Friday, January 28, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Sheila Widnall on women in engineering

Sheila Widnall's a rock star and a rarity in engineering, a field where women have traditionally been underrepresented.  An MIT professor and the first female secretary of the Air Force (shown here in a flight suit as part of her official duties), Widnall has been a frequent speaker for decades.

But it's her speech Digits of Pi: Barriers and Enablers for Women in Engineering that's become a classic. It was delivered to a southeast regional meeting of the National Academy of Engineering in 2000. Despite the title, there are no long strings of numbers in the speech, which focuses instead on the real, everyday barriers that women engineers face. Here's one story she tells with great effect:

I once got a call from a female faculty colleague at another university. She was having trouble teaching her class in statistics. All of the football players who were taking it were sitting in the back row and generally misbehaving. If she asked me for advice on that today I don't know what I'd say. But what I did say—that worked—was that she should call them in one by one and get to know them as individuals. This evidently worked and she sailed on....I believe that all women faculty members have such challenges to their authority in ways that would never happen to a man. Students will call a female professor "Mrs." and a male professor "Professor." I told one student that if he ever addressed Sen. Feinstein as Mrs. Feinstein, he would find himself in the hall. If it is happening to women faculty members, I'm sure it is happening to women students, this constant challenge to who they are.

More on why I like this speech so well, and why it can be useful to you:

  • The language couldn't be simpler, clearer or (as a result) more powerful.  Aside from the reference to pi, you'll be hard-pressed to find much of the technical in this talk by an engineer. She's not out to impress the audience with her knowledge or long, complex, formal titles. It's loaded with active verbs and short, simple descriptions. This allows her message to stick with the audience, and makes the talk work for any audience, although it was delivered to engineering colleagues. That's one reason it has had such staying power on the web and in speech anthologies.
  • She gives us the barriers and the solutions to the problem she describes: Widnall uses four "top 10" lists to describe the barriers she sees for women in engineering, as well as the opportunities or "enablers" that will help eradicate the barriers someday. In between, she weaves stories and adds a judicious amount of data to illustrate her points. The result is a balanced call to action. Like many other speeches I admire, this audience didn't leave the room wondering what she wanted it to do.
  • She tells stories on herself.  Perhaps most powerful is her description of a meeting she had with a project team of two students, one male, one female. Widnall says, "...I found myself directing my comments to the guy whenever there was discussion about building, welding, or cutting. I caught myself short and consciously began to direct my comments evenly. I went to my departmental colleagues and said: "This is what happened to me. If I'm doing it, you surely are." Telling a story on yourself is a powerful type of sharing. No one can say you've got it wrong, and it demonstrates a high level of self-confidence as well as humility.

Finally, all those qualities combine to make this a memorable speech--one audience members can quote with ease. It has the emotional power of personal testimony, repeatable stories and a strong call to act.  What do you think about this famous speech, on a Friday?

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