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What If Scientists Were Celebrities?

Bumping into Millie Dresselhaus in the halls of MIT, where she was an Institute Professor, would invariably earn you a warm smile.…By Michael Segal

Bumping into Millie Dresselhaus in the halls of MIT, where she was an Institute Professor, would invariably earn you a warm smile. It was hard to imagine a more modest or down-to-earth scientist. Which is why it was such a pleasure to see a video ad by General Electric imagining the late scientist (who passed away this February) as a global everyday superstar, chased by paparazzi and feted with her own line of dolls.

The ad is one of a series designed to communicate a corporate character of diversity, openness, and innovation. We caught up with Linda Boff, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, to talk about the ads and the broader culture of GE. Her summary of the case for diversity in the workplace was refreshingly straightforward: Diversity drives innovation, and a company’s workers should reflect the world they work in.

To make that happen, GE plans to employ 20,000 women in technical roles by the end of the decade, and to hire women into fully half of all entry-level technical positions. Currently, women fill under a fifth of technical roles at the company. There’s still a ways to go, but—to borrow a phrase from the ad—they’re working on it.


Why is having more women in technical roles an important goal for GE?

The diversity of mindset drives innovation. Also, as the company has embraced more and more digital technology, we have needed to hire more people in software. We want to make sure that we are a place that all kinds of great talent want to work, both men and women.

How important are role models in encouraging young women to enter science and technology?

I do think role models matter a lot. Our board has five women, out of 18 people. We have a female Vice Chair. We have numerous women in senior business and corporate executive roles, including one who runs our locomotive business. I want to work at a company where you see people that you can be and see women represented at all levels at the company.

What are some of the more recent moves GE has taken to increase contributions by women?

One of the things that we felt was really important at GE was making sure that our work force looks like the world that we operate in. And in the tech world at large there are still not enough women. So the company made the bold declaration that we are going to have 20,000 women in tech jobs by 2020. That includes coding, manufacturing, engineering, coding, and so on. We’re also targeting 50 percent women in entry-level positions, so we’ve taken a hard look at where we recruit. We’ll be recruiting at colleges that are graduating more women engineers.

How did your Millie Dresselhaus ad come about?

The idea of celebrating the uncelebrated is kind of near and dear to us as a company. The team here and [our advertising agency] BBDO had this thought of, what if scientists were the real celebrities rather than the people you usually see on page six and in the Daily Mail. That was the provocation … imagining a world where the people we put on a pedestal had achieved great things in science and technology. We featured Professor Dresselhaus in a sort of fun, cheeky way that’s humorous but very human. It was a very creative spot, and we wanted a big platform to drive impact, so we ran it during the Academy Awards.

What kind of a response did that ad get?

Our chairman got a note from MIT, which is where Millie Dresselhaus was a professor, signed by all the female professors there. That meant the world to us. We got a great reaction in social media. Tweets and re-tweets, and shares. Then internally, which of course matters a lot. Our employees felt very proud.

What were some of your other favorite ads?

One ad called “My mom works at GE” can’t help but have tremendous resonance to me. I almost tear up when I see it. It was so well received inside and outside of the company. We literally had employees’ children sending us drawings of what their mom or their dad does at GE. It struck an incredible chord.

Another successful commercial featured the “idea creature.” It’s this big stuffed creature who’s shunned by the world but finds its home at GE. It does a really good job of speaking to the DNA of the company.

And then finally, from a pure effectiveness point of view, we did a series of ads maybe two years ago that centered around a fictitious GE software developer named Owen. He explained his job to his bewildered parents and friends, who had no idea that GE was involved in doing anything digital, whether it was software or coding. The ad led to an 8x jump in job applications to our digital business.

Are you optimistic about communicating difficult concepts from science to the public?

It is amazing to me how the right engagement, the right storytelling, the right cultural relevance can get across things where people would otherwise say, “I don’t understand that.” The movie Hidden Figures is one case in point. My favorite example of all time, though, which is not a science example, is the movie The Big Short. They found funny ways to tell you about really complicated financial things that make your head hurt and that people don’t care about. So I think it is possible, but I think it is about starting a conversation.

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