Carrie Fisher aka Princess Leia RIP

I got the news that Carrie Fisher died two days after seeing Rogue 1. As always, Princess Leia’s appearance on the screen made my heart leap with hope and excitement in a way that no male hero ever will. She gave my generation of women exactly what her character held up with her final line – “This is hope.”

Princess Leia was the first – and for a long time the only – female role model who got to command the rebel forces and win. She was the precursor for changes to the James Bond woman – smart became sexy, and power now frequently comes with the prize of the best looking guy. Princess Leia had what my daughters now call Sass. We adored her. Those of us who jumped into this fantasy of George Lucas’ creation went after the evil empire and organizational models of domination and control with a great sense that the Force was with us and somehow light would prevail over darkness. I am forever grateful to Carrie Fisher and George Lucas for this vision. It has changed and enriched my life.

We also learned some hard lessons from this single model of female leadership. Too much sass to the leader really does get you blown up – in ways that are often painful and destructive. Leaders are often secretly and surprisingly vulnerable, and it takes an extraordinary leader to respond well to defiance, to demands for immediate action, or even to well intentioned but uninvited feedback which would require fundamental shifts in an organization. In Star Wars, Han Solo, Luke, and Leia often rescue each other at the critical moment of the battle, or after a moment of sass and daring gone wrong – like those rare but precious managers, colleagues, and mentors who will get us out of a tight spot when a job needs to get done. Han Solo reluctantly leverages his resources to drive the team to victory – he has the fastest ship and the biggest furry friend and when he agrees to help out – yet again – we all breathe a sigh of relief. These are the exciting moments of drama and victory – but we do well to remember that Princess Leia and Luke win because they also seek out and listen to the older, wiser, deliberate, and disciplined Obi-wan and Yoda advisors who redirect sass and outrage to savvy action and extensive networks of support. Real human mentors pick their confidants carefully, and must demand trust and respect in return for their advice and protection.

George Lucas populated his movies with a rich diversity of characters, contrasting them sharply with the white bread same-same of the imperial storm troopers. Star Wars’ rebel leaders and Jedi knights all move through their diverse constellation of humanity amazingly effortlessly, in surrealistic contrast to the rigid command, control, and compliance culture of the empire. It took a long time to reveal the human behind the mask, the traumatic life experiences which turned good people to the dark side – and the strong call of humanity that brought them back. The struggle to work with diversity – to take the time to understand the other – is still hidden from view. We never see the sense of feeling threatened, the choice to become curious about and respectful of the other, and the time invested to build understanding across the Rebel Alliance and across Han Solo’s band of rogues.

The Force is strong with Luke and Leia. In real life, I think the Force is closest to unflinching integrity to strong values – and the light sabre is a set of workplace skills that leverages the unwritten and implicit power structure of organizations to fuel the vision and trust of good leaders, while containing the damage done by those who – at least for the moment – have moved to the Dark Side.

The Dark Side of leadership has much in common with the many, many evil empires in the movies, and those of us who only had Princess Leia for a role model perhaps felt the terror of human manifestations of Darth Vader a bit too keenly. It takes a special breed of human to stick with the rebel cause for decades. This is an essential role to play in moving the world to a better place, but it is not the only solution and it is not always necessary. There are rich, warm, planetary systems to move to that do not require us to hide alone in caves, on desert planets, or in a swamp on the jungle planet of Tatooine. Savvy people often move early in their careers – “for a better opportunity” – and as many times as is needed to find a hospitable environment for their dreams and values. As they leave, the strategic ones do not give in to the impulse of the Dark Side, which would have them burn everything in their wake. Instead, they continue to build relationships which may reopen in a more positive light sometime in the future.

The fully grown Carrie Fischer gave a piece of advice to her protégés that is a new one for women but is becoming louder and more insistent – “Never let them make you a slave.” She was referring to the gold bikini scene with Jaba the Hut – which I suspect fuelled a number of unsavoury male sex fantasies that followed Carrie Fischer in the flesh for the rest of her life. Healthy boundaries are new for many women – and for many people. We are still clumsy in expressing them consistently, but this skill is fundamental and powerful. Diversity is not always easy, but bullying, racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance are no longer OK. The women of my generation, who were advised to not take risks with their personal safety (which essentially meant giving up one’s power and freedom), to dress modestly (rather than expressively and beautifully), and to never risk expressing anger or ambition (which reflect an expectation that our basic personal needs should be treated with respect and dignity). My daughters’ generation has words and ideas like slut-shaming (reframed to self-esteem and positive body image), rape culture (shifting to a growing expectation of explicit consent), and structural violence (previously known as the concrete ceiling – now replaced with inclusive design that removes obstacles and works better for everyone).

We must learn to use these boundaries respectfully and constructively, in ways that are firm, calm, and clear rather than violent and angry, but this next step is an important part of the puzzle and the power of the Force. The fact that many leaders are making public statements that organizations will continue to embrace diversity and protect the vulnerable – in the face of a Trump Presidency – is evidence of a collective tipping point in this journey.

Thank you Carrie Fischer. You got a lot of us to the table, and while some of my generation got ourselves fired for spitting in Darth Vader’s face, we had a great ride and the next generation has learned from our mistakes. May the Force carry you to a universe which is filled with love and light. May you find a place where everyone has the opportunity to bring their best to the table and be heard – in the middle of the grandest creative adventures you can imagine.


From a Sea of Suits to a Rainbow of Humans


Removing structural barriers is better for everyone.

A friend of mine just shared an acceptance speech by Madonna, whose comment, “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” struck a chord with me, along with Shonda Rimes’ acceptance speech earlier this year, “How many women had to hit that glass (ceiling) before the first (hairline) crack appeared?…when I finally hit that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it.”

I write this post on December 6, 2016, 25 years after my PhD defence, a few weeks before I’ve been a professor at the UofA for 25 years, a few days after the US election which has hit those who believe in decision making based on mutual respect and thoughtful consideration hard. The rejection of human dignity, equality and education as core values is even harder to absorb. Another quote sticks out for me – “Explain to me again how a man who is accused of sexual harassment can have his career ruined.”  I’ve always been skeptical of this particular “monster under the bed” fear as more of a way to silence and marginalize victims than as credible concern for any honorable man.

On the up side, professional women (and thoughtful people of all kinds) have finally had it, and are finding voices that are clearer, calmer, and stronger than I have ever heard before. Somehow it is a relief to have the silent elephant in the room finally outed.

I have been grappling with finding some meaning to shine light in the midst of all of this important chaos. I can offer one simple model, and one hopeful story. The model occurred to me after watching Michelle Obama’s rather remarkable speech, and it goes like this. Imagine you have 100 men and 100 women. Among the men, there are two predators, and each of them misbehaves 3 times a year. Over 10 years, this means that 60 women have a bad experience, some of them repeats, so say 50. OK. Stay with me for a second. This means that 98 of the guys are honorable, decent guys who avoid the jerks. 50 of the women managed to avoid the bad experiences, and they want to believe it won’t happen to them…so when any of the 50 women speak up, there are 150 people who would really really viscerally like to not believe them. Playing with those numbers made me feel a lot clearer about the 2% – and this unbelievable practice we have had – for decades – of not believing the victims. Thankfully, that practice of shaming and silencing is ending – even if the predators remain.

So after 25 years…or 50 years…it seems that the 2% is not likely to go away. Maybe we should just lighten up. After all, it’s only 2%.  What happens if we let that slip to 10% of men and they misbehave 5 times a year? OH. That’s where we used to be. 50% of women had a bad experience at work every single year. Shit. We have to stay vigilant. What a drag. What else could we possibly do? OH. The 50% of women who have a bad experience are actually a in better position to get leverage than the 148 who weren’t in the room! The reality is that we can never perfectly protect the people we love – even though we’ve made a LOT of progress – but we can give them strong voices and big, brave, hearts and teach them how to protect themselves when the predators come calling.

Finding voices that are firm, calm and clear and sharing those with our children and young adults is now a possibility. Models of conflict resolution and ways of teaching respectful behavior are expanding (check out the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations) – and I spent last Monday in a workshop about how we could expand these practices at our university so that students can learn and facilitate conversations that heal. I love the visionary leaders who give us the latitude to explore these possibilities and build an environment where students can grow as leaders and humans as well as scholars.

Part two of the story comes from the AIChE. The Institute sent me a fancy certificate of old age (25 years of membership) last summer. I was startled and bemused. I was much more pleased to be elected a Fellow shortly after that. Two of my good friends convinced me that I should and could go to my first Fellows Breakfast – in San Francisco, one week after the US election. I sat at a table with several friends that I have known for 25 years – and several new ones who are fantastic and I look forward to seeing again.

When I first met this tiny collection of women (and men), we were at a grand old hotel called The Palmer House in Chicago. It was 1990 and Barack Obama was in his second year of law school – the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There were about 20 women at the AIChE meeting – and about 2000 men in dark suits. All of us women wore a red blazer at some point during the week – visible trail blazers by instinctive and collective agreement. We met each other on a balcony above the lobby where we all laughed and marveled at the sea of dark suits below – with an occasional splash of red – and the terrifying tables of 100% fried food at the evening receptions.

After 25 years the meeting has transformed – but more importantly the leadership has transformed. Our breakfast table had 5 women, 2 white guys, two past presidents and an incoming president – and none of the Presidential population were the white guys. Fresh fruit was a welcome part of the meal. The hallways are now filled with animated discussion and a whole rainbow of humanity – including a few children – and a number of folks who wear blue jeans with their blazers. This arrival into a diverse rainbow of recognized leaders emerging from a sea of dark suits was a really joyful event for all of us.

Please God, and Father Christmas, if you love us at all, give us the strength to continue to build a world where there are fewer walls and more chain link fences in 2017 and beyond. Let us seek solutions that allow everyone to enjoy the game in ways that we haven’t yet dreamed of, and that create a world that works better for everyone.

25 years later…

25 years ago today, 14 female engineering students were killed at Ecole Polytechnique. I was studying for my PhD at the time, teaching the same course those women were taking.

This anniversary is always vivid for me. On the one year anniversary, three of us were interviewed in a long piece CBC did about women in engineering. All three of us became engineering professors. On the two year anniversary, I went to a memorial service and then defended my thesis. The movers packed our house to move west while I was working, and we had a wonderful party that night.

Every year, the media coverage is fractured – violence against women, the need for more women in engineering, feminism, all overlaid with the intense emotional impact of the event – young people full of promise who died too soon. For me, one comment emerges from all of the others. In our interview on that one year anniversary, Kim Woodhouse, now Dean of Engineering at Queen’s, was asked what made her keep going. Her reply is iconic:

“I have a daughter. I want things to be easier for her than they were for me.”

I now have two daughters. The oldest is in mechanical engineering, and like those mechanical engineering students at Polytechnique 25 years ago, she is poised to graduate this spring. She is magnificent, and full of life, and on every single one of her co-op terms, she has been sheltered and helped by people who care.

My youngest is also in mechanical engineering – in second year. She is magnificent. While my choice coming out of high school was between theatre and engineering – and I now spend large parts of my adult life using performance skills – her choice was between fashion design and mechanical engineering. I am waiting in great suspense to see where she lands with these two great loves of her life.

I also have a legacy of many, many students and young colleagues – all of them touched by working with someone who intentionally breaks the mould to engage with what becomes possible when engineering skills are leveraged with a feminine perspective on the world’s problems.

Their path to the profession that they love – we all call engineering “the best job in the world” – is easier than mine was. Anyone I studied with was assumed to be a romantic interest – but they have friends, teammates, colleagues, and a rich diaspora of relationships. I lived in a cultural vacuum for many years in order to fit in – but they are in the middle of engineering art shows and meaningful international service. The co-op program and living in Alberta combine to provide terrific job experience to complement their academic work and build the skills they need to make a difference in the world. None of this existed in our world 25 years ago.

We are still confused about feminism (what could be simpler than equality?), we are still ineffective when it comes to gun control (seriously – you need an assault weapon as a civilian?), and we still need more women in engineering (we REALLY do!) – but Kim was right.

Things are better than they were 25 years ago.

It IS easier for my daughters than it was for me.

AND it is still important to engage with these difficult intertwined issues and keep moving the world forward.

We can all make a difference.

Wishing you all a powerful December 6th, filled with grace and clarity.