The Form and Function of Being “Designing” Women

Footpath-Landscapes-Forests-1-1024x768Assuming that form does in fact follow function, the expanding number of women engineers is nearly certain to change the way that engineering operates. Some engineering challenges actually employ the idea of letting what I’m calling the “feminine presence” emerge naturally. When the University of Oregon changed its main pedestrian walkways in the 1960s, the designers hit on a unique approach to measure human presence. Instead of laying the usual brick footpaths and expecting people to “stay on the trail,” they planted grass and watched, for a year, where people walked. Sure enough, and often in defiance of what the original designs organically suggested, people “designed” foot paths and trails though the grass. Then, the engineers laid brick footpaths over the then worn footpaths.

Take, as another example, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In many ways, the event became a watershed for what would become the “American Century” of engineering. The chief board of engineers did not have a single person of color or any women on it. It would be easy to view this as a prime example of how women were left out of the American engineering revolution. However, when we examine the presence of the few women engineers and designers at the event (instead of focusing on the scarcity of women at the event), we are able to see their collective influence and abilities. Notably, as the epic Chicago World’s Fair inched closer to opening day, only the “Women’s Exhibit,” staffed and creatively designed largely by women, was completed on time. In this example, form (i.e., a team of women working together) achieved a successful function.

In an earlier post, I mentioned legislative tools aimed at forcing the employment of women in top management. Please, don’t misconstrue what I’m saying.  Laws can, and should, address the quantitative problem of discrimination, promotions based on the “good ole boys’ network” rather than merit, for example.  In the 1980s, the earliest part of my career, I was one of a very few women who worked in the engineering field. By 1998, the number of women in this field surged to over six percent of all Fortune 500 senior positions. Yet, between 2002 and 2012 – a full decade –  the rate of increase in women executives nearly flat-lined, growing from 14 percent to 18 percent, according to demographic data. This occurred even though the participation of women in the workforce approached full parity with the participation of men in the workforce.

We fix problems only when we can deeply understand them.  Women must search for the reasons why historic predictions of equality in engineering, science, and leadership haven’t worked out as predicted.  The underlying (and I think largely incorrect) assumptions about the “roles” of big data professionals – as defined by men – threaten to overshadow the organic development of the field. Unlike the University of Oregon’s footpaths, women are still typically required to conform to following the brick paths laid by men, cutting themselves off from their natural creative, collaborative and problem-solving abilities.  Big Data is fundamentally a creative, collaborative, problem-solving enterprise: asking questions, seeking answers, communicating results, looking at the bigger picture.   To fully tap into its potential, we need to let go of pre-conceived notions of what “should” be and explore what really works, for women and men alike.

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Examining Problems to Uncover Opportunities with Big Data

Realistic vector magnifying glassFailing to fully analyze and understand a problem – to see all of its sides and angles – can prevent us from uncovering an opportunity. In World War II, the Allies believed that they needed to improve their ability to strike deep into Nazi territory without experience heavy losses of their bombers. It was thought that years and countless allied lives could be saved if only the problem of heavy losses from enemy anti-aircraft could be solved. For weeks, engineers inspected aircraft after they returned from their bombing runs. Engineers reinforced the damaged, shrapnel punctured hulls and then sent the planes back out. Losses mounted. Finally, an engineer looked at the planes that had returned and it hit him. They were looking at the problem backwards. He suggested reinforcing the planes in the places where they had not been hit. It worked. The planes that made it back to base didn’t need help in their obvious points of damage. After all, they returned despite that damage. The solution hinged on transcending the obvious.

Of course, I’ll admit that the obvious fix may often be the correct one. A broken window is a broken window. In the same way, the scarcity of women in corporate boardrooms says something about the treatment of women across America – in colleges and cafes, kitchens and presidential cabinets – and increasing the numbers of women leaders will do something to rectify this. But what about the less obvious benefits? The uncovered opportunities? The value of Big Data lies in its ability to provide us with  a new view of the world. It helps us to see things in entirely new ways. So too are women leaders able to contribute a perspective that has the potential to uncover exciting new opportunities for organizations.  Now think about women working WITH Big Data: it’s fresh perspective squared.

Big Data and Women Leaders: A Fresh Perspective

big-data-eyeIs “Big Data” a fad? I recently heard someone claim that it was, and all I could do was shake my head in disbelief.

Big Data is definitely not a fad.  People are talking about it all the time, everywhere because Big Data IS all the time, everywhere. As the power of computers and data analysis continue to grow by leaps and bounds, Big Data will become an increasingly important part of our world and our lives. Even if the term “Big Data” goes by the wayside, the reality is that Big Data is going to be with us until the day we die.  For the time being, it’s like an old-fashioned gold rush, and the undeniable benefits seem to be around every corner. Case study after case study shows us how using data wisely unlocks the door to better productivity, improved customer satisfaction, higher margins – the list goes on.

So if Big Data is here to stay, how do women fit into the picture? Is Big Data a threat, or an opportunity, for women in leadership roles?  My feeling is that the Big Data paradigm shift has the potential to be hugely positive for women, because women leaders and Big Data share an important quality: the ability to provide a new perspective and “transcend the obvious.”

When looking at the historical exclusion of women leaders from the boardroom, we’ve almost always defined this as a problem, a malady, something to be fixed or rectified. Call the diagnosis the “absence of women.” Make no mistake, the numbers still suggest an ongoing problem. Forbes reports that a mere 2.4 percent of Fortune 500 Company CEOs are women. European countries, from Finland and Spain to Sweden and France, are considering legally mandating the number of women executives in major corporations. However, I’d like to offer a different perspective. Instead of being a purely quantitative problem to be solved by adding x number of women to leadership roles, the lack of women leaders is a monumental opportunity to be uncovered and exploited.

Why is it so important to make a distinction? Because solving problems generally leads to incremental improvements in the status quo. Exploiting opportunities lead to paradigm shifts in the way things are done, a.k.a. genuine progress.