This is Part 2 of 3 in our celebrations for International Day of Women and Girls in Science!
As science and technology companies continue to grow rapidly, with tech giants like Facebook and Google offering an increasing number of services, and startups popping up everywhere imaginable, inspiring areas of cities to become their own Silicon Valleys, Alleys and Roundabouts, in recent years gender disparities in science and technology have become increasingly obvious. According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%. In light of this, the UN announced last year that the first ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science would take place on 11 February 2016, as an opportunity to celebrate women in the field, encourage others to become engaged with science and highlight issues women are facing. As an all-female team, RE•WORK are strong advocates on supporting women in technology and science, so we're celebrating the day by talking to leading women we admire about equality, career progression and scientific breakthroughs we can expect this year.
Ekaterina Volkova-Volkmar is a researcher at Bupa, with a background in neuroscience, computer science, and computational linguistics. Ekaterina is interested in integrating deep learning methods into digital solutions for behaviour change, and her current focus is on developing intelligent digital coaching services to help people improve their lifestyles and prevent diseases.
Pilar Manchón is the Director of Intelligent Digital Assistance & Voice at Intel, and has 20 years in speech & natural language processing, and over 10 years of executive leadership and market strategy in the Intelligent Virtual Assistant space. Pilar is passionate about disruptive innovation and envisions a world where smart and multimodal conversational interfaces will improve the lives of billions of people.
Gemma Milne is a creative science-nerd obsessed with technology, design, startups. As the Creative Lab Technologist at Ogilvy Labs, Gemma brings the incredible world of future technology and innovation into the agency by looking out, forging partnerships and ensuring a culture of forward-facing marketing. She's an active member of the Women In Tech community and is on a mission to improve science communication through advertising.
Deborah Harrison works as an Editorial Writer at Microsoft, and is one of the original architects of the personality for Microsoft's virtual assistant, Cortana. Deborah crafted the core principles that define the assistant's approach to communication and now helps shepherd those principles as Cortana lights up on other devices, on other operating systems, and in other countries.
Newsha Ghaeli is a designer investigating how innovative technologies can transform our cities. She is currently a Fellow at MIT and Project Lead at the Senseable City Lab. Newsha’s work focuses on the creative application of sensor-based technologies in urban systems to generate new data streams promoting resilient, healthy, and sustainable cities.
What inspired you to begin your work in science?
Pilar: I have always been inspired by both sciences and arts, and found my true calling with Computational Linguistics, where I could fully developed both. A multidisciplinary training broadens your views, strengthens your foundation and makes you better at whatever your passion is. For me, the ability to build something that could make this a better world and improve the lives of those who need it most has always been a key driver.
Ekaterina: My parents, both engineers by education, have always encouraged me and my sister’s curiosity to learn more about tech and science - our house was full of books, magazines, video tapes with documentaries and sci-fi movies. But I only started to learn computer science in Tübingen, Germany, in 2005, at the age of 20, after quitting English Studies I had been pursuing at my hometown Tver, Russia. At first the classes were more of a challenge than a fascination, but when I started getting my own ideas for projects, I saw how exciting and useful programming skills can be. In 2007 I became a research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, with Betty Mohler as my supervisor. I instantly fell in love with motion capture technology, virtual reality and the experiments conducted in the lab - it was better than any sci-fi for me, because it was real. Ever since I have been combining my knowledge in computer science, linguistics, and neuroscience to learn more about humans, computers, and to open new avenues in human-computer interaction. By the way, my sister is doing a PhD in molecular biology.
Deborah: I landed in tech because it gave me a way to make money doing my first true love, which is writing. I became a technical writer almost entirely by accident—a friend who knew that I write suggested I try it, so I found an internship, and one thing led to another, and here I am, 17 years later doing work that’s more fun that I could have ever predicted for any job, let alone for a job with such a… well, unexciting name. I’m a writer, and I work with technical concepts and complex ideas, but I’ve never been a gear-head or a coder or even someone who tinkers, particularly, with how things work. I’m a reader and a writer with an insatiable curiosity and a deep deep desire to try and make things better, and there are so many ways to do that in the technical field.
Newsha: As a kid I loved making things, and this passion for “three-dimensional problem solving” led me to formally train as an architect. When I was completing my graduate studies, a friend and I designed a floating tower that would skim the ocean surface, collecting plastic debris while harvesting enough wave energy to power 30,000 homes. A journalist covered our work critically, saying the technology integral to our project was still in its infancy, and therefore our tower was far from realization and a waste of effort. This was upsetting and really got me thinking, only to realize that this was the kind of thinking I wanted to leverage. I wanted to work with technologies pushing the boundaries of innovation and think far into the future.
What can we do to ensure equality in science and technology?
Ekaterina: The first step is of course equal and fair education with unbiased teachers. A class should never hear things like "Girls, don't break your heads over this, math/science/technology is for boys." Such statements are harmful for both genders, sometimes for a lifetime. If the harm is already done, it is all about daring - daring to break conventions and constraints. Women are equally as gifted to flourish in tech and science as men are, but men should also be encouraged to become nurses, secretaries, and primary school teachers. Nobody should feel forced to choose a profession based on their gender and consequent myths associated with it.
Deborah: There are so so many things we can do. Some of it involves just continuing to fight the good fight in society, where those of us who can continue to demonstrate over and over again that the voice of women and minorities is powerful and valuable, not just culturally but economically. Another is continuing to resist the moments where it seems easier to give up because the hill seems so steep or people are so discouraging (sometimes without even realizing it). Some of it is making sure to advocate for ourselves the best way we can. I’ve seen extraordinary progress on all of these things just in my lifetime, and I’m really confident that the momentum is on our side, but it’s an effort, no question. I personally believe that organizations that encourage these conversations are truly helping to move the dial. Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know, you know?The more of us that find our way through the gauntlet, the more it’ll become a completely normal, or, dare I say, boring part of the daily expectations for how things should work. Of course women should be a part of any conversation. Duh, amirite? I’m so looking forward to when we get there.
Which emerging or future technologies are you excited about?
Gemma: I'm most excited about 3 areas right now - space, genetics & AI. 2015 was a ridiculously good year for space - from Pluto and those gorgeous photos (which are still being sent back) to Space X launching and landing a reusable rocket - we really showed massive improvements in space technologies and our knowledge of the universe. Secondly, scientists in the UK have just been granted the first approval to edit genes - as controversial as this is, it's incredible to think that we now have both the capacity and the drive to fundamentally change our building blocks in a way which could lead to longer life, enhanced function and, most importantly, prevention of debilitating diseases. Finally, the world of AI is becoming faster, cheaper, stronger in that not only are there several startups receiving funding or being bought up by huge corporates, but that we're also investing in more research-focused ventures - keeping in check questions of ethics, privatisation and profit-chasing companies.
Newsha: As our world urbanizes at unprecedented rates, our cities are becoming hubs of data creation. The traces left by our activities—both on and offline—are embedding a digital nervous system over our urban environments. We’re just starting to tap into this wealth of knowledge to create more efficient and resilient urban systems. I’m also really excited about advancements in science—especially biology—enabled by design. A Postdoctoral Fellow I work with, Jessica Snyder, is doing really brilliant work in tissue engineering with a 3D printer capable of printing biological matter.
Ekaterina: I am very much looking forward to the advances in augmented reality. If done well, it could allow us to enhance our productivity, to have access to other people, information, and services more effortlessly and in a more natural way when compared to the always limited screen estate. It would also be cool to space travel to other stars, I hope this happens in my lifetime.
What advice would you give to someone starting a career in science/tech?
Pilar: Follow your passion and work hard on those skills that will complement it and make you a more complete professional. Think about the practical applications of what you want to do, and how it helps you fulfill your search for meaning as a human being. Mediocrity is your enemy so give it your all and yet, don’t forget to have fun and live in the present.
Gemma: The advice I'd give to someone starting out in science or tech is two-fold: get yourself some awesome side projects, and forget the 'do your time' mentality. I find side-projects are really what make a person and a career. It means you can choose something, whether that's building a product or a programme which you want or need, starting your own podcast on your favourite topic or getting involved in some kind of organisation or event, which allows you to hone or gain skills outside of your day job or studies. Companies tend to be more interest in what you've done over what grades you've got, and who knows where these things can take you. When I say 'do your time', I mean when you are in a position which you feel you are genuinely over-succeeding in or it is holding your development back and someone says to you 'sorry you can't be moved up as you need to be doing this for X many years, months etc'. I fundamentally disagree with this mentality, especially prevalent in large organisations, as it prevents some of the most ambitious and disruptive people from progressing into roles which might actually end up being more beneficial for the company. So if you find yourself in this situation, really think about whether the next role up is really where you want to be, and if it is not, find someone to help you craft your career - a mentor, someone who you are inspired by or who is doing what you wish you were doing. People love to help - and it takes just a little bit of courage to tweet or message on LinkedIn and ask to take them for coffee. Don't settle for 'doing your time' if you feel your wings are being clipped.Ekaterina: Be curious, be eager to learn new things every day. Learn to think critically and independently, there is no such thing as ultimate authority in science, only expertise. Don't feel intimidated by the fact that you don't know something yet - if you need to learn a new skill in order to make an idea come true, take it as a challenge and enjoy the ride from "I cannot" to "I can". Remember that academia is not the only path to contribute to the progress of science and to do good service to the humanity. Importantly, stay a good human and take care of yourself, make time for friends, sports, and fun - a grant proposal submission deadline is not worth a heart attack, seriously. In the stress and competitiveness of today's research it is easy to become callous or depressed. Collaborate, be openminded, and kind, pursue a goal bigger than your own personal success.
Deborah: This advice isn’t really specific to science and tech, but a huge thing that you can do as you begin your journey is find a way to go in with support. There are so many things that seem intuitive once you’ve been working for a long time that are just utterly opaque when you’re first starting out, and I think that burden tends to be heavier for girls and women because we have fewer people we can talk to who’ve shared our particular experiences. Finding out how things work—how to ask for raises, how to advocate for your level or job title, how to get the hang of the culture of the workplace you’re in—those things are valuable for anyone to do, but that might be a bit more challenging to just figure out on your own if the workplace is already filled with guys or with mostly white folks who may not have perspective on the particular flavors of marginalization that women and minorities often experience. If there’s no one in your circle who can help, the interwebs offer a kajillion ways to connect with people (like me!) who’ve been there and who are itching to help share our experiences and help ease the way.Another thing to know is that so much of what you need to know to do the technical part of any job can be taught, so it’s always a profound pleasure to find someone who has not just technical skill but also curiosity, creativity, a willingness to listen, and a sense of humor. Talent is great, it really is, but often you won’t know what part of your talent is even valuable until you get your hands dirty with whatever project you’re working on. And experience is always lovely, but we get that you can’t get experience without working. So don’t get too hung up on that part of your resume.Finally, and I see this a lot more with women than with men, don’t apologize on your resume. Don’t downplay your accomplishments. Don’t say something was “only” an internship, or that you were “just” a helper. Stating your experience is not bragging or grandstanding or stealing credit. It is the truth of what you have done. I want to hear about it! I know it’s tempting to feel that you need to demonstrate humility, but that will emerge from conversations with you. There are going to be plenty of situations you’ll face where someone else may detract from your accomplishments. Do not beat them to the punch. Be as awesome as you are.
Check out our Women in Tech & Science series for more Q&As.