Ursula O’Sullivan-Dale examines why gender diversity is important to robotics, and how the gender gap could be closed…
The ongoing division between genders in terms of employment, payment and status opportunities across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries is well-documented. According to STEM Women, a UK organisation that runs graduate careers events and promotes jobs aimed at university students and recent graduates who identify as women or non-binary, and study a STEM related subject, while the percentage of female graduates with core STEM degrees is steadily growing, the split is still just 26%. This figure is also translated in the female STEM workforce, with women making up 24%.
This gap, naturally, also extends across the field of robotics, where issues range from lack of representation in senior positions to reduced funding opportunities or lack of diversity leading to inequitable outcomes in the development of AI and machine-learning algorithms. In fact, according to Zippia, a provider of online recruitment services, just seven percent of robotics engineers in the USA are women.
To try to answer why this gap persists, and what some of the key mitigation measures could be to help close it for future generations, Robotics & Innovation spoke to six leading professionals with experience across the STEM, robotics and computer science fields.
These included Caroline Jay, professor of computer science at the University of Manchester; Jesse Opoku, COO at AI robotics firm Wootzano; Sam Paice, CEO at the Centre for Modelling and Simulation; Tara McGeehan, president of IT and business consulting service at CGI UK and Australia; Shalini Palmer, vice president of sales EMEA at multinational semiconductor company Analog Devices; and Sue-Ellen Wright, managing director of aerospace and defence at consulting, digital services and software development company Sopra Steria.
Q: Women remain underrepresented in the STEM and robotics workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering and computer sciences, with women filling just 34% of roles in these fields (NCG Project). Why is it important to address the gender gap across the robotics industry?
Caroline Jay: Whenever we have a gender gap, in any walk of life, it means that voices and perspectives aren’t being represented, and that can have a significant impact on the way we live our lives. The outcomes of this can be serious and are well documented in Caroline Criado-Perez’ book, Invisible Women, which highlights some of the ways in which women are quietly excluded from important decisions, culminating in very real effects on their health, safety and wellbeing. When it comes to technology, we can end up with products and services that are less likely to meet women’s needs. To address this, we need to have more women around the table to contribute to these important discussions.
Q: Despite out-performing men in terms of formal qualifications across AI and data science, women are massively underrepresented at the C-suite level and in senior ranking roles across these fields. What barriers does this create for progress and technological innovation?
Sam Paice: As we often say, you can only be what you can see. It has a knock-on effect if women are underrepresented at those senior levels. If women can see themselves in a position of authority, with decision-making influence, they’re much more likely to want to aim for senior leadership roles. In innovation, we need women at the decision-making coalface to ensure that we create products and technology that serve us all. If your senior leadership team only represents one section of society, you’re less likely to create inclusive, effective products. You need as many diverse voices in the room as possible to make a meaningful impact.
Caroline Jay: There is also work to be done in addressing the wider culture of an industry that has been male dominated for so long. This is a hard issue to tackle as it is less tangible, and there is rarely an intentional effort to exclude women. Personally, I have always enjoyed working in computer science teams and have had brilliant relationships with my colleagues. But, from an outsider’s perspective, it can be intimidating to be in an obvious minority, and, in some cases, the only woman in the room. These concerns can be less obvious for those who have worked in tech for some time, so it requires employers to reflect seriously on how the way they work might exclude people and be prepared to do something about it. The male-dominated culture of senior management also affects the way financial decisions are made, which can make it harder for female innovators to get the investment they need. That’s why it’s vital that there is a gender balance in any kind of decision-making process.
Sue-Ellen Wright: There are not many role models for young women aspiring to work in the tech industry, with 77% of tech director roles in the UK filled by men. Having a diverse workforce is especially important for the technology industry, which currently lacks an equal gender balance and boasts predominantly male leadership teams. The challenge the tech industry faces is that, to increase creativity, it must improve diversity to further encourage a broader range of perspectives and ideas. Worryingly, despite the push in recent years for young girls to study STEM subjects, the number of women joining STEM careers hasn’t grown much. This imbalance needs to be addressed.
Q: What social and economic incentives are needed to encourage more women into robotics?
Jesse Opoku: Incentives should start early, guiding young women to become confident in STEM and to adopt stronger mindsets. To inspire women to join the field – and to keep those considering leaving – marketing campaigns should focus on women’s voices and why they are needed. Some robotics/AI applications in society have long-term horizons but have excellent paybacks. The economic benefits of these paybacks need to be offered to everyone involved in the innovation and development of robotics, regardless of gender or background.
Tara McGeehan: Firstly, we need to ensure we address the lack of representation from the source. Education plays a crucial role in encouraging more girls to get involved in STEM subjects. We need to create greater opportunities for young women to get involved in STEM and robotics during school. We need to ensure women are being included in conversations around STEM and make it clear women have the option to pursue a career in the industry from an early age. As part of this, we need to promote the vast range of jobs in the tech sector. There are many different career paths for women within the tech sector, but they often aren’t made aware of their options when looking to pursue a career in tech. There also needs to be a better support system in place for women in industry. Companies should consider implementing initiatives aimed to challenge gender stereotypes and norms, such as post-maternity support for mothers returning to work, offering truly flexible working or providing gender-neutral parental leave.
Sam Paice: Firstly, you need to have good representation of women at all levels – both junior and senior. You need young women thinking about studying STEM subjects at school to see people like them in graduate engineer roles and at the top of organisations. Secondly, we need to present the field of robotics more accurately. Economic incentives such as bursaries, sponsorships and placements are essential – but we also need to eliminate the idea that robotics is just guys with lab coats and wrenches. The robotics industry needs people from all subject areas – technology, engineering and the arts. That’s why there’s a push to move the term STEM to STEAM – with the ‘a’ standing for art. Robotics involves a wide range of skill sets and our industry needs to communicate that more effectively. To speak to a larger cohort of people, we also need to emphasise the societal benefit of robotics. For example, many robotics organisations are trying to tackle huge issues like climate change. From social science research, we know this speaks to women in particular. Highlighting the value-led nature of our work could encourage more women to want to get involved.
Q: How do workplace cultures and organisational structures broadly contribute to the divergence of different genders’ career paths in robotics?
Tara McGeehan: While the industry has made progress, there is still a long way to go before the gender gap can be considered ‘closed’. There remains significant bias within business, both conscious and unconscious that causes a divergence between men and women. The current workplace structure still very much caters to men and can, at times, treat their careers as a priority. Women have the same ambition to advance their careers but, with a lot of current workplace cultures, they face headwinds that signal it will be harder to advance. Women in the workplace are more likely to experience microaggressions, have their authority questioned and not be promoted at the same frequency as their male counterparts.
Q: Is the underrepresentation of women in the STEM workforce a barrier for the development of ‘just AI’ and equitable machine-learning algorithms?
Sam Paice: If you use data from the internet – which can be skewed – to train your AI, you’ll embed prejudices and biases into your product. You need a diverse range of people to properly oversee and assess AI and automation products so that they’re safe and fit for purpose. The developmental process must be well-balanced and in line with societal needs. The implications can be huge if you don’t get that part right from the start.
Shalini Palmer: New technologies are now increasingly able to act and problem-solve independently, inferring the appropriate solution or actions based on the external inputs, and ‘learning’ as they do so. As a result, machines must learn to develop predictions and be able to perform tasks that consider the needs of the entire human population, not just half of it. This means considering females’ perspectives, which may differ to their male counterparts when developing AI algorithms. If we do not improve representation, we will face barriers in achieving the full benefit and integration of AI in the transformation that is happening in the workplace. This could negatively impact economic and societal outcomes.
Q: What are some of the broader societal implications of this gap, especially considering the increasingly prominent role of robotics and automation in technologies used across all areas of society?
Shalini Palmer: Data is the future of technological and economic growth, and we are working hard to maximise the value of AI in years to come by figuring out how to quantify values for decisions and predictions. A new language is developing, and any society that cannot keep pace could potentially miss pivotal opportunities for growth and development.
Many economies across the world are struggling with labour shortages and battling increasing demands. Automation and robotics can offload some of the machine learnable tasks here. If this technology is not representative and a reflection of the entire population, then it will undoubtedly affect efficiency, market competitiveness and progression to scale. We could also be in danger of leaving 50% of the potential workforce behind, missing out on the untapped talent and creativity needed to realise the full potential of integrating automation into our future world.
Caroline Jay: As we develop new technologies, we must ensure everyone’s voices are heard, and that people are able to consider how it would affect their lives. I’d like to see much greater use of responsible research and innovation practices that evaluate the benefits and harms new technologies might pose for everyone in society, and to see these used earlier on, so they are not just an add-on, but can truly direct development.
Q: Finally, what key mitigation measures and/or legislative frameworks can help close the gap?
Tara McGeehan Initiatives that support with diversity and inclusion need to be treated as a business obligation rather than something that is optional. Measures need to be put in place that hold businesses accountable, such as mandatory reporting on the gender pay gap, providing the right benefits to improve women’s day-to-day work experiences and taking the right steps to identify and address where these gender gaps are. Ensure that meaningful action is being taken to address this, support local educational programmes that provide more gender equitable opportunities, actively look to close the gender pay gap and provide ongoing professional mentoring for women.
Sue-Ellen Wright: Rethinking recruitment campaigns and company marketing is also important. Advertising campaigns should promote the social value benefits of the roles and ensure the language used in job descriptions speak to females as well as males. Small tweaks such as replacing the word ‘confident’ with ‘competent’ may encourage more female applications. Of course, the right policies and a family-friendly workplace are also important. Women usually take on more responsibilities when it comes to caring and domestic duties, so a working environment that supports this and helps them balance their professional and personal lives is crucial.