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Momma's Boy (by Paul W. Smith)


When I was growing up, you were a Momma’s Boy, a Man’s Man, or something in-between. Most of us belonged to the in-between group. Dare I say life is a bit more complicated these days?

There was a time not long ago when a female voice making an announcement on an airplane was assumed to be a flight attendant, a woman caring for you in a hospital was automatically a nurse, and a lady engineer was an oxymoron. In my lifetime, our culture has evolved to where female pilots, doctors and engineers are no longer notable, at least not for their gender.

While the whole gender identity issue is way above my pay-grade, the transition from the role models of my youth to a culture where humans and jobs are largely interchangeable is of great interest. This is particularly so in the STEM fields, where I have carved out my own career.

While my peers and I were busy studying, and working to advance our technical skills and interests, psychologists were similarly occupied trying to explain what motivated our choices. Some entered STEM fields because of a parent’s career, and others chose such pursuits precisely because their parents didn’t. Factors like money, altruism, ego or aptitude also come into play. There are plenty of tests to help one determine the best possible career, but first you need to know yourself pretty well. Are you a “bull at the gate” or a “fluttering butterfly”? Most of us are choosing career paths long before we grasp such phantasmagoria.

For now, the hottest STEM job is coding, and activist Reshma Saujani sees no reason to concede this lucrative opportunity to the guys. Reshma’s nonprofit, Girls Who Code, is riding the wave of cultural change and helping to break through the silicon ceiling. There are currently half as many women computer science graduates as there were in 1984. There is much work to be done.

There is more than just diversity in play here. Saujani says that boys use technology in a fundamentally different way than girls, which reveals itself from the problems they tackle down to the actual code they write. While admitting that this is controversial, she claims that boys build technologies to replace their mothers. She cites the example of an app for dealing with lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan water and another one for tracking the Zika virus, both of which were tackled by girl coders. Her cultural spin is that these are born of empathy for the pressing problems of humanity.

Traditionally, our culture has rewarded boys for being strong and independent, while discouraging them from being clingy and shy.   Experts tell us that once a young man has proven that he is a brave warrior who can fend for himself, he can reconnect in a mature, emotional way with his mother. Young men never lose the desire to impress Mom with their courageous, shrewd approach to the world. Psychologists have allegedly figured all this out by spending untold hours of pricey couch time with people who are struggling with the bull-butterfly thing.

Boys, Saujani continues, often even create technology to replace their mothers. Her examples here are Uber Eats (getting food) and Wag (getting the dog walked). Both were created by guys to solve immediate, short-term issues. She provides no follow-up data suggesting how their mothers felt about these.

As for girls, they are equally skilled in science and math. The more brave girl warriors who enter STEM careers, the less of a detriment the entrenched male culture will be. Collectively, they tend to seek out socially conscious career directions, which could potentially create a completely new look to the technology-culture hybrid that propels our civilization.

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.