Being a woman might open doors, but you still need to step through them yourself.
Interview with Professor Lucienne Blessing
As a Dutch female professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Co-director (SUTD) of the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre, Lucienne Blessing has made an impactful contribution to science and education. About twenty years ago, Lucienne became the first female professor ever in Mechanical Engineering in Germany. Today we discuss how being a woman has influenced her career in a male dominated environment.
Which event or person has influenced the success you have achieved most?
“When I was working in Cambridge, at the age of 40, there was a vacancy at the Technical University in Berlin for a full professor for a chair with a long tradition. Many of the old (male) professors retired. I was back then the only female, the only one coming from abroad, and I was relatively young, without any industrial experience. So I did not even apply, thinking I would not stand a chance. But someone from the committee encouraged me to apply. I got the position and became the first female professor in mechanical engineering in Germany.
I would not have been able to build my career without the support of my husband. He gave up his job and together with our children we travelled from country to country; this would not have been possible without him spending his time at home.”
To what extent do you think that being a woman in academia complicates or perhaps facilitates a successful professional career?
“Frankly, it has never complicated my career. Once I was in the intensive application process for the position in Berlin, I was not nervous. I thought: “This is who I am, this is what I am capable of and if they want someone with a different profile, they might take me.” At first I was afraid to be a ‘token woman’, useful for meeting a quota. But it was a core professorship within the university, so it did not make any sense to hire me only because I was a woman. And they never gave that impression, which built my confidence. The atmosphere at the university at Berlin was positive. Although I was the only woman and the first of a new generation, my male colleagues involved me in research applications and were very encouraging, almost in a fatherly way.
In my career I have never felt discriminated against. I think being a woman has even helped me, as I was easily recognizable. Visibility is important. The university of Cambridge, where I worked before Berlin, gave me the opportunity to travel and build my network, which was essential in my career. At conferences you stand out as a woman amongst all the dark suits and I think that people more easily recognize me and connect with me to discuss what I presented and also ask me for instance to be a panel member. I believe being a woman has also given me easier access to several board positions. But, while it opens doors, you still need to step through them yourself. They only approach you if you do a good job.”
Are you in touch with female peers or are you a member of any network organisation with other women from academia? What does that bring you?
“Mechanical engineering is known for its down-to-earth culture. It is ‘fuss-free’, it is the substantive knowledge that is valued. Being a man or woman is not so much of an issue. I have therefor never felt the need to specifically reach out to other women. I had lovely supporting colleagues and I am still in close contact with them and those who worked for me, both women and men.
I noticed that sometimes female networks were very negative, like they were against men, blaming them for not being at certain positions. Sure, sometimes this might be true, but in general I feel that in engineering we get equal access to the simply limited number of leadership positions.”
What do you think are the biggest differences between Singapore and the Netherlands when it comes to women in high academic positions? What can these countries learn from each other?
“The SUTD is very culturally diverse and 40% of the students is female. This is very high. It seems like the barrier, often experienced by women, here is lower. It might have to do with the fact that at Singaporean high schools more girls choose math and physics. They seem to have less of an idea that these subjects would be mainly for boys, and they seem to be less worried that these subjects might not be ‘cool’.
Unfortunately the leadership positions in Singapore in academics are still dominated by men. But in Singaporean ministries the ratio is much more equal. How to increase the number of women in top academic engineering positions? I think first of all that it will take some time. There simply is a thirty years’ time difference. Just wait one generation and the current female students will step up. People become a full professor when they are around forty/fifty years old. The female students are just not there yet.
But there are multiple variables influencing the number of high positioned women. One important factor is childcare. Often, we see that the woman takes on that role, with society pushing the fathers to keep working. My husband has been frequently asked when he would start working again after the birth, not me, while he was the one raising our children. In Singapore that seems to be easier for women, with often the grandparents living in and helpers being around.
Another barrier for women is the old boys’ network. Because the amount of leadership positions thins out at the top, men know and support each other. I understand where it comes from, but this makes it harder for women.
It is important for tech universities to stimulate female students to join and stay engaged. Women tend to be more reflective, thinking more about the purpose of their study; what can I use it for? Where men often choose for technology for the sake of it. The climate crisis forces us to focus on sustainability. And there are many social grand challenges that need addressing. Choosing studies that involve design will make the world a better place, we need both men and women in this field more than ever!”
Finally, what advice would you like to give to young girls, what is the advice you had wanted to get yourself?
“Research shows that the self-image of women is lower than of men. So my advice is to believe in yourself and the work you do. Don’t be afraid to take a bold step, you will grow when you challenge yourself. Often people consider me courageous but actually I am not. Just be yourself and go for it!”
Lucienne Blessing joined the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in 2016 as Professor and as Co-director of the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre. Prior to her current position, Lucienne was Vice-president for Research (2007-2013) and Professor in Engineering Design and Methodology at University of Luxembourg (2007-2016); interim Director of University of the Greater Region (a consortium of 6 universities in Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg) (2013-2015); Vice-president for Research and International Relations (2002-2004) and Professor in Engineering Design and Methodology at Technical University of Berlin (2000-2007); Senior Research Associate and Associate Director at Cambridge University Engineering Design Centre (1994-2000), Deputy Director of the British Aerospace – Rolls-Royce University Technology Partnership (UTP) for Design, University of Cambridge, UK (1998-2000); and researcher and lecturer at University of Twente (Netherlands) (1984-1992).
She received her MSc from Delft University of Technology (NL), a PhD from the University of Twente (NL). the “Young Lion” WDK award for “contributions to design science”, an Honorary Doctorate from Mälardalen University in Sweden, a Peabody Visiting Professorship at the MIT, and membership of acatech, the German Academy of Science and Engineering.
Her research interests include: Empirical studies into design, Design methodologies; Design for climate; Design Education; Systems design; User experience; Design Science, Design Theory, Transdisciplinarity, Ethics.
Lucienne has over 30 years of university teaching experience – mainly in systematic product development (Bachelor and Master of Engineering), design science (PhD and Master students) and Machine Elements (Bachelor) – and has facilitated Design Innovation workshops for public and private organizations.
Thus far 26 PhD students successfully defended their PhD thesis under her supervision and a further 4 under her co-supervision. In the last 5 years, she has written 1 edited book, 2 book chapters, 13 journal papers, and 325 reviewed conference publications, given 29 keynote presentations and invited lectures in 11 different countries and has been on 10 panels.