Dealing with Humanity, Women In Engineering

CAN SHE EVEN LIFT: Improving How Engineers Design For Women

Can our biological differences be included in an engineering design process in a way that is factual, helpful and free from bias?

This is the question I will be attempting to answer in my research position with Ryerson University this summer. After working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in my mechanical engineering undergrad, I realized that there was a wide spread problem of students not knowing how to design for women.

The course that made this most obvious to me focuses on human factors in engineering (Introduction to Engineering Design). In this class’ reports, the students must identify possible users and their characteristics, and then use these imaginary people as their basis for comparing whether or not they have invented something useful and useable.

It is a hopeful project, and an important course. However, after reading endless reports where women were boiled down to being users “who could not,” I began to get frustrated. As I read through profiles of these imaginary people, it was clear that the students accepted a vague – but stubborn – view that all women were smaller, weaker, less motivated to use tools, less willing to do things for themselves, and generally fit other old fashioned stereotypes.

While I have no problem with the truth that there is a wide range of what we each are capable and incapable of doing, the way in which these differences were unscientifically claimed and inappropriately used, missed the point of the engineering skills we were trying to teach.

The reports stated their characterizations of women as fact (without citing references) and continued on throughout the projects, mostly cutting ladies out of the user groups instead of designing to make up for the “lack” they had just identified. A pregnant woman would only be lucky enough to get addressed  if she was lumped in with the old mechanic user with back issues. 

This was a tough job. I was teaching nearly 60 students, and reading hundreds of pages of reports about my own gender’s inadequacy. It also happened to be during the same time as the google manifesto sh*t storm, so I felt quite a bit of pessimism, and was losing hope for a future in engineering that would be more welcoming to women.

However, when I brought these issues up with the professor I was working under (Dr. Filippo Salustri), he enthusiastically jumped on the need to change. With his encouragement, we applied for a grant and developed my summer research job.

Also working with Dr. Frankie Stewart, Dr. Patrick Neumann, and others at Ryerson University, I am hoping that we can change this course and change a small part of how we view gender differences in STEM.

My goal is to use an engineering design lens to help students – regardless of their beliefs about women – find more accurate information about biological differences. I want them to ask themselves: “what differences are relevant to my project, have I researched and sourced enough scientific data to make my claims, and how should I use this information in my design process?”

This research project is likely to change as it goes, but at the end I will be able to give the course some new teaching material, and a way of assessing whether or not gender differences have been appropriately applied to projects.

We will try to change how students approach designing for all users who aren’t themselves (and maybe develop some key empathy along the way). I am hoping that this will push them to also research cultural and accessibility differences and apply the same process of understanding and inclusion. I believe this will better their engineering skills (and mine), and hopefully result in designs that are far more user friendly.

As well, emotionally intelligent and socially aware communication skills are a hopeful outcome of this work. While I was a TA, I had some interesting and difficult conversations with students about when and why we should or shouldn’t include people with different capabilities in our design focus, and the students were already very curious about how to talk about women in a way that wouldn’t be seen as sexist. I want there to be a broadening of philosophical, and f*minist thinking among the students in this course, and hope that by addressing gender differences in a human factors and engineering way, they will learn the tools to design for our different capabilities – without maintaining biased limiting beliefs and assumptions about these differences.


This is a hugely difficult and energizing task that I am not solely equipped to tackle. I will be calling on the experts within our university but am open to discussion with other researchers, journalists etc. If you have information you would like to share, please contact me at: nicholsonsarah.sn@gmail.com.