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“We’re not talking about a glass ceiling here. We’re talking about a glass cliff”

Cisco CTO Monique Morrow believes companies should radically change their business philosophy

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Monique Morrow, CTO and Evangelist at Cisco.

Monique Morrow is whispering. We are at Arctic 15, a conference for digital entrepreneurs in Helsinki where multiple languages are distilled into one: that of computer programming.

This is where Morrow, Humanized Internet pioneer and the chief technology officer (CTO) of Cisco’s New Frontiers Development and Engineering program, chooses to be interviewed as she prepares to leave the company after 12 years.

If you subject people constantly to a crunch situation, they’ll burn out

In this spirit of multi-tasking, Morrow has also co-edited The Internet of Women, a book that talks about cultural change and women’s contribution to innovation. One of the most important female voices in the digital world, she answers questions from EL PAÍS on the role of women in technology, globalization, multi-tasking teams, big data management and stress in the workplace.

Question. You speak in terms of neutrality as opposed to gender equality. Why?

Answer. You have a feminine side just as I have a masculine side. What I am asking for is neutrality. Everyone has all the character traits but in different proportions. The challenge lies in being inclusive. Men, women, people of color or different sexual orientation and Asperger sufferers all need to be included. There’s probably a couple of generations to go before we can achieve this. On the other hand, it occurs to me that we’re in the 21st century. How come we are still thinking in terms of a few generations? According to estimates, gender equality in workplaces could generate as much as €8 trillion worldwide.

Q. How can the current trend be changed?

A. Well, I don’t believe it’s a question of waiting several generations. You have to make it mandatory within the company. CTOs need to take the initiative and oblige whatever company they are in to adopt an inclusive policy. It’s just one element that businesses should adopt as part of a general change of approach. Another is to decide what to reward. We don’t reward collaboration, for example, but we do, more than anything else, reward staying late at work. Or being available 24/7 for emergencies, which is something that is becoming increasingly common.

Technology should help tackle the problem of workplace stress.
Technology should help tackle the problem of workplace stress.

I believe we should reward a different kind of behavior at work and create a sort of social currency. The nature of this reward can be discussed – it could be in the form of an economic bonus or some other perk. The key is to reward the kind of behavior we wish to establish in the company. For example, when someone chooses their holidays, they should be rewarded. When someone fails to answer emails over the weekend, they should be rewarded. In Silicon Valley, the situation has become so desperate that sometimes they try futile strategies such as declaring a day of not reading emails, but it doesn’t work.

Q. What you are talking about is getting rid of the crunch – a tech term for a period of intense work.

A. Nobody likes crunch time, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. We’re all tired. The crunch has been incorporated into the competitive culture. But you can be competitive and also look after the human being. Sometimes we forget that the people we are working with are human. If you subject people constantly to a crunch situation, forcing them to take on an endless stream of tasks to fill every waking hour, minute and second of their lives, they will burn out. And it will happen very quickly. This is my philosophical side talking – technology has two sides. On the one hand it nurtures new skills, but on the other, it takes them away.

Nobody likes working a ton of extra hours, irrespective of whether you’re a man or a woman

Getting back to women, we’re talking about 51% of the planet. But there are still women who are persecuted for trying to get an education – for example in Nigeria. In September 2015, the UN approved 17 proposals for sustainable global development. The first was to put an end to poverty. The fifth was to put an end to gender inequality. But there’s a huge correlation between the two! For example, when you launch initiatives to encourage women to study technology or science, you realize that you’re tackling the problem too late – the problem sets in much earlier.

Q. In what way?

A. The gender differences have been drummed into girls since they were tiny. If you have a son, he should be brought up from the beginning to understand that all chores are shared. Someone said to me once, ‘Fatherhood isn’t the mother’s job.’ And that also applies to any domestic chore, from cleaning the house to taking out the trash. There’s also the business with toys. Who cares if a boy plays with a doll if he wants to? If you are neutral in the treatment of your children, they will expect to be treated neutrally outside the home. Gender roles are drilled into children by the age of five. A scientist couple who are friends of mine told me that their six-year-old daughter came back from school one and said, “Mom, dad, I can’t study math because I’m not a boy.” It happens that early. That child is now an astrophysicist. But she is an astrophysicist because her parents took the time to explain to her that she could be anything she set her mind to.

Q. Recent research found that code written by women for the open-source software community GitHub was more often approved than code written by men, so long as those doing the approving were ignorant of the programmer’s gender.

Programmer Rachel Nabors made a cartoon illustrating her trouble on Github.
Programmer Rachel Nabors made a cartoon illustrating her trouble on Github.

A. I remember the study. It came out in February 2016. I remember thinking when I read it, “Well, there you are.” There are women who have excellent programming potential, just as there are women who excel at videogames. The problem is that due to cultural pressure, they have to be very determined to do anything with it. At high school, there are already very few girls choosing to be scientists or programmers. And even fewer at university level. Only the most determined see it through. We’re not talking about a glass ceiling here, we’re talking about a glass cliff. Age is another perceived obstacle, particularly when it comes to technology. We convince ourselves that we are too old to be innovative or learn new things. Then there’s the case of the people who believe motherhood and a career are incompatible. In the long run, these perceptions mean that a lot of extremely capable people abandon their careers for good.

Q. How can technology help developing countries?

A. I believe we have a lot to learn from countries everywhere and we should take from each something specific to place in a category called inverse innovation. We need to be wary of techno-colonialism. We need to take time to fully understand the opportunities and solutions technology can offer, and then see how these innovations can be applied around the world.

Q. Which specific area of technology do you see as a global game-changer?

A. I believe augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), videogames, design and blockchain [a secure system for financial transactions using encrypted digital currencies such as bitcoin] have the capacity to trigger the potential of various countries’ economies. We can work out how to apply these technologies to education, health and the design of intelligent cities. Take, for example, the Utopia project for a smart makeover of urban slums. We also have to consider how to introduce the ethical aspect into digital systems.

If companies aren’t compassionate, they won’t survive in the 21st century

Q. In short, technology should help us be more humane.

A. Exactly. The tech world feeds off new perspectives. Artists, people of different races and cultures, older people: they all bring fresh perspectives and help us see things in a different light. We have to nurture multi-tasking teams and have anthropologists, historians, psychologists and philosophers working side by side with programmers and engineers. We need to push companies to adopt a compassionate focus. If they don’t, I am certain they will not survive the 21st century.

Q. And how can the new technological paradigms help achieve this?

A. In a variety of ways. At Stanford, they are studying Dark Data, a type of unstructured data that Stanford is structuring using its Deep Dive data management system. Imagine you publish a photo in EL PAÍS and a machine starts to ask questions such as what demographic the photo is aimed at, or the editorial motives for putting it on this or that page. If it is applied to a person, it can make inferences about your social status, about the kind of people you mix with and the opinions you hold by referencing your social network sites.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the power of technology and see it in terms of Big Brother. It can be used to better understand ourselves and make deductions that will help us improve. I’ll give you an example. If you are in a position of power, you tend to choose people who are similar to yourself and who have the same likes and dislikes. It’s not something premeditated. It’s something you do unconsciously. That’s when you need artificial intelligence because it can make this inference for you and help you reflect on the hidden motives you may have for the decisions you take.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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