To mark International Women’s Day 2016, we’ve interviewed leading women in the fields of science and technology, to celebrate their achievements and to explore the challenges faced by women in the sector. The theme for this year's International Women’s Day is Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. How can we help and inspire more people from under-represented groups to become involved in science and tech? What can we do to ensure equality in the industry? Read the interviews below and continue the discussion via #IWD2016!
Sobia Hamid holds a PhD in Epigenetics from the University of Cambridge, and is Founder of Data Insights Cambridge, a nonprofit community of over 800 data science practitioners. In her work Sobia is focused on personalised medicine and machine learning, undertaking scientific and commercial due diligence and marketing for venture capital, biotech and pharma companies.
Vivienne Ming, named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2013 by Inc Magazine, is a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist and entrepreneur. Vivienne holds high-level roles in many companies, including Co-founder and Executive Chair at Socos, Chief Science Adviser at Shiftgig, and Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors for StartOut.org.
Bethany Koby is Co-founder and CEO of Technology Will Save Us, an exciting design-led, learning-focused start-up, with an aim to inspire a new creative generation in tech. The company recently collaborated with the BBC to create a pocket-sized codeable computer that was given to 1 million 11 year olds in the UK. Bethany is a designer, art director and artist interested in creating brands, businesses and experiences that help imaging a more positive and collaborative future.
Tia Kansara is an award-winning cities expert working as Founder and Director of Kansara Hackney, and Chair of the Thousand Network. With experience in sustainability, energy, economics and urban planning, Tia gives guidance to help governments, companies and individuals to make fulfilling commitments that benefit the world around us.
Allison Dring is Co-Founder and Director of elegant embellishments, a design company investigating new materials and methods for the modification of buildings and spaces. Allison has an interdisciplinary background, ranging from large-scaled architectural projects to design research and manufacturing, and her work with elegant embellishments includes the design and creation of a pollution-eating building facade.
What inspired you to begin your work in science/tech?
Tia Kansara: I’m attracted to new innovations that have a wonderful social and environmental impact. Working in this field I've spent some time searching for ways of living a more sustainable lifestyle and realised my issues were that there wasn't one place to find them. I decided to begin making a central location where you could learn about the science and technology that inspired me to live in harmony with nature.
Allison Dring: Science fiction had me at an early age - particularly the idea of alternate destinies that weren't necessarily future, but portals in our reality. Architecture, for me, is a way of shaping that experience. Much of this shaping is informed by what we know, and what our possibilities are - and technology typically provides the link.
Vivienne Ming: I've always been a scientist at heart, and all my life everyone assumed it was a destiny. I managed to trick them all by ruining my life and becoming nothing. Years later I realized I didn't want to do science, I wanted to good. It turns out that science is an amazing tool for good. Becoming a theoretical neuroscientist gave me the set of tools I needed to achieve my purpose...and it happens to be fantastically cool :)
Bethany Koby: My mother was a toy designer turned Montessori teacher and my dad was a photographer. Making and creating are in my blood. Making was a part of everyday life - whether it was cooking, painting, pottery or more expansive projects like model airplanes, redecorating my room (which I did often) or planting a vegetable garden - I was never not making something or a few things at once. We see tech as a tool for making and inspiring creativity.
Sobia Hamid: I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior and cognition. Being inspired by the people around me, and after watching Jodie Foster, in Silence of the Lambs I decided I wanted to be a forensic psychologist to work with the most extremes of personalities. However after beginning my clinical psychology training curiosity got the better of me and I went back to academia to study cognitive neuroscience, and then on to read for a PhD in Epigenetics. As a scientist I find it immensely satisfying to drill down to the inner workings of life, witnessing and uncovering the beauty of life and working with some truly amazing and inspiring people.
What do you find exciting about your current role?
Vivienne: I travel the world working on dozens of different projects: neuroscience, cybernetics, AI, education, labor markets, diversity & equity, and more. The privilege of touching so many lives is more than I ever thought I'd achieve.
Allison: As the director of a small company I can stay in a quiet corner, develop lines of research, and be motivated by personal inquiry. We are extremely multi-disciplinary: no subject is off limits for research and application, we are never fenced in by professions, and I think this enables us to work with some pretty high level minds. Collaborations with scientists, mathematicians, artists and thinkers has me particularly optimistic.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
Bethany: At Tech Will Save Us I am here to help us achieve our mission to spark the creative imagination of young people with hands on tech. All the while staying true to our values as a team.
Tia: I love my freedom, as the director of Kansara Hackney Ltd and the Chair of the Thousand Network, I've spent a lot of my time working with people all over the world, I love meeting people from different time zones, cultures and understanding what motivates them.
What challenges are you tackling in your work?
Bethany: Everyday we are getting more and more people making and creating with technology. Technology is all around us and pervades everything that we do, we want people to use technology as a tool to unlock new experiences and learning without being stuck in front of a screen. We work with organisations in the UK like the Prince’s Trust, GOSH and Code Club to bring making with tech to schools and clubs across Britain, alongside our kits which can be made at home around the kitchen table.
Allison: We are working on a carbon-capture building material that essentially is a facade panel made from air (atmospheric CO2). As is typical, the science and tech involved in its development are by far the lesser challenge compared to the regulatory sphere in order to put it on a building.
Tia: The biggest is in making sustainable living easy. Of course it's about branding and communicating how effecting something is, but the metrics are really important. How does one give points to something that is environmentally friendly but social unfriendly?
Vivienne: Someone recently described me, in a bout of flattering exaggeration, as a "one woman Alphabet", with multiple companies and nonprofits solving problems in many different fields. At the highest level I work to maximize human potential, assuring the everyone's life story is filled with health, happiness, and impact. This ranges from writing books to studying the labor economics and AI to developing machine learning tools to support bipolar suffers. A principal focus of mine right now is maximizing the life outcomes of young children by combining machine learning, learning sciences research, and simple text messages.
Do you feel you have faced challenges in your field because of your gender?
Tia: Always, but I've made it clear what my boundaries were to myself and others.
Vivienne: I spent one career in science and entrepreneurship as a man and another as a woman. The differences have been profound and stark. My life has been an experiment with a very clear result: bias is an inescapable part of human experience, but it can be overcome.
What can we do to ensure equality in science and technology?
Vivienne: One of the core tenets of science is that human intuition in not a guide to truth. We've developed sophisticated methodologies to actively challenge our own biases in the search for understanding, and yet we routinely let these same biases and limitations define our assessment of others. Discrimination is a tax that compounds over a career. It's root is in our inability to accurately value people who differ from societal norms and from ourselves. We need to stop "blaming" young women for not "leaning in". Stop instructing them to be more like men. I put the burden on leaders. The best science and the most impactful technology will come from institutions and companies whose leaders accept that change needs to come from them.
Tia: Women are stepping up, it's our time. This is where we begin our biggest work, after a hundred years of being allowed to go to university, I'm extremely grateful and happy with the outcome. Now it's about letting the female crowd have an opportunity to be curious and giving them the experience of working in this field as early as possible. So science and technology feature in their decision making when they grow up.
Bethany: So much of what we do is about creating gender neutral toys, creating spaces that girls and boys feel comfortable in and putting the emphasis on fun and creation. Teaching our future generation STEM subjects is incredibly important, regardless of gender there is a huge issue in the UK with a lack of skilled programmers coming through. This is why the BBC created the micro:bit, which we helped design, it’s going to be given to 1 million 12 year olds in the UK by the end of the year. We designed it, with both girls and boys in mind, creating something that they would be proud to carry around with them and make and create with.
Which emerging or future technologies are you excited about?
Tia: I'm very excited about the new lifestyle technologies that are increasingly more environmentally friendly. I often say that it's not about banishing the television but about having all components move towards biodegradability. Imagine a TV that companies have competed to make more replenishing to the environment. Vivienne: Cognitive neuroprosthetics -- I want to literally make smarter people. And yes, it is also the technology of which I'm most terrified.
How can we help and inspire more people from under-represented groups to become involved in science and tech?
Sobia: It’s always important to have accessible role models, and I don’t necessarily think these have to be in the form of success stories from the same demographic, but should be inspiring individuals who share practical knowledge and advice. There is a wealth of knowledge and inspiration available on the internet, whether that’s in the form of TED talks or blogs like this, but nothing replaces face to face conversations. So I’m passionate about developing more forums for networking, collaboration, co-learning and skills exchange, and this is a key area of focus at Data Insights Cambridge.
Vivienne: The number one predictor that an exceptional young person goes into science, technology, or any other high-value field is the belief that they can do it too. Not simply that they are capable, but that they will be accepted. Specifically that means rolemodels and active support.
Tia: Minority groups have the added concerns of their inherited cultures. I remember growing up in an India/ East African household meant my parents were quite specific about what I could/could not do. So to challenge this, one would need to prove how these alternative fields are just as viable!
What advice would you give to someone starting a career in science or tech?
Bethany: Be brave, make it about the people not about the tech.
Sobia: Be curious and look for answers and inspiration everywhere, you’ll often find it in the unlikeliest of places. I’m a huge fan of inter-disciplinary research, and find that often people are working on similar challenges but in different contexts and I can draw from the approaches they are taking in finding solutions. I’m currently working at the intersection of medicine, healthcare and artificial intelligence, and run a nonprofit community that I founded for data scientists working across start-ups, academia, nonprofits and corporations called Data Insights Cambridge. I am fortunate to meet incredibly talented and interesting people, and this feeds back into my work on a daily basis.
Tia: Enjoy the journey. It's easy to get lost in the destination. But the reality is in enjoying the present and how it unfolds!
Vivienne: Read the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (generally) and the strip Many Lives (specifically). Take real risks with your lifetimes and please make those lives count. My own additional advice is to find your fanatisism -- that thing you do even when people tell you not to. That is your path to life and career success. It may not be somethings you “love” to do; it’s something you have to do. Pursue that Muse and good things will come to you.
Check out our Women in Tech & Science series for more Q&As.