting paradigm in favor of getting to know each other.