Why American women are too smart to become robotics engineers

The lack of women in robotics is quite palpable.  I’m not going to quote statistics about the lack of women in robotics because the readers of this blog have been in robotics engineering shops and have eyes—it is that bad.  This is a loss for all of us.  Not only do the women in robotics often have a disproportionate impact, but also the missing women are indicative of a deeper cultural problem that hurts both male and female participants in our industry.

Beyond the issues of opportunity, fairness, and attracting the best and brightest in our field, a lack of women is an indicator of a deep seated cultural problem that is impairing our efforts to make the world a better place.  This insular culture, which robotics shares with many other engineering-centric industries, harms and alienates many men too.  The lack of women in robotics should be viewed as a flashing red warning light of a much deeper problem that affects everyone, rather than just a women’s problem.

Another Knowledge Industry Grapples With A Similar Challenge

While I was at Deloitte, the firm was endlessly bragging about its Women’s Initiate, they called WIN.  Before the turn of the millennium, the partners realized that they had a problem.  At all the ‘working’ ranks of the firm, Deloitte was doing a great job hiring and retaining talented people of both genders.  However, when it came to senior managers and partner level positions, the women all disappeared.

What Deloitte discovered when they looked into this problem was not discrimination.  The problem was that all the top women that the firm wanted to promote were leaving, even though they were being offered the same deal as the men.  Becoming a partner or principal at Deloitte today is arduous, but before WIN it was grueling and brutal.  Basically, becoming principal at Deloitte requires a huge commitment to have consulting be one’s life, but before WIN there was pretty much one way this commitment could look.  Women knew what was required and were more than capable, but they were saying, ‘Screw this, I don’t want to put up with your abuse just to sit at the top of the pyramid and perpetuate it, I want a family (or an impact in the world, or a life).’   So they were leaving the firm.

Deloitte took a hard look at the firm and decided that the path to becoming partner was counterproductively rigid.  They launched WIN and made the workplace much more humane for everyone.  The firm started retaining more talented women and they have thousands of women principals today.  But more interestingly, they also started retaining more of the talented men who had been leaving too, but ‘just weren’t cut out for consulting.’  Deloitte fervently believes—and their impressive growth in the last decade testifies—that they created a much more effective organization.

What had showed up as a women’s problem was actually a firm-wide culture problem.  It turned out that many more men were willing to compromise their performance and risk losing their marriages, families, and personal lives over the firm’s culture problem.   There was nothing ‘wrong’ with the women, nothing they needed to be taught or given to help them get ahead.  They were just not willing to put up with such an unnecessarily inhumane system, while many men were willing to live with it.  As a result, the firm got sub-optimal performance.

The question that Deloitte should have been asking was not, ‘What’s wrong with our women that they’re not making partner?’  Or even, ‘What’s wrong with our men that they don’t help the women make partner,’ it was really, ‘What’s wrong with our men that they’re willing to make partner under sweatshop working conditions?’   I fear that we’re at a similar impasse with respect to the engineering fields.

The Deeper Cultural Problem In Robotics Engineering

Isn’t it odd that we don’t need to make a special effort to interest women in law, accounting, medicine, or the like?  These fields have similar intellectual requirements and levels of drudgery to engineering.  Yet despite comparatively massive efforts to interest women in engineering, they are not entering the field in anything like the numbers we would expect.  And why are American students—including men—not enrolling in engineering fields at the rate that foreign students do?

There is strong social signaling in undergraduate schools that discourages most women and many men from even attempting the study of engineering.  Perhaps they realize that getting an engineering degree can be a long, unrewarding slog when compared to the experience that most undergraduates have.  Perhaps, they have a sense this narrow technical view is carried on beyond undergraduate.  I do not believe that being willing put up with this kind of experience is necessary, and is perhaps counterproductive, to being a great robotics engineer.

Engineering courses are used to screen out anyone who is not willing to devote long hours studying tough courses that do not reward students just for their interest in the subject.  Those who are considering law, business, or medicine as an alternative career may not want to risk their GPAs even trying engineering courses.   No one would bother becoming a robotics engineer unless she had an innate sense that she had a special calling in robotics.  This sense of calling is common among the engineering superstars, both male and female.  Though the current method of engineering education may be adequate for the superstars, this method of education likely alienates many people who could make great contributions to engineering.

We now realize that training medical residents more than 80 hours a week is not productive—engineering isn’t different.  Silicon Valley is starting to see sunlight, humane schedules, leadership opportunities, and pleasant workplaces that promote social interaction as the minimum conditions for engineering productivity.  Colleges such as Olin which have experimented with new (read more people centered) ways of teaching engineering have seen many women enroll.  These are all signs that there is another way to do engineering.  We are starting to see that engineering can be altered to treat engineers and students like social beings, without sacrificing technical rigor.

By attracting people to engineering who are sensitive to the way that others treat them, we will also attract people who are sensitive to their colleagues, customers, and business partners.  Without these engineers who understand their impact on others, engineering will forever be solving the wrong problem.  Engineering education and culture are far too important to all our futures to be left only to left-brained males.  If we let engineering be a secret club that no woman without an extreme commitment would want to join, we will fail to harness engineering’s full potential to improve our society.


Avenues for further investigation:

How can robotics companies accelerate the production of an inclusive engineer culture?

What benefits and employee flexibilities have measureable results on engineering output?

How concentrated among the ‘usual suspects’ schools is robotics engineering hiring?

Does hiring outside of the engineering department’s immediate network improve or degrade performance of the engineering organization?

Do robotics engineering organizations with more women tend to do better?  (Hypothesis:  There is positive correlation, but not to be confused with causation.)