By Danielle Merfeld – I get a kick out of the instant reactions some people have when I tell them what I do. It’s not exactly revolutionary that women can be technologists but often people betray a flicker of disbelief, an automatic response they can’t completely hide. I’m guilty too: I remember a hint of surprise when a man I was talking to told me he was a nurse.

These “implicit biases” aren’t limited to awkward social moments – they determine the people we hire, put on teams and promote. We end up with unbalanced teams, workforces and labs, which means we’re less effective and innovative.

We need to find ways to overcome these involuntary, snap judgments that emerge from our lizard brains. It’s a pressing issue for GE, a company that needs to find and nurture the best talent to change the world and revolutionize industry. That’s why we recently announced that we aim to have 20,000 women in technical roles by 2020.

To get there, we need better behavioral design.

Behavioral design is expertly illustrated by Harvard professor Iris Bohnet in her book, “What Works: Gender Equality by Design”. Up until the 1970s, Bohnert notes, only five percent of the musicians in the top five orchestras in the world were women. Today, that number is 35 percent. What changed? The audition process. Musicians audition behind a screen now, so that their gender (and not incidentally, their race, appearance, etc.) are hidden. This one simple change helps ensure that the best sounding players get hired, regardless of who they are or what they look like. After all, doesn’t the audience want hear the best possible musicians?

What I love about this is the spirit of experimentation behind it. Much like we do in the lab when we face a challenge, the orchestra’s management saw a nagging problem and then jumped in on a hunch to test solutions.

Not every situation will yield such direct results, but innovation takes work. Behavioral design is a flexible and familiar process: observe, hypothesize, test, iterate. In many ways, it’s what we’re doing in connecting the world’s machines to the Industrial Internet of Things. Sensors and algorithms let us measure how well something is working and then change how it is operating to help optimize performance. Think, for example, of a jet engine that can tell when it needs repair, making maintenance planning and scheduling that much more efficient. These tweaks ultimately save our customers billions of dollars. We can approach the problem of gender inequality in technical roles in the same way, testing and working to optimize potential fixes as we go.

What might those fixes look like? For starters, we can change the way we advertise job openings, recruit on campuses, evaluate applicants, create a short list, interview candidates and make a final decision. Does gender-neutral language in a career posting move the needle? Are we less likely to succumb to biases when we compare a prospective employee to another prospective employee, instead of the ideal employee we picture in our heads? There are a lot of questions to answer, but we’ve started asking them, even if they make us uncomfortable.

We will also support efforts to prevent biases before they start. It’s very important, for example, for young girls to just see women in technical positions, doing math, experimenting, getting their hands dirty to find world-changing answers. One small thing we’ve already started doing is sharing vivid portraits of some of the thousands of women doing those things at GE.

It’s hard to overcome the lizard brain, but we can outsmart it. When we create better processes for finding talent, regardless of gender, we can find skilled nurses, virtuoso violinists and technical talent of either gender to define our future.


About the Author

Danielle MerfeldDanielle W. Merfeld, Ph.D. is the Vice President & General Manager at GE Global Research, reporting to the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of GE. In this role, she leads the Silicon Carbide and Edge Controls horizontal breakout teams, which are focused on delivering critical achievements in SiC devices & systems and developing critical Esge product applications and platforms, respectively.

She also leads the Electronics organization, a global team of approximately 140 scientists and engineers, responsible for advanced technology development in the areas of semiconductor devices & packaging and signal electronics. In addition to her technical leadership roles, Danielle also serves as the General Manager of GE Global Research in Niskayuna, NY running operations, leading the functional teams and enabling contemporary research practices for the 2000+ researchers on site. She is currently the co-leader of the GE Women’s Network, a global organization focused on the recruiting, retention, development and promotion of talented women across GE.

Photo credit: GE