Originally published in the Dallas Morning News.
Companies are making decent progress in creating products and services that cater to women. But much work remains to be done. And women, by and large, are in the best position to make it happen.
Embracing female perspectives in product design makes good business sense. In the financial sector alone, there is a $700 billion revenue opportunity that could be seized if firms can address this discrepancy, according to our new research at global consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Now add in all of the other industries around the world and you can see the scope of the problem — and the opportunity it presents for business.
Perhaps no white-collar occupation is more male-oriented than engineering. From cryptocurrency to drones, engineers are driving many of the megatrends reshaping the global economy. Because men still dominate the ranks of engineers, their perspective continues to prevail in product creation and design, intentionally or not.
In all, only 18% of software developers and 28% of computer and information research scientists in the computer industry in 2019 were women, according to the most recent figures from the Society of Women Engineers.
But while much attention has been paid over the years to the dearth of female STEM graduates, less discussed is the question of how this underrepresentation impacts product design and technical innovation.
To create more gender balance at the conceptual, technical and product-design stages, today’s women in engineering need to think and behave differently. They have to be mavericks. And companies, for their own financial good and that of their shareholders, need to acknowledge, encourage and reward them for it.
I know this firsthand. My career at Oliver Wyman has been marked by two firsts: first female head of engineering and first female engineer-turned-partner. My parents, who immigrated to the US from Vietnam during the Vietnam War, had ambitions for me to forge a path in medicine or law. Always the contrarian, I chose software engineering, as I’ve always enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone, taking risks and sometimes even bending the rules.
This maverick streak has helped define my professional life. Following the standard career playbook would have led to steady jobs, safe roles and reliable paychecks, but it would have closed off avenues to personal growth, innovation and fulfillment. I’ve always followed my interests and intuition rather than chase money and seek security.
Women can’t change the entire system overnight. But they do have the power to shake up the status quo.
Four main ways women engineers can unleash their inner maverick
Speak up And express yourself
Mavericks are usually characterized by such traits as openness, directness, perseverance and creativity. They are team players, but they aren’t quiet “yes” people. A maverick who has a vision makes it known. Ideas can’t come to fruition if stifled.
Of course, this isn’t always easy for women, who can sometimes be misconstrued as bossy. But mavericks can’t be shrinking violets. I have found myself hesitant at times to speak up in groups of mostly men at senior levels of the organization. The key is to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Take risks and redefine norms
Mavericks roll the dice. In engineering, they introduce new ways of working, coding, architecting, testing, building, deploying and automating. They do it because they want to redefine what their organization can do, and in the process they bring in new approaches to problem-solving that might seem disruptive but are necessary for the future of the business. They broaden the scope of the possible.
In my case, what started as a three-month contract has turned into a two-decade career of solving thorny problems, trying different methodologies, experimenting with technologies and championing underdogs. Not every idea has been a success, but with failure comes growth.
Embrace unconventional career paths
Mavericks call the shots on their own careers. Some engineers, for example, might decide to remain strong individual contributors and add value by staying close to the code. Others decide to move into roles like chief technology officer, using their tech expertise to help operate the business. Both can be hugely impactful, and there is no rule saying mavericks can’t toggle between the two.
As a practicing engineer, I never planned to go into consulting, much less become a partner. My unconventional journey has been one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences in my life. The lesson? Don’t be afraid to deviate from what is considered the norm.
Shoot for the very top
The biggest opportunity for maverick women engineers is in the c-suite. Consulting, my industry, is no longer just smart guys in suits; it’s also creative digital superstars in jeans, joggers and jumpsuits who are championing innovation and bringing fresh perspectives.
Women engineers should aim as high as possible. Research suggests that women score higher in most areas of leadership than men, according to Harvard Business.
Review, and perform better in crises. What’s more, as women move higher up the chain, they can help identify other mavericks in the ranks, serve as role models and mentors, and help change their organizations’ cultures.
More women engineers will conquer this final frontier over time. And when they do, they will have today’s mavericks to thank for paving the way.