Gender equality in the workplace

Skellig Blog Creativity

It’s remarkable in 2019 that something as fundamental as gender equality at work is still a thing.  We need to work harder to be more inclusive.  It’s good business to have diverse opinions and perspectives woven into the DNA of a company and the teams within.  Yet, few of us really know how to practially do anything about this. The shift, like anything, begins with awareness of the issue.  While few remain in the modern workplace that would argue we don’t need to consciously be more inclusive, its useful to take stock of progress so far.  Consider the following depressing quote;

“The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap – measured in health, education, economic opportunity and political empowerment – won’t close until 2186. That’s 167 years from now. In the same time span, humankind went from the steam engine to Cassini’s trip to Saturn, and from carrier pigeons to the Internet. I’d like to think that we could achieve universal gender equality much faster than that.” – Richard Brandson

Diversity sounds to some like a nice to have. 

The vibe in our workplaces is often ‘Once we get this project done we can focus on nice shit like diversity and inclusion, but until then…’

In a technology driven creative field such as engineering, I firmly believe it’s a competitive BUSINESS advantage to have a diverse team of men and women. 

Better yet, men and women from diverse backgrounds. 

Better again, men and women from diverse backgrounds and a diverse age group.

Business and especially engineering is so boring when we make decisions because “that’s how we have always done it around here”.  It’s also so much less effective. Leaders typically feel more comfortable surrounding themselves with people who think like them… That usually means people from the same background and gender. This is a basic human survival mechanism. People from the same background will think like you, talk like you, protect you as their own.  From a leader’s perspective, it makes sense to have people to validate your opinion. It’s also easier in the short term to get everyone rowing in the same direction.

This might even be a good move for the individual leader in terms of their career longevity at the top.

However, it’s not typically going to be a good decision for the company or team as a whole in the long term.

What are we all supposed to do about it?

All we can do as individuals is try to reach out to colleagues and potential colleagues who are not like us.  Next time you are waiting for that meeting to start, choose someone different to make small talk with.  Make people feel more welcome. 

(If you take away one thing from this post please make it this) Consciously consider who’s ideas you are listening to, and who’s you aren’t.

The biggest challenges need multiple perspectives.

I would argue that diverse teams are more likely to constantly reexamine facts and remain objective.

I would argue that diverse teams encourage greater scrutiny of each other’s actions.

I would argue that members of diverse teams are more aware of their own biases and their own entrenched ways of thinking.

I would argue that you will see better performance overall from teams that have a diverse member group.

Diversity is good for the engineering design process.  Diversity is good business.  Proceed accordingly!

More on Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Gilbreth is one of the most prolific women engineers in history. We have profiled Ms Gilbreth earlier on the Skellig blog.

Some of her notable achievements are: 

  • first female professor in the engineering school at Purdue University
  • first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering
  • second woman to join the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
  • until 2005, the only woman awarded the prestigious Hoover Award, jointly bestowed by five leading engineering organizations recognizing “great, unselfish, non-technical services by engineers to humanity” 
  • dubbed “the mother of modern management” 
  • In the 1940’s, was called “a genius in the art of living”  
  • two of her most well-known inventions are shelves inside refrigerator doors, including the egg keeper and butter tray, and the foot-pedal trash can
  • she filed patents on an improved electric can opener and the wastewater hose for clothes washers
  • as an industrial engineer working at General Electric, she interviewed over 4,000 women to design the proper height for stoves, sinks and other kitchen fixtures as she worked on improving kitchen designs
  • taught college and university courses at Bryn Mawr, Newark College of Engineering, Rutgers University, and the University of Wisconsin
  • resident lecturer at MIT in 1964
  • served as an advisor to at least five US presidents on civil defense and women’s issues
  • received more than 20 honorary degrees and several prestigious awards and was included in American Men of Science, Who’s Who of American Women, and Notable American Women: The Modern Period


Lillian Gilbreth, Organizational Psychology, and Industrial Management

The study of organizational psychology and industrial engineering is all about optimization.

It’s about improving industrial efficiency by removing unnecessary complexity, simplifying tasks, and improving conditions for workers.

Lillian Gilbreth (1878‐1972) was from Oakland CA, and she grew up a shy girl who excelled academically and went to college to obtain a masters and a doctorate in psychology.

She is considered to be the first industrial organizational psychologist, pioneering many industrial management techniques.

In Ms. Gilbreth’s time, this was something new. Saliently, she developed new ways of applying her background in psychology to organizational efficiency. Industrial and
organizational psychology is the study of human behavior relating to the workplace. It applies psychological theories and principles to organizations and workers in their place of work. It also applies to our work-life more generally.

This is a game about eliminating complexity. Because it means looking at repetitive work and simplifying processes. It’s the pursuit of making the product better, working conditions better, and reducing operating costs. This is the paradigm of looking at factories as systems and making them function efficiently.

Why Organizational Psychology is Important

Organizational psychology is interesting to learn and should be a critical part of every engineer’s thought process in our design work. You can improve user experience by using these principles. Every factory and every system can be designed better by using insights from Ms Gilbreth’s industrial management work.

As engineers, our job is to learn how to design and build the most optimized systems. Every day, in multiple little ways, we have a chance to fix things or at least identify things that could be done better. The best engineers love to spot things that could be done better and do something about it.

Follow through, even knowing that you won’t always get support. The middle of commissioning and qualification is the wrong time for second guessing design: ask ANY experienced engineer.

The science is in; this isn’t a new idea. It was true last century and it will be true next century. Focus on eliminating complexity, focus on making it easier for operations and other manufacturing support staff to get their jobs done.

Our part to play as engineers is a very important one in this great infinite game of improvement.