How wearable technology is helping women thrive in STEM industries
According to a report by the National Science Foundation, women only made up 29% of the labor force in science and engineering fields in 2013. While the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is widely discussed, Stacey Burr of adidas represents one area in which women are thriving in STEM: Wearable technology. SportTechie's Hayley Slye caught up with Stacey to establish the extent of the progress women are making in the industry.
Burr founded Textronics, a smart clothing start-up before adidas acquired the company. She then worked on the “miCoach” interactive training system at adidas as the general manager of adidas digital sports. Burr spoke to SportTechie about why she thinks women shine in wearables and the role sports play in her job.
SportTechie: How did you get into industrial engineering?
Stacey Burr: I’ve always had an aptitude for technology, but I also had broader interests including literature, business, materials and philosophy. Industrial engineering is a program that encourages exposure to multiple tech disciplines. I was able to explore areas like robotics, queuing, welding, ergonomics and economics. Once I started my career, I found that I really enjoyed the combination of technology and solving business problems.
When I worked for DuPont in the Lycra spandex business, I developed expertise in understanding the mechanical properties of skin and how to most comfortably engineer clothing for comfort, fit and freedom of movement while still being fashionable. The wearables field didn’t exist yet but when I became exposed to the idea of integrating electronics into fabrics, it sparked my imagination.
I’ve spent the rest of my working career trying to innovate solutions that can uniquely be delivered by smart clothing or wearables and also meet all of the consumer expectations of fashion, comfort and ease of use. Every day, at adidas, I’m still fascinated by the intersection of technology and sport, and how my team and I can push the limits of innovation.
ST: Why do you think women are underrepresented in STEM fields? If you could give advice to a young girl choosing to study a STEM subject, what would you say?
SB: Women may be underrepresented in STEM fields because, culturally, girls have not always been rewarded or encouraged at an early age to pursue STEM. It has been less common for girls to see role models that they can relate to.
In terms of advice, I’d suggest looking for opportunities to combine a STEM field with another love or hobby, such as music, sport, fashion, DIY maker, sociology, writing, design, gaming, exercise, art, etc. People that can have multiple talents or diverse skills are highly valued and often bring a unique expertise to a classic challenge. I’ve always found that the tangential thinkers can see solutions or innovations because they have several lenses to look through.
Young girls today should know that they can create their own unique path with the right STEM skills, mentors and perseverance. Don’t think that going into STEM studies means you have to put aside the less science-y passions that you enjoy. Continue to pursue the talents that bring you joy and add STEM.
ST: What is unique about the wearable industry compared to others in the tech industry? Why do you think women have been so successful in carving out a sphere of influence here?
SB: The wearables industry is less mature than other tech fields, as a result there isn’t an industry establishment of experts or a defined path to be successful. With less hierarchy in the industry, it’s been a place for entrepreneurs, start-ups, inventors, and young people to flourish. Women Founders, CEOs, inventors, engineer and designers have made a tremendous impact on the success of the field by boot-strapping an idea or building product that often combined their love of fashion and technology with a passion for bringing a fitness or wellness solutions to market. Emerging technology areas are more democratic and spacious because no one has to displace an incumbent to be successful, you can carve out your own path by having a great idea and following in.
ST: You’ve headed adidas projects that are very sports-specific (i.e. miCoach smart soccer ball). Do you have a background in sports? What role do sports/fitness play in your life and how does that play into your job at adidas?
SB: Almost everyone has a background in sports because it’s a love from childhood that stays with us. Now I also see sport as a science – it’s the mechanics of how people move and the electrical signals from the skin. It’s about data analytics and forces on the body. I often think about sport by breaking it down into its engineering components, trying to apply technology, science and data to bring innovation to sports. Sports is about competition, team bonds and fun. But I’m most passionate about how sports can impact the global population health. Sport and movement is such a critical component to living a fit and vital life. I’m motivated to be part of helping people maintain a lifelong relationship with sport because it’s the most fun and easy way to do something good for yourself!
ST: As wearables grow in popularity and accessibility, do you think this is an opportunity for women to expand their presence in STEM fields as a whole?
SB: Absolutely! The wearables field is one of the newest consumer technology categories, and serves as a beacon for those who are interested in physiology, sports, fitness and fashion. Our team at adidas is an intentional mix of innovators and product developers that bring together unique skill sets such as design, physics, materials, cosmology, exercise science, pattern-making or anthropology. There are so many angles necessary to approach wearables. Historically there have not been many university programs that specialize in wearables, so many people that come to the field gravitate to it because they find it a receptive place to bring multiple areas of expertise. If are looking for an electrical engineer that knows how to solder and sew, it’s likely that team member is a female.
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