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Are Women Too Empathetic to Be Engineers?

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"Empathize." That was David Kelley's recent advice to 2014 engineering graduates from Dartmouth. David is the founder and chairman of IDEO and the founder of Stanford's d. school and he chose to talk about empathy with a group of engineers? Really? Maybe he didn't understand his audience (so much for empathy)? Or did he?

Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in others. Individuals range in their ability and desire to empathize and studies have found gender-based differences with regard to empathy. In general, men show greater systemizing behavior, while women show greater empathizing behavior. Systemizing behavior is the drive to analyze the variables in a system and to derive the underlying rules that govern a system's behavior, whereas empathizing is the capacity to predict people's behavior by inferring their mental states. If you are curious about your tendencies to systemize and empathize try taking the online survey developed by Simon Baron-Cohen to determine your systemizing and empathizing quotients. Note that systemizing and empathizing are not mutually exclusive, people may have high (or low) systemizing AND empathizing quotients; i.e., it doesn't necessarily follow that if your systemizing quotient is high your empathizing quotient will be low.

Could these differences in systemizing versus empathizing behavior help explain the gender gap in engineering? Nationally, in 2012 18.9 percent of the bachelor degrees in engineering went to women (a steady increase over the years but a very slow increase). Engineering is mainly about analyzing (or systemizing) isn't it? So it is not surprising that men are more drawn to engineering since they tend to be more systemizing. Sure, there are some female engineers but these are probably the outliers who are more systemizing than empathizing, not the norm.

For the record, my empathizing quotient is fairly high, which is typical for a woman. This is a relief to me since a Biology colleague once told me I must have gender issues if I wanted to be an engineer but maybe he was wrong and I'm not so abnormal after all. My higher empathy quotient could help explain why I chose to teach engineering though.

What role, if any, does empathy play in engineering? Engineers are focused on buildings, bridges, machines, and devices, right? They need to be objective and analytical. Engineers need to solve complicated technical problems and develop complex systems. Systemizing and logic seem like the main qualities we need in engineers. Won't empathy just get in the way of objectivity?

Maybe, but I don't agree. Empathy is an essential skill for engineers. Of course we want engineers to be able to solve technical problems and develop complex systems but does that mean they must be devoid of empathy?

Erin Cech at Rice University agrees that empathy is essential and names our current culture in engineering a 'culture of disengagement,' one in which engineers focus almost exclusively on technical details with little or no attention to empathy and moral issues. Cech's recently published results show that engineering students' level of empathy decreased over the four years of their engineering education. Yikes. Not only are we attracting students with lower empathy to begin with but they become less empathizing over the years of their engineering education.

Why is empathy essential in engineering? Engineers design and build products, yes, but these products are for people! To design effective products and processes engineers must understand the people who will use them. And increasingly they must understand people from different cultures. Too often I see engineers develop technical solutions to problems in third world countries that go unused or are unwanted because the engineers failed to understand their users.

David Kelley, in his address at Dartmouth, told the story of Doug Dietz, a designer for GE who had developed numerous MRI and CT machines, very important and life-saving devices. After attending a design program at the d. school, however, Doug decided to go to a hospital to interact with users, children in particular. What he found was that the children were terrified of the machines and most needed to be sedated before entering them. So, yes, a wonderful technical achievement but the users are terrified. Doug, luckily, had been turned on to design thinking and empathy by David and decided a re-design was in order. He worked with a team to develop a new adventure series of machines; scanners became submarines and tents and staff members were trained to work with the children. Very few children need to be sedated before their scans anymore.

And how about the GM ignition switch debacle? Eleven years of fatal switch problems and nobody felt morally obligated to do anything about it until now? Maybe with a little more empathy among their engineers and executives, GM would have taken the initiative to fix their ignition switches earlier.

I think David Kelley's advice to engineers to "empathize" was spot on (his speech was excellent, by the way). We need engineers to do more empathizing and engineering schools and companies alike to value empathy. Companies like IDEO do value empathy and a few schools including Stanford and Dartmouth include courses focused on human-centered design but we need more schools and companies to follow their lead.

If the culture of engineering shifts to incorporate more empathy maybe we'll be able to design more useful and safe products and maybe we'll finally be able to attract more women to engineering. So 'are women too empathetic to be engineers?' Hardly. Engineering as a field needs all the empathy it can get.