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Full STEAM Ahead

30 January 2017

Full STEAM ahead

Selena Griffith

If Industrial Designer and now UNSW's Engineering Scientia Experience Manager, Selena Griffith (above), has her cynical hat on then technology falls into basically two categories: "things that destroy stuff and things that claim to make women's lives easier to free them up to do even more domestic chores". 

Cynicism aside, she feels that technology is more than something you plug in or patent. Technology is any device which makes our lives simpler and women, says Selena, are historically incredibly entrepreneurial and innovative when you define technology in this way. 

Take the example of Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Lord Byron (the poet). She is referred to as "the first programmer" for her work with Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine and her vision for technology as a collaboration tool rather than a number cruncher. 

Or Liquid Paper, invented by typist Bette Nesmith Graham in her kitchen to ease her and her colleagues' lives in the typing pool. (Remember Mike Nesmith of the pop phenomenon of the 1960s The Monkees? Well, that's his mother.)

"Women driven technology most often fulfils a community or social need," says Selena. 

"Theirs is often practical rather than glorious innovation," she continues.

"Take knitting, which is three dimensional mathematical programming. 

"Fair Isle jumpers, knitted for fishermen, include intricate family patterns in the design which identify the owner of the jumper and their relationship to those at home. In the days of sail the garments were intentionally meant to sink those lost over-board as fast as possible to provide a humane death. When the bodies eventually washed ashore the jumper served to identify the body."

In Selena's experience, there is no gap in technology or innovation engagement between genders but there is in the types of projects on which they work. Female projects are generally oriented toward social outcomes. 

"Women's new technologies often go unnoticed because they are not writing a new code or producing something focussed on a patent. Instead, they are producing innovative products and services that make our lives easier. In my experience female innovation is driven by intrinsic satisfaction not extrinsic reward. Invention is not a battle or game for them, it is solving a real life challenge to bring benefit.

One big challenge for women has been funding their ideas. "I remember I went to get a business loan for one of my first projects - a very small loan. I had three-quarters of what I needed myself and a good business plan, but no bank would loan it to me because I was a 'single female' and they used those words. Now there are all sorts of different ways to secure funding and support and these non-traditional methods are facilitating more female entrepreneurship, particularly in the social innovation/social business space where they feel comfortable. Female entrepreneurs can fund via crowd funding platforms like Do Some Good, Pozible or Kick Starter or go direct to market via Etsy or Ebay.

How do we get more women involved in tech start up? "Rather than STEM, I think STEAM is a much better call to develop a capacity for innovation because it includes the Arts - an area where traditionally women have worked and studied and been very innovative," finishes Selena.