Renn Scott featured among Canadian women in electronics
Senior director of Design at Myant & founder of Daily Goods Design LABS shares her thoughts on diversity
Throughout 2020 EP&T explores the topic of diversity in the industry through a series of articles called Viewpoint; stories designed to get readers thinking about gender equity in the engineering profession, allowing others to maybe see their surroundings through a new lens.
Renn Scott, MA, interaction design, RCA, senior director of UX, ID & Data Vis at Myant Inc., Myant Inc. a Toronto-based smart textile & e-textile computing firm. She is also founder & chief designer of Daily Goods Design LABS. Scott is a strategic design thinker and user experience architect with a passion for creating innovative user experiences and forward-thinking product designs. A prolific inventor with over 100 patents, she has more than 15 years of experience at companies such as IBM and BlackBerry in leadership roles.
How did you first become interested and involved in engineering?
I came upon a role within a tech company purely by chance, at the time I was a freelance graphic designer, I came from working within an agency environment. I was hired to train a dev and trainer how to use design software that could be used to create user interfaces and design assets. Upon working just a few days with the team they decided they needed me based on seeing the skills that I had being very different then theirs.
How has your role or career path evolved over the years?
I have gone from generating visual assets and ui components to leading and managing teams that define overall product and user experience strategy for hardware and software related projects. My role, especially the past 5 years has been to help companies understand how to develop products from start to finish thinking about the people that they are designing for, and helping them understand how to evaluate and incorporate feedback along the way.
What are your most compelling accomplishments?
Most memorable accomplishment for me would be working with just a couple colleagues to create/develop BlackBerry Messaging (BBM), BlackBerry Maps, and the first BlackBerry Instore Demo where people could sign up and for the first time receive an invitation to chat via BBM. Messaging apps such as iMessage and WhatsApp came after BBM and chatting is now mainstream but at the time messaging didn’t exist. We could have never imagined how people would just a few years later incorporate phones into their daily lives to stay connected, communicate and to navigate from point a to b. (There were more than 190 million BBM users worldwide as of 2015).
I’ve had a variety of awards and accolades but for me a series that I initiated in partnership with the Ontario Science Center was where I have as a designer and leader felt I was able to make an impact through design. One of the goals I have with my startup Daily Goods Design LABS is to build an inclusive community and opportunities for kids, youth and women. To do this we look to educate, enable and inspire them through design and tech. Our ‘Make, Create and Innovate’ events, which are now typically called activations have been very successful. It’s been a privilege to host 2000+ kids, in workshops of typically 60+ our design process and simple prototyping techniques used to create future devices and wearables. Choosing from a variety of form factors (shapes and sizes) kids and parents and/or guardians the features they’d like the device or wearable to have based on how they communicate; entertain and plan out the things you do on a daily basis.
Providing kids and youth an opportunity to create things for themselves that could become real world products is inspiring as it can get. In many cases those participating skew female, I can only hope the experiences they have give them confidence in the future to continue in the field of design and engineering. Being able to see in yourself the ability to innovate in a safe environment is an incredibly powerful thing for individuals young and old and it has been a real privilege to work with people in a public space where they choose to participate on their own.
What is your message to female engineers seeking to take on leadership roles?
Find people that can support you, be accountable to them and vice versa. This is something that I can’t say I’ve been that successful in doing, so perhaps this is a message to myself and the role that I can and need to play for others.
Can gender imbalance in the engineering industry be solved?
Of course, any problem can be solved based on an understanding of people’s wants and needs. A metaphor of this could be a door that we go through each day that doesn’t open properly. Instead of walking through it each day we could pause and see what we can do to make it work properly. Maintenance and repair for everything we encounter and use on a daily basis is always needed, as is the need for asking others what their experience is and how they may fix something given the opportunity to do so.
If not an engineer, what do you think you would have become?
A marine biologist, or a detective. That’s what I wanted when I was 7, somehow both still make sense. 🙂 I love the water and live close to the lake and my curiosity to discover new things is why I continue in the field that I’m in.
What key words of advice do you have for employers seeking to create a supportive environment for women?
Work environments need to be diverse and inclusive. Companies need to quantify where they’re at in terms of the people they have and a culture to support them. Attracting, supporting and promoting equally without bias is important and this isn’t happening.
How can we measure? Educate and have managers across an organization evaluate why individuals that have been promoted were chosen and why mentoring or a focus on other team members that are peers has or has not happened. In each case, you can see why some people have been able to move forward and why others are held back. This over time is critical if we want to see success.
How can we educate and enable? Create individual, team and group objectives that have to be met over a month, 3, 6 months and so on. At each stage have individuals communicate personal messages of their experience and what they learned and have been able to do because of this.
What do you communicate and share? Using social media to share your success and failures in this area is also key. If you’re not inclusive but you have this as a goal, sharing this as an objective can mean that people that can make an impact will choose to join your organization taking on a role that perhaps no one else internally can. We need to think about who can help us make an impact and how we can support them to do so. Ultimately we know in many cases those that say they’re inclusive are those only paying attention to dollars and the business impact this has to them. In either case we start to move the needle as the saying goes and true leaders in this area can create momentum in organizations, regardless of being able to convince everyone it’s the right thing.
What impact does the lack of female role models in higher level positions have on aspiring engineers or young women entering the field?
The culture and society in which you grow up in of course influences what you believe you can do. A lack of female role models in higher level positions means girls and women will be discouraged from pursuing STEM degrees and entering or remaining in related occupations. I believe we need early intervention in school STEM programs. If we educate and enable younger generations we can change what is ingrained gender biases and stereotypes. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but it’s the younger tech savvy generations that can share on a larger scale through social media their successes increasing opportunities for women. We need to help kids and teens understand the opportunities they have and the role they can play individually and as a collective. As women age we can then support them as entrepreneurs through capital support.
Can you share an engineering workplace encounter you’ve experienced, or have been told about, that provides an example of unconscious bias based on gender or race?
I have volunteered to help an outreach initiative focused on helping women learn how to code. I was told they were looking and hoping for someone ‘less privileged’ to help lead this. I was really taken back by the comment in that I’ve never felt ‘privileged’ in the work or positions I’ve been able to obtain. In this case I didn’t fit the ‘token’ type of woman that they were looking for. Because I’m a white blonde woman I fit a stereotype where they assumed I was rich and had never been affected by any bias. I wonder sometimes if organizations are looking to really help or simply make sure from the onlookers point of view that they’re covered by associating themselves with what they perceive to be the most vulnerable.
How should people react to such occurrences when they recognize them? My suggestion is to try to understand where people’s bias comes from. You can’t necessarily change their point of view, but you can share yours and hope that in the future they’ll at least consider what they’ve heard perhaps for the first time. Regardless of gender or race one thing I believe we as women need to remember is to support each other. This isn’t always the case, we need allies, the people we choose to surround us need to have an inclusive mindset.
For more Women in Electronics, check out ept.ca