Response to Digits of Pi

From: Lis Drake
To: Sheila Widnall

I enjoyed reading your presentation very much and it resonated a lot!  It triggered another concept that I think important to articulate. Thought I'd share it with your impressive e-mail list!!  All people are born with right and left brains that are tailored to different functions. In an analytical male society we have come to accept the dominance of the left brain and its logical powers. This is the capability to "solve" problems through disaggregation, specialist analysis, and re-aggregation to get the "right" answer. Errors create "losers."  Winners want to lead the pack! These are the folks who know "pi" to twenty places!  

The right brain operates in a more intuitive and creative mode -- learning from errors, seeking consensus, negotiating, valuing intangibles, etc. Our society recognizes this in artists, but often views these folks as "talented, but impractical." Right brain people, want to work within the pack to achieve the group good and also are often effective leaders. The world today is getting much more interconnected and complex -- we need both parts of our brain to thrive! Many of my male colleagues tend to discount or hide their right brain capabilities -- especially in public.  In fact my education at MIT trained me in this mode and it took years for me to realize the extreme value of the right brain. Women in general appreciate the right brain talents -- and this is what they can bring to academia, industry, and government. It isn't one or the other -- we need both! And both men and women have different balances of capabilities.  By working together, we can leverage all of our talents.  

Academia is largely organized around left brain values -- these are readily quantifiable and attributable to individual achievers. Leaders tend to be people who excel at left brain skills and this culture will tend to select new members who are similar in values.  Quite a few male academics - and most women - who are not into the dominant left brain mode, are not welcomed into the powerful leadership circles.  We need to find new ways to value people -- it is easy to count publications and patents, or analyze physical accomplishments. How do we value participatory and negotiating skills? Vision? Ethics? And how do we let engineering students know that these other talents will serve them well in achieving a full, happy, and productive life?