This week, in celebration of International Women’s Day, we are going to meet some of the inspirational women involved in the AgriFoRwArdS CDT.
Karoline Heiwolt and Roopika Ravikanna are two of our first cohort of students who are currently studying their PhD’s at the University of Lincoln. We asked Karoline and Roopika to write about their thoughts and feelings regarding women in STEM subjects.
As a newly established Centre for Doctoral Training, the AgriFoRwArdS CDT is committed to promote equality, diversity, and inclusion within its staff and student communities. As two female members of the first student cohort we, Karoline and Roopika, reflect on our thoughts and experiences as women in Robotics research for International Women’s Day 2021.
Roopika: Karoline, do you want to let us know what inspired you to take up Research in Robotics?
Karoline: It took a little bit of a detour for me to end up in Robotics. I first studied Psychology and Neuroscience before focusing on artificial cognition and, eventually, intelligent robots. Looking back now at myself growing up it is painfully obvious that I always wanted to be in a technical field, but I simply didn’t consider it an option. I was always very curious and excited about technology, I loved Maths and Space, and of course I was really into robots. But when I pictured a computer scientist, an engineer, a roboticist – that picture did not reflect me.
Only later on, when I was already slowly getting into Computer Science as a postgrad, I began to discover all the brilliant women in the field. I simply wasn’t aware of them and their achievements before. And seeing a bit of myself represented absolutely helped with my confidence and feeling of belonging. I also learned that I don’t have to fit a stereotype I see all around me to be included in the Robotics community. I can still look up to anyone in my field, be inspired by their achievements or their path, and then make it my own. And gradually, more of those role-models will be women.
Right now, however, women and non-binary academics in senior positions are still very much the minority in Computer Science and Robotics. I believe boosting the visibility of all the valuable contributions women and non-binary researchers are already making to the field is immensely important to changing the public perception and inspiring a more diverse set of people to join us. But I have to say I also really look forward to the day when we won’t have to look for them in ‘notable women in robotics’ features, but we can find them at any academic institution, any high-profile conference, and in leadership positions.
Roopika: Though we were literally continents apart while growing up, I can certainly relate to your story. In India for last few decades, it is not uncommon for women to choose science and technology as their main academic focus. So, the challenges I faced while choosing the subject were a bit more nuanced. In schools, there was an unnamed distinction between the ‘smart’ girls who shone bright in Science and Maths and those who chose to focus on more traditionally feminine subjects like arts, music or literature. In short, it was a choice between appearing smart or appearing elegant. This choice when thrown across most pre-teen or teenage girls tends to make them want to settle for the tried and tested route of feminine elegance. However, my problem with this ‘choice’ is that, rarely are one’s interest in Science and Arts mutually exclusive. I was what you would call a rather ‘girly’ girl. I was very much interested in Music and Arts as I was in Science and Maths. I would like for teachers and parents to be more aware of this sub-conscious bias that might be acting upon their girl’s mind which might tend to unnecessarily favour them picking up a more traditionally accepted career or academic path despite their natural intelligence and interest in Science and Maths. While I am and was always happy to embrace my femininity be it in dressing up, behaviour or even citing original examples in science, I do acknowledge that the general expectation of a Woman in Technology is more masculine one – a tomboy. Though it is easier to fit in that way, I choose not to. Women from our previous generations have fought hard to enter what was then a ‘Man’s World’. Today, I feel it is time for Women in Science to happily accept and flaunt their femininity, which I believe is the only way to bring about true equality.
Karoline: That’s a good point. I’m glad we are addressing these barriers, because inclusion is not just an issue of sympathy and acceptance, but the Robotics community is now very aware of gender biases in the data we use and the products we develop. Especially artificial intelligence (AI) systems are often a reflection of the data they are trained on. For historical reasons, women are underrepresented in big data and as a result, their experiences are overlooked and neglected in the research and development of new technologies.
This is true for women and minority genders, and amplified for intersections of race, sexual identity, disability and other minority identities. If there is a lack of data and participation representing those groups, the truth is that a lot of tech is simply not designed for them.
In her book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men’, Caroline Criado Perez illustrates the very real impact of such biases and design flaws on our lives and highlights the benefits of diversity and inclusion for innovation and adoption of technology.
We all experience the world a little bit differently and can offer new insight into how robots should be designed. Diverse backgrounds are absolutely necessary for innovation. So, we should not be aiming to merely be tolerated within this space, but there is an active role for us to play. And I for one think it’s a really exciting opportunity.
Roopika: I completely agree. What concerns me is sometimes on observation we tend to find that despite a fairly high percentage of women employed in a certain field, the highest employment position or the flag bearer role is usually given to men. The Statistics of Women in Employment in the UK released by the House of Commons in 2020, states that female employment rate is at an all-time high of 72.4%. It also states that 79% of all jobs in Health and Social Work and 70% of all jobs in Education are held by women.
My possibly not so popular opinion is purely based on representations given in media, advertisements and general awareness. Even in traditionally feminine fields like cooking, most of the famous chefs we know of are men. Even in this time and age in adverts and billboards we still observe the likes of stereotypes of nurses being women and doctors being men. Of course, there is no simple explanation or solution to this. However, I feel that women no matter what field their career belongs to, must stand their ground and produce a good fight when contesting for their career progression and visibility. Sometimes, they may even be rewarded with a sense of premature fulfilment by those around just when they begin to explore their success. For example, they may be overtly complimented for having achieved so and so ‘despite’ being a woman, when their true potential might enable them to succeed breaking the gender barrier. I wish all women can carefully navigate through this on their way to excellence. Having said that, of course the support structure offered at work for women has to be continually renewed, reviewed and improved. For, Women having and retaining employment is not a fight but the only road towards true economic and social progression.
I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy. – Marie Curie
We would like the thank Karoline and Roopika for their contributions. Tomorrow, we shall meet Amie Owen, CDT Student.