Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash — Harriet Rubin
I’d like to throw out what seems to me to be a practical if unusual proposal to solve the problems mentioned in Vivek Wadhwa’s latest column "Fixing Engineering’s Gender Gap". I’ve looked over his suggested solutions, with all due respect, and find them simplistic at best. With the singular exception of the one that recommends fathers support their daughter’s desire to study science or engineering, the rest are a rehash of what have long been bandied as the standard problems faced by women in the workplace.
I’d like to reframe the problem – as a good design thinker should. The key issue here, is that underlying the entire article, and many others, is the premise that women need to fit into a man’s world, adapt to male thinking, ‘play by men’s rules’ etc and therefore they need help. Harriet Rubin, whose wonderful book Soloing was a recent and inspiring gift, has written in The Princessa,
Women today generally get ahead based on male models of power… Because they adopt an inauthentic heritage of men’s fighting strategies, strong women complain that they cannot get ahead. No wonder…They are not her rules, designed to enhance her strengths.
In essence, they’re trying to excel in becoming something they are not – men. Now, let’s turn this problem on its head and take another look at it. I wrote in BusinessWeek last Christmas that focusing on math and science and engineering was not enough, the United States needed to focus on design education and other soft skills as well to maintain its lead in the global innovation stakes, ending with these words,
Funds should also support the softer skills, the right-brain attributes deemed so important in this conceptual age, the skills that math- and science-focused India and China do not yet possess in any great capacity. After all, it is the ability to see the potential in the fruits of that research that currently sets the U.S. apart as a nation and has contributed to its lead as a producer of innovative goods and services.
That is where design skills and design thinking come into their own — in taking new materials, processes, and technologies and turning them into products people want.
My proposal is that to truly leverage the best skills that women possess and encourage their application in the hard sciences such as engineering with the goal being to increase the output of innovative goods and services, in the context of the ’empathy’ economy an integrated curriculum for undergraduate programs is required. This does not require any major shift in existing classes – it just recommends the recombining of those that already exist across various disciplines in universities in departments of mechanical engineering, product design, anthropology, life sciences and others.
Its an integration of the best of what we need – an emphasis on the skills of observation, inference, logic and analysis for insights, synthesis for concept development and then the fundamentals of materials, mechanics and product design to take the idea through to the prototype and hence bring new products to life.
If indeed what the economy needs is a goodly dose of empathy, I doubt that any will disagree with me as to which gender is better prepared. What is missing is enough of the left brain skills in engineering to bring the subject matter to life, to understand the how and the why. Even in product design education there is a visible gender gap between men and women, just like engineering. I’m sure it’s for the same reasons. My experience in undergraduate engineering and graduate product design helps me a wee bit here – there is indeed an atmosphere that does not support women in these fields.
Having experienced 6 months in an all women’s college, that too in Physics Honours – focusing only on fundamental research – I know the difference that having a segregated classroom makes. For young women, if the general environment itself has never supported their choice of math courses in high school much less engineering or hard sciences in university – creating such a stream or major, which integrates the teaching of all the skills we claim to lack, would attract and encourage women to apply for it and try it. Let it be taught by women too. Then every single issue that Wadhwa brings up is moot
If policies prevent it being restricted to women only, then perhaps the right combination of classes and subjects brought together, balancing the hard with the soft, the left with the right, would in itself provide an arena for women to find that they do indeed excel and perform well.