Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Gender Bias

Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Gender Bias

Women are underrepresented in the higher echelons of leadership across the spectrum of business, political, military, and sports organizations.  According to Gipson et al. (2017) women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce yet men hold the majority of leadership positions in corporate and political fields.  It is not enough to teach girls how to lead, stereotypes about women and girls must be challenged.  It begins before kindergarten, encouraging girls to learn to speak with peers, handle conflicts, and take risks (Simmons, 2017; Weisbourd, 2014).

Wicked problems are social or cultural problems that are difficult to solve because of lack of knowledge, numbers of opinions and people involved, an outsized economic challenge, and the interconnectedness of the problem with other issues and problems (Kolko, 2012).  The underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership in male-dominated fields is a wicked problem.  The lack of visible role models and mentors are part of the wicked problem that organizations have tried to address with trainings and support groups.  But recent studies by Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2017) and Weisbourd (2014) indicate early intervention is needed to allow girls to develop into women leaders.  Simmons (2017) stated bias has already set in by the time a young woman goes to work.  The work of Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2017) shows gender stereotypes affect the self-perceptions and behaviors of girls as early as 5 and 6 years-old.  Grassroots organizations might create intersecting programs to provide opportunities for young girls to build leadership skills and self-confidence while allowing girls and boys to experience leaders of both genders, allowing all participants to express their full selves in a non-biased, safe environment.

The wicked problem of addressing gender bias in leadership might be accomplished using Design Thinking.  According to Kolko (2012) there are always more than one cause and one solution to wicked problems.  The goal is not to ‘fix’ the problem of gender bias in society, but rather to ease the negative symptoms and change the direction of society and culture in a positive way.  Applying Design Thinking problem solving strategies*  to gender bias in leadership opportunities will allow the application of multiple perspectives from representatives of community groups, educational institutions, political parties, and business organizations in an empathetic, reasoned, rapid prototyping of possible solutions to the problem.  There is no one answer to society’s bias about women’s capacity for leadership, but with DT methods local organizations can change the vision of their community.

*For more information on DT strategies see the Stanford University crash training at



Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391.

Gipson, A. N., Pfaff, D. L., Mendelsohn, D. B., Catenacci, L. T., & Burke, W. W. (2017).

Women and Leadership: Selection, Development, Leadership Style, and Performance. TheJournal of Applied Behavioral Science53(1), 32-65.

Kolko, J. (2012).  Wicked problems: Problems worth solving.  Austin, TX: AC4D.

Simmons, R. (2016). The Things We Cannot See: Changing What We Think, Want and Believe When It Comes to Girls and Power. Catalyst.

Weissbourd, R. (2014).  Leaning out: Teen girls and leadership biases.  (Making Caring Common Project).  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Carolyn R Rehorn's picture Carolyn R Rehorn | May 17, 2017 4:22 pm MST

Excellent article on a wicked problem and relevant to my industry - civil engineering. I especially appreciate your statement "the goal is not to ‘fix’ the problem of gender bias in society, but rather to ease the negative symptoms and change the direction of society and culture in a positive way."

I am new to the doctoral journey and looking forward to making my own contributions to help change direction in a positive way.


Becky Rehorn

Lynne Devnew's picture Lynne Devnew | May 27, 2017 6:34 am MST

Hi Rilla and Carolyn,

Have you considered joining the Women and Leadership Shared Interest Group right here at Research.Phoenix.Edu! Members of any research center are able to also join the SIG and your posts indicate you'd be right at home.   There is a discussion there right now on the influence of values on leadership aspirations.

I love the debate between whether we need to change the girls/women or change society - and am quite convinced it is a bit of both as they are so interrelated!

For 4 years now, I've been involved with a wonderful team of women researchers doing a collaborative autoethnographic study of our development of our own leader identities - we've published a chapter, have a few articles at the submission stage, and presented at many conferences.  Consistent with Rilla's post, we have found childhood a very rich topic, so rich that we've had a challenge moving past it!


About the Author

Additional content will be provided upon request.

Rilla Hynes
More posts by author:

Visit Our Blog

Visit the Research Process Blog for insights and guidance from University researchers Go >>


Recent News