Breaking the bionic ceiling: Celebrating women in robotics

Posted by Caitlin Stanway-Williams on Mar 5, 2021 1:13:24 PM
Caitlin Stanway-Williams

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To mark International Women’s Day 2021, we spoke with 7 women in robotics about the highs and lows of the industry

 

As we continue our steady march towards industry 4.0 - and all the extraordinary changes robotics and automation are going to bring - there’s one significant group that still remains marginalised in this space: Women. 

Historically, women have been massively underrepresented in both robotics and STEM more widely. And, while we’ve come a long way in the last few decades, as recently as 2019 women made up just 24% of the STEM workforce and only 13% of the engineering industry*. These stats look even more bleak when we look at representation of BAME women in the industry. All this despite research showing that women might actually be better ‘wired’ for careers in robotics

Time and time again, lack of role models is cited as the primary reason women are less likely to enter - and stay - in the industry. So, ahead of International Women’s Day 2021, we want to celebrate the women forging successful careers in robotics, despite adversity. We spoke with 7 women working in, and adjacent to, the robotics industry today about the highs and lows of working in such a male-dominated space.

* At the time of writing this article, there were no available stats on the number of women in robotics specifically.

 

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Carlotta Berry PhD

Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

 

The only way to diversify the profession is for people to see you there and demonstrate that your presence on the team produces a better product and one that will be appropriate and acceptable to an increasingly more diverse and global world.”

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics? 

My favourite part is the multidisciplinary aspects of robotics and how I can use it to make connections between several STEM disciplines like engineering, computer science, math and physics. Also, since I do human-robot interaction you can also connect to social psychology and sociology, etc. This allows me to use robotics to recruit more diverse people to STEM and also to bring STEM to all types of people. Since I am a Black Woman in STEM, this intersectionality in robotics also represents who I am as a professional who makes connections to people and engineering through various lenses. I aspire to reach a day when Black women in STEM are no longer considered unicorns and this only happens by making these connections.

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in the robotics/tech industry?

Some of the challenges are the same as most Black women in STEM careers which is implicit bias and presumed incompetence. In academia and robotics, there is hyper-visibility and invisibility at the same time. You have to fight hard to prove yourself and show that you are capable and deserve to be in those spaces. The only way to diversify the profession is for people to see you there and demonstrate that your presence on the team produces a better product and one that will be appropriate and acceptable to an increasingly more diverse and global world. 

This is why the work of BlackInRobotics.org is so important to amplify our collective voices and calls for social justice, advocate for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in the robotics field, to bring together Black researchers, industry professionals and students to support each other, and ensure a seat at the table during development, testing, and deployment of robotic systems. (To learn more, check out the Black in Robotics Reading List.) 

 

 

What advice would you give women who want to get into the robotics/tech industry?

Robotics and STEM are all about creativity and innovation. Pursue what you are most passionate about and see it in everything that you do. This means constantly working on your craft by learning to code in several languages, reading up on the current literature and engaging in robotics-related hobbies. For example, Black In Robotics has virtual robotics workshops on ROS2, Hadabot Turtle and Arduino robotics. Connect with like minded individuals such as by joining Women in Robotics or Black In Robotics. Also, examine ways to use robotics to improve the world and eliminate bias in design so that it works for everyone. 

 

| Read more: Black Women in Robotics: Giving Birth to the Future

 

 

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Philippa Glover

Managing Director of CNC Robotics Ltd

 

“We must continue to encourage the development of diverse and inclusive communities that provide opportunities for all and promote positive role models for those looking to enter the sector.”

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics?

Manufacturing is fundamental to our economy, and digital technologies such as robotics and automation will play a key role in continuing to put UK manufacturers on the map. I enjoy working strategically with the manufacturing community to help manufacturers understand the positive role robotics and automation play in building a more resilient and sustainable future, creating a blueprint for the future of UK manufacturing. 

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in the robotics/tech industry?

As a woman working in robotics, sometimes you’ll be the only woman in the room. Whilst some may see this as a challenge, there are significant opportunities for growth and progression. We must continue to encourage the development of diverse and inclusive communities that provide opportunities for all and promote positive role models for those looking to enter the sector. 

 

 

What advice would you give women who want to get into the robotics /tech industry?

It’s an exciting time to work in robotics, with significant opportunities for growth. For those looking to get into the sector, it is important to surround yourself with individuals who empower you to grow and reach your potential.

 



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Yas Haghighat 

Head of Customer Success at Bot-Hive

 

“I spent so long thinking I had to prove myself - but I don’t. I’m a woman working in tech. And that’s awesome.”

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics?

It’s a vast and fascinating area. From smart software to impressive hardware, I learn new things every day and nothing ceases to amaze me.

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in the robotics/tech industry?

Currently there aren’t many women working in this field. Working primarily with men has definitely made me rethink the way that I carry out daily tasks. For example, I pay attention to the way I write my emails (note to self: take out the exclamation marks and all the times I mention the word ‘just’) and I have to stop myself being overly apologetic about things. It’s been a good learning experience for me and hugely beneficial for my personal development and confidence. I spent so long thinking I had to prove myself - but I don’t. I’m a woman working in tech. And that’s awesome.

 

 

What advice would you give women who want to get into the robotics/tech industry?

The industry is starting to make strides at becoming a more inclusive space; the foundation for the pathway has been laid and it’s time for more women, and non-binary people, to help us pave the way to the future. It’s our time now.

 

 

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Laura Grande

Product Owner at Automata

 

“Grit your teeth - this job will make you grow a lot, but it will give you plenty of satisfaction along the way”

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics? 

Robotics is an interdisciplinary science, so it’s an environment full of people with varied skills and expertise who are always opening up new ways of thinking. The industry has loads of challenges and opportunities; robots are the future and so working in robotics is working to build this future and to be part of it.

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in robotics/tech? 

Working in STEM is still an obstacle course full of stereotypes. So being a woman in robotics can be lonely sometimes, which is why women advocating for women is so important, especially in those really male-dominated industries.

But the real challenges of being a woman in robotics are just the challenges of being an engineer of any gender in robotics: It’s a beautiful world full of problems waiting to be solved! 

 

 

What advice would you give women wanting to get into the robotics/tech industry?

My advice to early-career women in robotics is to believe in yourself and not be scared to join a field that’s known as being “mainly for men”. Try to create the networks and find the mentoring you need, be open and outspoken about the challenges that you face to help others find better ways to support you. But you also need to be realistic, as not everyone will be able to see things from a new perspective or change their ways. Ultimately, do not be discouraged at the beginning when there are so many new things to learn and you may want to give up. Grit your teeth - this job will make you grow a lot, but it will give you plenty of satisfaction along the way.

 

 

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Claire Cassie

Head of marketing and business development at DEM Automation & Workholding Ltd

 

“I feel like the stigma around manufacturing being a ‘male led’ environment is in the past and more women should be exploring a career in this industry”

 

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics? 

As a whole I feel privileged to be part of the digital revolution and enjoy being in the presence of, and networking with, the people currently shaping the future of manufacturing. There is a lot to be excited about in UK manufacturing, and, with a great imagination, the possibilities really are endless.

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in the robotics/tech industry? 

I don’t feel like there are any challenges, it’s a great environment for women to be in, with endless opportunities. I feel like the stigma around manufacturing being a ‘male led’ environment is in the past and more women should be exploring a career in this industry.

 

 

What advice would you give women who want to get into the robotics/tech industry?

Explore all of your options. The opportunities are so diverse – from what industry/sector you choose to what department. As someone who left school in the mid 90’s my options were limited. I liked ‘Business Studies’ so I was directed towards administration as a career option - graphic designers, programmers, CAD engineers – none of these roles existed in my area. I would never have considered working within the manufacturing industry back then and I wasn’t given the option.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, just because the option doesn’t present itself, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

 

 

| READ MORE: 30 women in robotics you need to know about – 2020



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Hannah Daled

Mechanical engineer at Automata

 

“Don’t settle for a non-inclusive environment and always negotiate”

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics? 

Robotics is an established industry with a rich history that goes back a millennia and is still evolving, with lots of potential to grow and bring about massive change. It’s so exciting to see the diverse application of robots across industries, from Alexander McQueen’s ‘99 fashion show, to Patrick Tressets’ installations, to a 25-ton Gundam robot, to medical training, to bomb disposal, to optimising production lines - infinite applications ranging from the whimsical to the life saving. Robots are very cool!

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in the robotics/tech industry?

This is my first role in robotics, so I can’t speak for this specific industry. But I’ve worked in the tech world, and, speaking more broadly, there are still a lot of challenges. This mostly takes the form of subtle sexism that is pervasive, persistent and exhausting over time. For example, I’ve been hit on in interviews, low balled on salary compared to my male counterparts, ignored in meetings and had assumptions made about my skills based on my gender. And, of course, a good dose of mansplaining about things I’ve known since university!

One of the subtle reminders that makes you feel like an outsider to the group is also the widespread use of non-inclusive, unnecessary gendered language. It’s not used with any ill will, but it does reflect the inequality in the tech industry (and society more broadly) that’s coded into our language. 

Unfortunately, studies show that it backfires when women advocate for gender equality, so the progress is still not fully in our control! As with any minority, we have to rely on the group ‘in power’ (men) to advocate equality. 

 

 

What advice would you give women who want to get into the robotics/tech industry?

  1. Anything you are interested in you can be good at, your gender is unrelated to your technical skill or potential.
  2. Search out higher education institutions with a diverse and inclusive environment. Certain engineering sectors can be especially archaic in their thinking and often this is reflected in education in a way that’s really demoralising. Being in the right environment can drastically increase your learning and drive to keep learning.
  3. Join women tech networks for career advice, networking and - importantly - venting
  4. Don’t settle for a non-inclusive work environment. Do your research in advance to weed out the ‘superficially diverse’ companies that are hiring mostly white women across lower levels. Pay attention how the women are distributed vertically across levels. Ask D&I questions in your interview, their response will be very insightful. 
  5. Always negotiate. 

 

 

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Jessica Watts

Sales manager (Robotics) at Applied Automation Robotics

 

“Don’t be put off by the misconception that this is a very male-dominated industry: put yourself out there and with enough commitment you have the ability to be very successful”

 

 

What do you enjoy about working in robotics?

The best part of working in robotics is the diversity of my everyday life. I’m very fortunate that I get to work within a huge range of industries. In one morning, I could be visiting a food manufacturer's site, and in that same afternoon I could be walking on an automotive production line.

 

 

What are the challenges of being a woman in the robotics/tech industry?

I believe there is still a lack of visibility of women in robotics, it’s still very common to find one solitary woman in a huge team of men, this is something that I am very passionate about changing.

 

 

What advice would you give women who want to get into the robotics/tech industry?

Five years in and I’m still relatively fresh into my career in this industry. Upon leaving university I would’ve never thought I would be working with some of the leaders in such innovative and developing technology. I would say to any woman to not be put off by the misconception that this is a very-male dominated industry: put yourself out there and with enough commitment you have the ability to be very successful.