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April 01, 2019

Houston, We Have a Problem

Fostering Community

Did you hear the one about the space agency that invited two women for a spacewalk but forgot it had only had one suit?  Okay, well maybe it didn’t really forget. Maybe it’s just really bad at forward planning.  Or maybe it thought only one woman at a time would ever go on a spacewalk.  Truthfully, I can’t think of any explanation that makes me think, “Oh, right. Now I get it.”  But I’ll give NASA the benefit of the doubt and trust there is one.

I know I’m being a facetious but it is almost comical to think about two women arriving at the International Space Station only to find their highly-skilled work impeded by a lack of medium-sized space suits.  Surely, there’s a Saturday Night Live skit currently in the works.

I don’t think NASA intentionally discriminates against women. Over one-third of its active astronauts are female, and the agency does a great deal to promote diversity.  Like many organizations, however, it suffers not so much from willful disregard of women but rather from woeful ignorance.  NASA fell victim to what Elizabeth Renzetti, columnist with the Globe and Mail, describes as a gender bias inherent in design – a bias that has, for decades, determined who gets to participate, who gets the big opportunities, and who feels welcome in the workplace and elsewhere.

Renzetti’s article talks about the way in which the modern world has largely been designed by men and for men.  In industries such as engineering, transportation or health care, the default bias has been to the experience of men. She points to the standard weight of crash test dummies, chest restraints on roller coasters, drug trials, and published indicators of a heart attack – areas where a design or information bias towards men can be more than inconvenient for women.  Sometimes it can be fatal.

I don’t think it’s a case of women being intentionally disregarded.  It’s more a case of women being invisible.  Lisa Saksida, a cognitive neuroscientist and the scientific director at Western University’s BrainsCAN spoke at a conference for young women in STEM.  In her opinion, things are improving but there is still a significant degree of inherent bias that negatively impacts women. According to Saksida, “People often don’t think about women. It’s not intentional, necessarily, but the first people who come to mind are often the men.”

Things are changing, and there is a growing understanding of the need to consider more diverse perspectives. And in many instances, women are the beneficiaries of such change.  In building design, for example, ramps intended to make buildings more accessible to those with limited mobility also make it easier for people pushing strollers.  Accessible bathrooms large enough to accommodate a wheelchair or a walker also make it easier for people with small children.  Such changes benefit many groups, but oftentimes particularly help women.

Things are changing in STEM, as well, albeit slowly.  The 2018 Women in Tech Index reports that Canada has the 5th highest percentage of women in tech of all the OECD and EU countries.  Women make up 47.32% of the Canadian workforce and now make up 24.88% of tech industry workers.  Good news, right?  Not so much.  The average wage in the Canadian tech industry is $67,282 (USD) but only $53,128 (USD) for women, more than a 20% gender pay gap.  And while more and more women are undertaking post-secondary studies and starting their careers in STEM, many of them abandon the field, citing inhospitable workplaces and unequal opportunities for advancement.

I recall earlier this year when we celebrated Professor Donna Strickland’s Nobel Prize for Physics.  It was a monumental achievement and an incredibly powerful event for our students, particularly those who aspire to study science or engineering.  Ever gracious in her acceptance, Dr. Strickland was optimistic in believing that the future is bright for young women in science.  I smiled when I read her statement about the readiness of society to treat women equally:  “I feel that women should start to get to be recognized more…[For] some reason not all men want to recognize us or not all people, but I think that’s a minority. I think the majority of people are ready.”  This coming from a woman who’s initial Wikipedia page submission was rejected with the message:  “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.”

I’ll end with Dr. Strickland’s advice to young women: “If somebody else thinks something that you don’t believe in, just think they’re wrong and you’re right, and keep going. That’s pretty much the way I always think.”

Wise words from a very wise woman.  So listen up, girls.  Ignore those naysayers. Believe in yourself.  And always pack an extra space suit when heading to the International Space Station!

P.S. For any brand planning to design with the needs of women in mind, please plan thoughtfully.  To learn about the ill-conceived Bic for Her cautionary tale, click here (pun intended).

*Picture from Smithsonian.com

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