From Mechanics To Machine Learning, Women's Creativity Drives New Tech Development

Larry Alton

November 11, 2019

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Until recently, science-adjacent fields were summed up in the acronym STEM, short for science, technology, engineering, and math. Lately, though, you're more likely to see a slight variation - the addition of an "A" for art, making the acronym STEAM. Why the sudden switch? The fact is, scientific and engineering innovations aren't possible without the sort of creative thinking fostered by the arts.

Despite the educational emphasis on hard math and analytical skills, analytical capabilities aren't enough. Whether we're talking about developing new hardware for machines or coding complex programs, creativity and collaboration are key, and women are uniquely skilled at implementing these alternative approaches.

STEM's Shortcomings

One reason that women are better able to identify STEM's shortcomings, specifically around creative, flexible thinking, is because they're often victims of the fields' uniformity - just consider the female astronauts blocked from performing a planned, all-women moonwalk because there weren't enough small spacesuits to accommodate them. This sort of thing happens all the time. This is why women are more likely to be injured in car accidents (crash safety mechanisms aren't tested on "female" dummies) and why many medications don't work as well for women, or have unexpected side effects. Women aren't included in the design process, unless developers stop and think beyond their own narrow lens.

Communication And Collaboration

Since women are better skilled at thinking beyond narrow production norms and traditions, they're also more likely to help launch new product designs or innovate on existing mechanisms. This is particularly obvious in technical jobs that have been done the same way for a long time and that rely on collaboration, such as creating machine parts based on an engineer's designs. To develop better hydraulics solutions like those designed by Stucchi, engineers not only need to do the necessary research and development work on their end, but know how to communicate that information to machinists. The problem: machinists see over and over again that engineers are just not very good at this.

Machinists and engineers work on the same products, but engineers tend to think logistically - modeling what hypothetical tests and calculations suggest should work best - versus machinists who work practically. Additionally, engineers tend to disregard the expertise of machinists in favor of their own education. There's a major communication gap between them, and this is where women's leadership can be of great value. Women are minorities in engineering and other technical jobs, but they have stronger communication skills and a greater willingness to work across differences.

Beyond The Stereotype

This emphasis on communication skills may seem like a stereotype, but it's one that's proven time and time again. While women may be better at these things because they're more likely to be taught these skills, they should still leverage them if that will provide a professional advantage. As Sheila Schermerhorn, a machinist who eventually went on to become an engineer explains, "Leadership skill require[s] willingness to listen and work together to accomplish the goals." There's a lack of willingness to work together on the part of many men in STEM, and women can cut through the noise. Women are already breaking with tradition by working in these roles, and they can certainly push the limits further.

By bringing the creativity and even the levity associated with the arts to STEM, transforming it into STEAM, women are creating new technological worlds. Women are at the fore of the movement to develop personal flying machines, and they did most of the calculations and coding that got us to the moon. Indeed, once you dig into the history of engineering, technology, and design, you'll find amazing women who knew how to think differently about critical issues. From Kevlar to the communications tech that undergirds modern WiFi, women have been pushing the creative limits of STEAM for centuries in ways that benefit everyone.

Larry is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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