Women Only = Design + Engineering

Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you can control. Freedom is about what you can unleash —

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.

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15 Responses to Women Only = Design + Engineering

  1. Well said, Niti.
    I’m convinced that part of the problem is this “hard” vs. “soft” language. The idea that quantitatively-amenable disciplines are “hard” and qualitative ones are “soft” leads to all sorts of muddy thinking about their rigor, practicality and value. Of course, the gender associations of hard=male and soft=female…well, I won’t comment on where that takes us. Similarly, Western culture (at least) uses other terms, like “touchy-feely,” to minimize the relevance of empathic/sensing disciplines.
    Fact is, the soft stuff is harder than the hard stuff. Think I’m kidding? I’ll often be talking with people about some qualitative issue (like customer experience, for example) and have someone say: “well, hell, it’s not rocket science.” At that point I like to note that rocket science is easy: the laws of physics are pretty well-established, so knowing the weight of the rocket, the desired trajectory, the weight of the payload, etc. gives you a precise answer regarding the amount of fuel you’ll need to lift the rocket towards its destination.
    Try predicting human behavior with that precision. Much harder, isn’t it?
    So, let’s stop accepting marginalizing characterizations of our work and challenge the folks who make it sound like the “soft stuff” is irrelevant!

  2. Niti,
    Perhaps part of the problem is that business is a blood sport. And increasingly so. Competition is BRUTAL. Worldwide 24/7.
    I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how to map what you are saying onto this landscape. Anyone who wants to succeed in this climate had better bring it and be prepared to do battle or they will be toast. That’s real.

  3. jens says:

    may be business is a blood sport – but the consumer is not won over a bloody battle – not any more.
    maybe you have to fight with your competition 24/7.
    maybe you have to fight with your competition inside the company 24/7.
    but you will not win the consumers by that.
    at least your relationship to your customers has to be of a slightly different nature. and then …
    other relationships might be of a different nature just as well.
    the time they are a changing

  4. Jens,
    But aren’t you relegating women to a particular (traditional) role then? Consumer facing, empathic, and all the rest. These roles are rarely if ever where a companies true power resides.
    I see no times changing. I hear a lot of hype in the style of Daniel Pink. But I see no evidence of this on the ground. If anything I see companies hunkering down, trying to ride out the shit storm of globalization that is battering them about the head.
    The Flattend Earth has increased the clock speed of business and companies need to step it up.
    If you are a public company you have quarterly benchmarks Wall Street analysts expect you to meet. Every quarter. Miss a few quarters and your companies stock price is pummeled. Period.

  5. You see no times changin’, Douglass?
    No doubt about the quarterly numbers drill, that’s “what” companies are trying to accomplish. The key to what’s changin’ is in the “how.” For example, the “design/profitability” correlations are quite revealing: at the Core77 Design 2.0 Conference Jeneanne Rae pointed out that a portfolio of customer-experience-leading companies (P&G, Starbucks, Starwood, Apple, Whole Foods, Progressive Insurance, Target, Harrah’s & Harley-Davidson) was 4x revenue and 2x profitability compared with S&P 500 since 2000.
    The idea that the “consumer facing” is rarely where power resides IS what’s changin’…not past tense, “changed”…but changin’.

  6. Tom,
    What is a design/profitability correlation?
    The brands you identify are the exception not the rule. At each of these companies there was a rare star alignment of personalities, vision, person in power, etc. that enabled magic to happen. The vast grey swath of companies around the globe will pay lip service to the mantra of the day, write a few memos, have a few off-sites and keep on kickin’ it old skool style.
    I see no cross polination. I see no general increase in companies design/empaty/whatever aptitute. What I see is greater visibility (via the 24/7 always on media) but corporate behavior changes much much slower if ever. In geek speak there is an impedance mis-match between the message and behavior.
    Man, are we ever off topic. Sorry Niti.

  7. Niti Bhan says:

    feel free to talk 🙂 that’s what blogs are for, and Tom too 🙂
    I have some thoughts on what you guys bring up here, but will have to come back to it and write properly. give me a few

  8. Niti Bhan says:

    IMHO I think the fundamental premise that business is war, strategy must derive from Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and that competition is blood sport is incorrect. And that it is this frame of reference that leads to issues affecting our planet today.
    In my experience, as a woman, who has almost continuously worked in male ‘dominated’ work environments, often in a patriarchal society, this thinking leads to the dog eat dog mentality that I’ve covered in my earlier post The design thinker’s dilemma.
    I’m not putting a gender to it, for that, as any regular reader knows, is immaterial in my perspective, writing and outlook, but what I am saying is that it makes far more sense to have an attitude of abundance, a win win situation in transactions and that value, can be created, and grown, which in turn, provides a far more balanced worldview.

  9. Douglass,
    I heartily agree with your “lip-service of the month” comment. Most companies have little appetite for anything else.
    And while I agree that the companies Jeneanne cited are the exception rather than the rule, I disagree with your attribution of the cause of the magic. The “vision” of the people in power is, in fact, what we’re talking about. Leading edge of a new way of thinking about customer intimacy is how I view it. Customer intimacy (understanding the customer’s life in the way s/he lives it and determining the meaning of your product/experience in the context of that understanding) leads to a design-focused mindset/culture/process alignment. Like was the case with “quality,” some companies will seize an opportunity for differentiation and succeed, leading others to follow. This customer intimacy focus looks like another of those opportunities to me, but, of course, I may be wrong. It may very well be another jivathon. We named our company, “TrueTalk” ’cause we’d seen enough jive over the decades to propose an alternative approach.

  10. Niti Bhan says:

    The other way to look at it, Tom, Douglass, would be from the PoV that while there are some ‘exceptions’ that do indeed do this, the others who don’t are going to face the evolve or die situation. In the news is the need for openness for business to continue globally. The seeds of my thoughts are in my collapse post and I’m going to come back to it, I think you have brought up some very important points here.
    I think that we’re done with the last 6 decades of more more more and are ready to go back to a more measured ‘less’, the customer understanding aspect of it is an important part of this shift towards sustainability – even that of business itself.

  11. Yes, Niti, I agree. That’s why I believe the companies leading in this customer-focused design approach are analogous to those (American companies) which adopted “quality” as a competitive anchor in the early 90s. Laggards (GM comes to mind) soon found themselves behind, and some never made it.

  12. niblettes says:

    The business-as-war metaphor is such an absurd contrivance driven by macho nonsense. War is a zero-sum game, and if you think business is zero-sum don’t quit your day job. Economic ecologies, like natural ecologies, grow and thrive on cooperation, on making 1+1=11, not on anhilation.
    Douglass you’re talking from a 19th century industrial revolution perspective, you’re talking from a commodities perspective (where there is usually only 1 or 2 real players for each commodity–but its a commodity, so the market doesn’t need more).
    Business as war? That metaphor and attendant mindset needs to leave (http://www.searls.com/metaphor1.html).

  13. Niti Bhan says:

    The analogy to ‘quality’ and the trends in the eighties with Japan, is a powerful one. Makes perfect sense, they took it up first, others scoffed at it, and as you rightly say, where are they now. And more than just ‘customer focused design’ it’s a mindset shift, in other words, how can we give you what you most need, in a manner that best suits you, for a price that is right, ultimately sharing with you an experience that makes you come back for more?
    Taking niblettes bringing up of Searls, it can also be mapped on to the ‘markets are conversations’ meme, and say that by listening to you, the market, we’re developing stuff you want, rather than the old way which was we’ve made this thingamabob, now how to we create a market for it.
    I hate to say this, but Kellogg has spent a decade trying to create a demand for cereal in the mind of a consumer who prefers parathas or idlis or biscuits dipped in tea. Ideally Parle-G glucose biscuits, still found commonly in every Patel Bros grocery around the world. What if they reframed their offering from ‘breakfast cereal’ to ‘convenient breakfast’ ? Would that not open up their efforts in the Indian market?
    niblettes, to add to your comment, I’ve just received an interesting book, much of which I agree with , in the details, but it’s the overarching concept, that of “Extreme Competition” (title of hte book) that I can’t find myself ever agreeing with. Now what… is this the knife edge equilibrium of the changes that Tom has brought up – this point in time? Then, when is the tipping point? Or have we tipped (tupped?) ?

  14. Feelin’ tippy to me, but, hey, I’m rootin’ here, so I might not be all that objective!

  15. niti bhan says:

    tom, we’re all in the same boat… and it’s rockin’

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