If we look at science and engineering the presence of women in robotics is relatively low. However it is improving and if the issue is reviewed on a curve basis, we can clearly see a higher percentage of women in non-traditional positions. Certain fields however, such as aerospace engineering and robotics, are still displaying poor numbers compared to other disciplines, such as electrical engineering and computer science. In robotics more specifically, this percentage can be understood through several factors
Cultural and historical limitations
Dr. Ruzena Bajcsy, director and founder of GRASP and professor Emerita in robotics disciplines, explains this aspect quite well with her “screwdriver theory”. She believes that women are conditioned to think that using screwdrivers is not feminine, getting under a vehicle dirty and exploring broken hardware risky. From the toys they are surrounded with to the bedtime stories that lack the technical side or the female characters that free themselves from the dragons, they are instilled with a convoluted and old idea of being a female. This must surely play consciously or subconsciously on their choices and decisions.
Does our childhood shape our future?
Many professors note how female students failing a technical course will instantly decide they don’t understand the material and move on. In other traditional female roles they would simply revisit their knowledge intake and improve on their understanding. Robotics is even pointier in that aspect: the common youth perception of women encompasses the healer, the warm bosom, the sidekick and the object of inspiration and motivation. Therefore, getting into disciplines such as management, medicine, arts and social development come easy as the possibilities haven’t been erased from the mind of young girls.
Dr. Nina Robson observed that her main reason for getting into robotics was her dad’s bedtime stories about robots created to help humans in difficulty. Her psyche, raised in the worship of love and servicing human kind through technology, was open to the challenges and hardships of research in mechanical engineering. Since then, she has worked in the field of creating robots to assist humans with reduced mobility.
Recognition of women’s work
This is a complex matter, as it can start from the early graduate years, with professors refusing to pick female researchers for reasons that have nothing to do with their skills. This often results in either getting the short end of the stick in projects or working on research projects where one is less passionate. Moreover, even those women who are working on pioneering or challenging robotics are not usually in charge and their work may not even be recognised on its own, except in matters of diversity. Women in robotics should be given the same chances as their male counter-parts – if the skills are there they should be allowed to shine.
Finally, we do live in a world where the Oscars get more worldwide viewing than the Nobel ceremony, and where coverage of entertainers is ridiculously deep compared to researchers and their work. Therefore, the few names that are noticed by the public are often the ones that manage to head the research and the labs or the teams, which are most often senior males. The recognition of the team individuals and women in particular is not covered which means that the average girl is not introduced to female role models in science during their early years.
Lack of interest from young girls
This is more of a consequence of the prior reasons than what some qualify as a genetic predisposition. Girls in their forming age are mostly exposed to their mothers, families or TV characters. So when the parent doesn’t work in an atypical environment or doesn’t promote the image of a healthy independent and smart woman, there is already an instilled bias. Moreover, the father tends to plays a strong counterpart when it comes to enabling his daughter.
Between the one that feeds her fear from the outside world and the one that gives her as much room and tools to try and make mistakes as a boy, there is an enormous gap. In addition to that, the lack of exposure to the same representation of both sexes in the workforce shapes an understanding of how a scientist should look and who can be a firefighter. All of these details may seem relatively small on their own but their cumulative impact can be significant if constantly hammered into a 10 years old head.
Progress is being made
However, as stated before, there is a clear progressive trend when it comes to women in robotics. Human development, especially in the early years, is understood more than ever. Whether male or female, those who have the endurance skills for a particular role shouldn’t shy away from it – they should be encouraged to reach out. Women understand more and more that choosing a home life over a work one is a fruitless duality and an equation that balances itself differently each day.
There is no absolute answer
Between a smart competent housewife feeling less useful and constrained at some point, or the researcher yearning to pass on her affection to another significant partner, the vision of perfection is forever in the extremes. Once a person is aware that rather than looking for the easier option, one should look into the fulfilling ones, embracing life with its flaws and imbalances becomes understandable.
Moreover, there have been several efforts to encourage women to look towards robotics. This includes specific fellowships and organisations spreading awareness about great works conducted by women. Helping to promote them into more important positions and featuring them in talks and panels, conferences and seminars, to share their passion. Many associations strive to make sure there are equal numbers of both sexes in panels leading to fairer representations. Schools and engineering institutions have programs for young girls or fellowships for older girls that intend to carry their higher studies in engineering.
Women in robotics – Fighting inequality
All in all, the gap is undeniable within the workforce despite women outnumbering men in several countries. Still, the actions performed to alleviate and improve the challenge of women in robotics are undeniable as well. Everything from robotics journals dedicating space to specific papers by women, to robotics conferences featuring the brilliant works of women, the visibility is improving and countries and academic institutions are catching up with the social switch. It will take time, it won’t happen overnight but thankfully the number of women in robotics is growing and progress is being made.