Exploring culture, gender and risk-taking in design

Researchers apply data from engineering design workshops to better understand what impacts creative, entrepreneurial decisions

Katie Heininger, Schreyer Honors College and industrial engineering alumna, helps lead a design challenge during an engineering design workshop held in Morocco. Photo was taken in April 2019. Credit: Scarlett MillerAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the demand for innovative and creative solutions to problems increases, so does the need for inventive and resourceful individuals. Often these individuals answer society’s most challenging questions with an entrepreneurial mindset: creating new products or services that disrupt current markets and businesses. While designing new goods and building new businesses is necessary to advance, many view them as risky choices due to their unknown nature and the uncharted territory associated with them.

To better understand what characteristics lead people to take risks when making decisions about product innovations, Penn State researchers explored how culture and gender influence risk-taking during the engineering design process. The study aimed to provide additional evidence and new insight about how culture and gender impact large-scale creative thinking, eventually leading to improved entrepreneurial training and educational intervention tactics.

Scarlett Miller, director of engineering design and associate professor of engineering, design and industrial engineering, presents to Moroccan engineering design workshop attendees. Photo was taken in April 2019. Credit: Scarlett MillerAll Rights Reserved.

Led by Scarlett Miller, associate professor of engineering design and industrial engineering and director of the engineering design program, the research team hosted multiple engineering design workshops in both the U.S. and Morocco. Aoran Peng, a current industrial engineering doctoral student, said the team members selected Morocco as a workshop location because of its position as a rising economic power and its people’s passion and enthusiasm for entrepreneurship. Peng received her master of science in engineering design in 2020 and completed her thesis by investigating the impact of risk-taking by Moroccan students tasked with generating and selecting novel design solutions.

Additional team members include Zoubeida Ounaies, director of the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems and professor of mechanical engineering; Jessica Menold, Hartz Family Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering; and Katie Heininger, Schreyer Honors College and industrial engineering alumna. The team partnered with Hamid Kaddami, professor at Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco.  

“Risk-taking is interesting, as it is an essential factor to consider in almost every field if you want to be innovative,” Peng said. “Risk is associated with novel ideas — because no one has done it before, it is impossible to know whether it will be successful in the market or if you will be successful in meeting your expectations. Those are all risks that individuals need to consider.”

The team built upon Miller’s previous design, entrepreneurial and innovation research by analyzing the differences between the design concepts that were generated and selected versus the and risk-tolerance of Moroccan and Penn State students in the engineering design workshops. The Moroccan relationships were fostered through previous work with Ounaies and the United States Tunisia Morocco Partnership on Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Engineering Education.

Held in April 2019, the engineering design workshop focused on design thinking and challenges in innovation projects. Photo was taken in April 2019. Credit: Scarlett MillerAll Rights Reserved.

Preliminary findings show that U.S. and Moroccan students harnessed different concept generation abilities, but similar factors influenced the students' decisions during the concept selection phase. Idea fluency, or the number of ideas developed, was higher for the U.S. student group, but there was no difference in the perceived quality of the idea sets developed between the two groups. In addition, U.S. women produced more ideas than U.S. men, but there were no gender effects for the Moroccan students. Regardless of gender or culture, workshop participants in both countries exhibited ownership bias toward their ideas that had a high perceived quality compared to other ideas. 

Miller explained that a better understanding of how culture, gender and risk-taking impact entrepreneurship is necessary to improve design, innovation and entrepreneurial education.

“We can’t necessarily create a blanket curriculum to help inspire or to help push creative ideas into fruition,” she said. “We need to understand the role of the individual and how their experiences impact the decision-making process when generating and selecting novel design ideas.”

Held in April 2019, the engineering design workshop focused on design thinking and challenges in innovation projects. Photo was taken in April 2019. Credit: Scarlett MillerAll Rights Reserved.

As this foundational project identified that culture and gender differences exist in the risk-taking and decision-making realm, Miller said further data collection is needed to look at the prevalence of these findings in a broader population. While preliminary, these findings are meaningful in that they are among the first to establish and quantify these differences.

“Our role here is to start to tease apart the culture and gender factors and differences through engagements we have with our worldwide partners,” she said. “By starting to tease apart those differences, we can identify how to better train and intervene.”

Funding for this research was provided by Miller’s National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award geared at transforming the concept selection process to maximize product success.


Last Updated April 02, 2021