Ep. 3 - Women of the Lab

March 8, 2023

In this episode, hosts Sydney and Monique celebrate the world of women in innovation, exploring women's challenges and opportunities in this field. Their backgrounds in design and social innovation bring a unique perspective, focusing on how your mindset can be used to create solutions for the barriers women encounter in innovation. This episode aims to empower and encourage listeners to drive positive change in their communities and beyond by showcasing the stories of inspiring women and promoting the importance of diversity in innovation.

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Feb 23, 2023; Women of the Lab



I think preparation is just about being ready, but then you go with the flow anyways.


I love that definition. I'm going to steal that.

OK, well, welcome everyone, to Responsible Disruption. My name is Sydney Johnson and I'm the design lead at J5 and one of the stewards of the work in the Social Impact Lab. Today, we're going to be talking about the women in the Lab. I'm really excited for this episode.

00:32 MONIQUE: So am I.

00:33 SYDNEY: And want to introduce yourself, Monique?

00:37 MONIQUE: Yeah, thanks! And my name is Monique Blough, and I'm the Project Director for the Social Impact Lab Alberta.

00:43 SYDNEY: Awesome. So as a part of this episode, we wanted to make sure that we were featuring all the wonderful voices, or at least some of the wonderful voices of the women that we have the absolute privilege of working with every day. So we're going to refer to them throughout this episode. The names of the women featured on this episode are Asfa Riyaz, Pamela Downey and Veronica Sheppard, who are designers at J5. And in the Social Impact Lab, as well as Lynn Holdsworth, who is also in the Social Impact Lab but from the United Way side.

So you'll hear us speak to speak to some of our words as well as our own as we're going through. And of course, this podcast is being released right around right on International Women's Day. Happy International Women's Day, everyone. So we're going to talk a little bit about a specific lens there, but I think we should just start off, Monique, with talking about social innovation.

01:41 MONIQUE: It's a good place to start, given that's where our work is focused.

01:47  SYDNEY: Amazing, so let me give you a question which is, how do you define social innovation? What does that mean to you?

01:52  MONIQUE: Gosh, it's such a... it actually is such a good question because I think when I started this work I might have defined... no, I would define it differently than I do today.

02:03  SYDNEY: Oh

02:04 MONIQUE: And so for me, social innovation is certainly a response to a problem that needs to be addressed by society without question. And I think the opportunity with social innovation is that... it's really the innovation that can shape society. And it creates space for us to address complex problems, but it supports and in fact I think it requires intersectorial or cross sectoral collaboration, which for me is what makes social innovation so unique.

And I think the work of social innovation is really transformative. It's about impact on our communities, the organizations, the systems in which we work. And I think ultimately it's really a practice aimed at the well-being of the people and their communities. And lots of people would say that the benefits of social innovation are strengthening civil society, and that might be for a different podcast.

03:06 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely, that's so funny because when I was thinking of how I might define it, personally, I went for some reason the thing that came into my head was. Everyone thinks of innovation, of business context...

03:20 MONIQUE: Totally.

03:20 SYDNEY: And or puts that box around it or maybe doesn't realize how important innovation is in the social sector and in other areas that are less traditionally quote un quote business focused and when I think of social innovation, I think it's just the fact that innovation belongs in all of these different areas. And too often we get caught up in what's investable, where is it appropriate, but good innovation in any case always takes into account the effect on the people involved in that system. Like you were saying and their well-being.

04:00 MONIQUE: I think it's really interesting. We should be considering a lens of social innovation, as in innovation with people. In all types of innovation.

04:11 SYDNEY: Right.

04:11  MONIQUE: Whether it's breaking it down to technology, business, I mean we need to do it with the people that are involved in that, right?

04:20  SYDNEY: Absolutely.

04:20  MONIQUE: I couldn’t agree more.

04:21 SYDNEY: It's kind of a like complicated word, innovation. It means so many different things to so many people. It reminds me of the word design, as in different people define it differently. I think that the team around would agree with some of our posturing today about social innovation. Asma said that social innovation lies in its purpose and its people, and it's the field of work dedicated for the betterment and progression of society. I think that's a really nice way to sum it up. So Monique, you mentioned in some of your answer around social innovation, the systems. Can you elaborate on that? This is such a big part of everything we do. Let's, let's talk about the system a bit.

05:10 MONIQUE: Yeah, I think the interconnection of things, needs to be front and center when we're thinking about the like social innovation as a whole. And that interconnection of whether it's people developing things or even technology utilizing technology for innovation, the interconnectivity of all of those pieces means that we actually can't innovate or think about changes in society without us working together. So whether that's families, communities, industry, businesses coming to the table, right, or in fact structures that we've established. Like if we if we can start to unpack that and bring it together in the lens of how do we work as a system then can we truly innovate and start to see the impact on individuals in our communities and therefore, society as a whole.

06:11 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely, again, it's interesting. I completely agree with everything you're saying, and I also had this other piece of what it means to work in a system is sometimes people forget that you're in the system and all the systems and the structures that are layered on top of the work. So there's the system, as in we need to coordinate and work as a system together, because that's the way that we're going to create the most impact. And then there's also the systems that we are working within or sometimes hold us back or all those pieces as well.

06:49 MONIQUE: I think that's such an interesting point because it makes me think of those individuals that often think they're not in the system, right?

06:58 SYDNEY: Right.

06:58 MONIQUE: So conversations that we're having about how do we address a complex problem And sometimes it's like, well, I'm not in the system. So either I can support you differently or I'll think differently about it, but as soon as you engage in it, you are in fact a part of the system.

07:14 SYDNEY: And or even just that education piece up front of, you know, they could already be in the system even before engaging, but just completely not aware of it or of the systemic effects of the space that they're in. I think that if it's directly affecting you in a really tangible way, it's easier to point that out, but we're all affected by the systems that we're in. You know, speaking of a podcast about women in the Lab, why do we have International Women's Day? Well, it's because we work in a system that affects women in a different way than men. And so we have a day to talk about it and to and to recognize that and it's the same thing for systemic design and and systemic collaboration.

08:02 MONIQUE: I love that. It makes me think about then what is our role within that system.

08:07 MONIQUE: Right. So even around International Women's Day, right, as women in the Lab, what is our role in the context of how we work, how we share, and who we bring to the table?

08:21 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. I thought Pam had a really good insight about this too. People seek simplicity, but when and sometimes when solutions are simple, they don't seem good enough. But you know, when I think of that, I think of that there are wonderful, beautiful, simple solutions that come out of this work, and there's also complicated, messy hard to understand solutions that come out of this work and not even solutions, so kind of everything in between. Having beautiful moments of clarity as a part of it, but also continuing to go through the muck and the mess and and the confusion and the ambiguity is perhaps a necessary skill of working in this space?

09:06 MONIQUE: I think it takes resilience.

09:09 SYDNEY: Yeah! That's what I'm getting at, resilience.

09:11 MONIQUE: And the comfort with ambiguity.

09:15 SYDNEY: Yeah

09:16 MONIQUE: Like we really, almost need to lean into those two traits in order to be able to do what we do?

09:24 SYDNEY: Yeah. How do you deal with ambiguity?

09:26 MONIQUE: Oh, such a good question. I think partly how I deal with it is, I like the balance of some structure, so if I feel like we're going down a path of so much ambiguity that we don't know which way we're going. If I create a bit of structure around that for myself, whether it's through mind mapping or my own journey. It grounds me so it feels a bit more settling in the uncomfortable feeling that you have when you deal with ambiguity.

09:59 SYDNEY: Oh, I love that. Settling in the uncomfortable feeling. It's not trying to remove it but settling there and being with it. And how can I coexist in this space?

10:10 MONIQUE: Yeah, it's not like working out where if you keep doing the exercise it gets better, and it's always there, and it doesn’t matter.

10:17 SYDNEY: Yeah, and I think just as I’m following the nature of our conversation, it's interesting to reflect on. You know, if we have to educate people or people have to find a way themselves to understand that kind of systems view. They also have to find a way of working in this space to understand that ambiguity is a part of it and and having to go through it and you may not understand where you get to at the end. Do you find that your structures that you create for yourself change as you’re going through?

10:47 MONIQUE: Totally

10:49 SYDNEY: I think I know the answer.

10:51 MONIQUE: The little structures are there to give me that comfort, but it absolutely, it's not, yeah, it completely changes and that's also something we have to be really comfortable with. But how do you deal with it?

11:03 SYDNEY: Yeah, I think for me, I was just thinking. Is perhaps optimism is the simplest way to sum it up. There's those moments that feel so all-encompassing and maybe a little bit impossible, particularly when you're working on problems like, that are huge and have so many different impacts. And it can feel like, well, what can I do and or even what can this team do in this in this place, in this space and time, and remembering that when you're working in systems, you're moving the needle, you're not going to solve everything right away, all at once, completely. That's just not possible, but I remember that I'm moving something forward and others have moved it forward before me and others will move it after me and I just sit with that knowledge and positivity around that. As I'm talking, that makes me think of all the women that have come before me and all those that will come after me, you know? Monique, when you've been working in the Lab longer than I have. I feel like you paved a path for me to be a part of this work. And you know, recognizing that contribution is really important because women in leadership and women pulling up and supporting those that come after them is so, so crucial, and not just this work, but all work.

12:40 MONIQUE: Of course, I love that and makes me think of … so McKinsey did some work on women in in innovation, and they have this amazing line, which is about creating a community of innovators so that we can create pathways for women to all have a seat at the table. And what you just described made me feel like I was creating space for you to have that seat and all the other women that work in this space

13:11 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely.

13:11 MONIQUE: Thank you.

13:12 SYDNEY: Yeah! You're welcome. Just sprung that on you as we're live recording, yeah. Just hit it with some emotions, Monique, of course. So let's talk about that. Let's talk about women in innovation, specifically. Do you have any thoughts around that? Insights that we want share?

13:31 MONIQUE: I think I was talking about creating that pathways which, like I said, is not my words. It's really coming out of the McKinsey’s work that was done last year but I think it's our responsibility to create a safe space for women to be involved in innovation and specifically to be involved in social innovation. I think we bring a strength and an authenticity and a uniqueness to the work which I do think is unique to being a woman in this space and there is a greatness that comes from bringing diversity around women, right? Diversity of thought, diversity of history and culture. And, I really do believe our part of our responsibility is creating that safe environment.

14:28 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely. I was reflecting on this and I think as the workplace changes and shifts over time. You know, in a recent example might be hybrid work. We see the benefits of those shifts for a bunch of different individuals, but women is one of those groups where we can see that flexibility and those values coming through and as companies continue to work on their employee experiences in that way. They are making them more inclusive for women and that again goes back to impacting the system as a whole and impacting other organizations that are connected to those organizations. I think to say that we are at the end of that journey would be incredibly naive. So there's still a long way to go, but some promising pieces that have come out in the last couple of years sharing a personal story from my background.

15:41 SYDNEY: One of the projects that I undertook many years ago as a part of my master's thesis was to speak to women leaders in design and innovation initiatives, and I did that. I was comparing cultural context across the globe, so I did that in Asia, Europe, and North America and I was expecting to find different stories. And one of the big takeaways from that work was that the same stories around good things, bad things, barriers that these women were experiencing were actually incredibly similar. And so that reminds me, when you're talking about the piece that women bring to the work, I also think there's a shared experience as well that we have being women in spaces and places that weren't designed for us, but we can be a part of shifting that narrative.

16:37 MONIQUE: Together we can look at defining and redesigning the world around us, right?

16:45 SYDNEY: Yeah, yeah! That's the beautiful thing about being a designer, working in systems thinking. Working in social innovation is you see a problem and you're like, I can fix this or not fix it completely, but I can work on this. I can get to a new place with it and this episode is very optimistic because that's just the space that my brain inhibits.

17:14 MONIQUE: I'm on that same page.

17:14 SYDNEY: Nice.

17:15 MONIQUE: I'm thinking we are both optimistically curious about many things.

17:20 SYDNEY: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

17:20 MONIQUE: And we have so many great women that we work with, right?

17:25 SYDNEY: Yeah... I was reading through some of the... we had like I mentioned at the top some different women in the Lab writing into to share their thoughts on this. And there was a sentence Veronica wrote that said, “Show up as you are, unapologetically, because the uniqueness you bring to innovation is exactly what it needs.”

Well thanks Veronica, because I couldn't have said it better myself. I think as we're going through the questions that I often get. I'm so lucky to be in a place where women particularly come to me and say, how do I do what you do or how do I get into the space or how do I make a step in that direction and I have lots of thoughts around that. I'm sure you get those questions too, Monique.

18:20 MONIQUE: Yeah, absolutely. And I think every time we're either in an academic institution, right. We have the opportunities to either present or be a guest lecturer. Afterwards we have bright eyed and bushy tailed students excited to figure out what do we do next? How do we?

18:42 SYDNEY: What do you tell them?

18:44 MONIQUE: Ah, well, I tell them that when I started this path was not a forged path, right.

18:55 SYDNEY: Could argue that maybe it's still not.

18:58 MONIQUE: Yeah, yeah, that’s fair, for sure. And when we talk about creating pathways for women to be involved in innovation or social innovation, yeah, and design or systems thinking that path was not a line for me. I hadn't seen it, and so I'm one of those individuals that started it differently. I started in education, took business, focused on marketing. And as I worked through my career and started to think about, well marketing is all around the user, it's all about the customer. So when I'm speaking to students, or anyone that asks me for that matter, I always say that the path you see before you may not be as obvious as you think.

19:34 SYDNEY: I love that, yeah.

19:34 MONIQUE: Right. So don't say no to things that feel like they might be right, right. Even though they're not like, I should take information design, or I should go into architecture or industrial design or graphic design or business to focus on strategy. Like all of these pieces come together. So it's the best advice I can give based on my own journey, but everyone's journey is so different.

20:03 SYDNEY: Yeah, absolutely, When I reflect on people in this space, I think everyone comes from a really unique path and some might be easier to trace than others. But it is unique to you. I'm going to use the words of Lynn, who's sitting in the room with us. Our wonderful producer. And yes, I'm going to put that on the record on the podcast. Yes, that she offers the advice if you're interested and don't have a design background, get involved in whatever capacity you can meet those involved in the space, bring your knowledge and expertise to the table. I love that because it is reflecting that everyone has knowledge and expertise to bring to the table in this work it if we were all coming from the same background. Whether that was the choices we've made, or just who we happen to be, the work wouldn't get very far, would it?

20:55 MONIQUE: It certainly wouldn't cause we'd all be the same, wouldn't we?

21:02 SYDNEY: Yeah.

21:03 MONIQUE: Yeah, I love that.  I think what Lynn said is bang on and it makes me think of if we see a job posted and the job looks really interesting to us, but as we get to the organization that starts telling us all the qualifications and all the things we should be doing. I would encourage people to still challenge yourself to figure out what it is you're doing today that can apply to the work because if we're so focused on one way of thinking and one way of working in one skill set, then we miss the diversity of expansive thinking or of new ways of working. And so that's what I think another thing that's really important for people are trying to figure out how to get into this space.

21:44 SYDNEY: Well, they did that study right, comparing women and men who apply for jobs and found that men apply when they feel they have, I can't remember the exact statistics, but like 80% of the qualifications, and women tend to wait until they feel like they have 100% of the qualifications listed on the application. So don't do that; just apply to the job.

22:08 MONIQUE: Totally and try and imagine where you want to be? Like, did you always think you'd want to do this type of work?

22:21 SYDNEY: I think that I came in a more traditional design path, as you know. But I had to follow my nose as well within that. There's lots of fields and paths you can take within the world of design. I started out in graphic design and then I went to user experience which you know, as marketing is it's right in the name. And we're super focused on the user. Yeah, on the person there... But you're also following that interest in people, interest in humans and their behavior and what they do, but there's also an element of creativity to it.

You're wanting to express some sort of... OK. I'm interested in humans, but I also want to respond to what I'm seeing somehow. And then the social innovation part that layers over top of that is, and I kind of want it to be for better, for good, I don't want it to cause harm. I don't want to bring up one group of people at the expense of another. I want the work to be meaningful to me, and whatever that means. And so it's in my head as I'm talking. It's this sort of like 3 prong thing that came together and social innovation, and this moment in time for me.

23:46 MONIQUE: It makes me think that you'd be a great mentor.

23:47 SYDNEY: Oh, thanks!

23:49 MONIQUE: So honestly, but for those people trying to figure how to get on this path and that haven't gone necessarily to the traditional way, but are trying to figure out that next step, you know, mentorship with someone that works in the space, volunteer opportunities, right? At the UX community, the systems community. I mean, there's so many ways to get connected.

24:11 SYDNEY: Absolutely, and I'm a big fan of bilateral mentorship. If you're looking for mentorship or you're looking to be mentored, both of those groups of people —and sometimes you belong to both — have value. You could be at the beginning of your career. You could be in school. You can still provide value to people in the community. And so, you just have to find the confidence to know that.

24:43 MONIQUE: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think of the young people or not even, the volunteers that we've had in the Lab over the years, right? Some of them we've hired at United Way.

24:58 SYDNEY: A decent amount.

25:01 MONIQUE: And some have been hired at J5, right, and so for those that took the step forward and I don't think it takes a lot of courage to just sometimes we just have to push ourselves a little bit out of that comfort zone. Who knows what can happen?

25:12 SYDNEY: And to show up with that mindset of, I'm ready to learn. And again, it's back to optimism a little bit, of you know, I'm going to see what happens when I take this leap of faith and when you're in that role of volunteer or job role to be like, I don't know this and that's OK and I'm going to figure it out. And I do know this. And the person posting this job didn't even think of that. And here I am with this awesome skill.

25:40 SYDNEY: Yeah, well said. Any last thoughts we want to leave this discussion with? I think it's been really nice to kind of chat through this flow.

25:54 SYDNEY: We're in the beginning episodes of this podcast, really helping everyone who's listening to understand what social innovation is a little bit more around this area. Anything we want to end on, Monique?

26:10 MONIQUE: Well, I would just say since we're talking about women in the Lab in particular, that, as women, regardless of if you're in the Lab or what it is you're doing in your field, is to think about how you can support and lift each other up. And what does that mean? So if I could start my day, how am I going to elevate the women that work with me?

26:32 SYDNEY: Yeah, it's a great thought to keep in mind at all times. And and I like how you said start your day cause that I think now maybe I'll put that on my mirror or something as I'm getting ready, a good reminder.

26:45 MONIQUE: I want a photo. [Laughs]

26:48 SYDNEY: I want to make sure we thank the women of the Lab who helped contribute to this episode, and all the women in the Lab for everything you do to make a difference and all the contributions that you make towards the work, they are so appreciated. And that goes for you too Monique.

27:07 MONIQUE: Awe, same to you. Thanks.

27:11 SYDNEY: That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcasts to stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website at the Social Impact Lab dot com or follow us on social media and until next time, keep on designing a better world.