Why Women Need to Be Leaders in Innovation

Author: Notre Dame ESTEEM

Rachael Marshall is a current student in our entrepreneurship master's program.  She graduated from the University of Arizona with her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering.
In one of our first ESTEEM classes, on customer validation, we heard Henry Ford’s observation: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” I think this captures our technology-driven world’s need for challenging the norm and defying limitations. New gadgets and devices are being invented before we even know we need them – the status quo is constantly changing. For me as a woman engineer, this raises a question: How can we be so obsessed with new ideas and technologies but not look for new ways and new people to discover them? 
The technology industry is striving towards a greater future, yet it is settling for the status quo – dominated by men. A lack of women in STEM fields means missing the insights and perspective of half the world’s population. Women are fundamentally different than men. Our life experiences allow us to see the world through a different lens, provide different insights and ask new questions. Are these not vital contributions in a field so focused on innovation? 
As the 94th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the United States approaches, we must acknowledge the progress of women in our country. It is also important to acknowledge, however, that progress is not possible without change, and if we are going to evolve in a rapidly-advancing world, we must change the status of women and technology. 
According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, women in STEM fields earn 33% more than their counterparts in other fields. This is a great reason to encourage women to enter the tech industry, but in order to genuinely leverage the advantages of having women in STEM we can’t settle for women at entry-level engineering positions – we need women leaders in technology. 
Tory Burch, a self-made billionaire designer, believes there are three main tools for entrepreneurial success that women lack: access to financing; mentor support; and entrepreneurial education. By studying technology entrepreneurship at Notre Dame, I will gain each of these tools and develop myself as a female leader in STEM.

Writer Rachael Marshall and her mother

I am fortunate to have a great role model in my mother, who built an impressive career by pushing boundaries and setting high expectations – inspiring me to do the same. She taught me that being a woman is not something to overcome; it is an asset. In a recent conversation, I said I might take golf lessons – how am I supposed to do business with the boys if I can’t keep up on the course, right? To my surprise, she rejected that idea. She said what I bring to the table as a woman engineer or entrepreneur is that I am different, so why would I go out of my way to prove that I’m the same? 
If women are going to advance as leaders in technology, we must stop viewing these differences as challenges to conquer – we must see them as advantages the world should seek for investment. These differences might have kept my mother off the golf course, but she used them to prove she added great value to the office. As a single mother when I was young, she held that having a work - family balance made her better at her job because she was motivated for more than just herself – she was providing for her child. Her motherly, nurturing tendencies didn’t make her less competitive or firm in business decisions but encouraged her to invest her earnings back into her family and community, to contribute to the greater good. It’s not about proving we can fit in to the boys’ club – it’s about leveraging how we stand out.
A woman’s unique gifts and perspective should empower her to enter STEM fields and make real-world changes. These same differences should excite anyone dedicated to innovation to look beyond the norm and challenge the status quo in society as well as technology.