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Today, women make up 48% of the total workforce, and just 34% of the STEM workforce, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. When it comes to engineering and robotics roles, the number is even smaller, with women only making up about 16% of the workforce. Women in Robotics also released its yearly list of 50 women in robotics you need to know in coordination with the celebration.
The inaugural International Women in Robotics Day, which is today, sets out to celebrate the contributions of women who have pushed forward the field of robotics, and the women who are working to build the future of robotics.
The day is started by Women in Robotics, an organization that intends to provide a community for women in the industry to network and support other women. The organization started as a grassroots community, and in 2020 it became an official non-profit organization.
“I’ve always been engaged in women’s activities and always concerned that there was very little diversity in the fields of technology that are going to have a massive impact in the future,” Andra Keay, the founder and president of Women in Robotics, said. “So, it seemed as I got more involved in robotics 20 years ago, that this was definitely going to be an issue. There were not very many women at all that I was aware of, and it wasn’t unusual to go to a conference and to find that the only other women there were organizers rather than attendees, let alone speakers.”
“I was in one of these companies that had hardly any other women in it,” Allison Thackson, Women in Robotics’ vice president and the senior staff technical lead and manager at Waymo, said. “And so being able to go to these networking events and actually see that there are other women that are going through the same struggles that you are, and being able to connect with them, I think provided a good sense of community.”
At the start, Women in Robotics was just a place where women could find informal networking opportunities. Now, it has 1,698 members and 11 chapters worldwide. Despite this growth, Women in Robotics is still looking forward to the future. The theme for the inaugural International Women in Robotics Day theme is “Building the Future.”
Challenges women face in the industry
One of Keay’s biggest concerns about women’s current role in the robotics industry is that women are still often seen as the exception, not the norm.
“We tend to think of the number of women in robotics as a percentage, with the implication that that’s evenly distributed,” Keay said. “And that’s not the case at all. What I’ve found in my experience is that there will be two or three companies that have very diverse people, and that also means that they have less trouble attracting people from diverse backgrounds. And then you have companies where you just have one or two women.”
This disparity makes it so that many women have a difficult time finding other women to connect with, and company cultures that aren’t welcoming to women don’t change. For Keay, this kind of negative company culture can include anything from keeping women in the same roles for years without any opportunity to progress their careers or a lack of work-life balance.
“I think the problem really is that smart girls look at certain industries and go, ‘What are my chances to succeed in this industry?’” Keay said. “And they are more likely to move into medicine or other forms of biotech, or law, or business and finance, where there are more women and the chances of having a good career progression are greater.”
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Thackston pointed out that anyone who’s smart enough to be working in the robotics industry could likely get a job in many other industries. And with so many options, it’s not surprising that women might decide to seek out a field that feels more welcoming after working in the industry for a few years.
In fact, a survey from MetLife found that women in STEM careers were nearly twice as likely as women in other industries to say they were considering leaving the workforce. This is contrary to the common idea that the answer to getting more women into STEM careers, like robotics, is to get more young girls interested.
“Women are already interested, and what they don’t see is career pathways,” Keay said. “The problem is hanging on to the women that you’ve attracted into the field. Every woman that comes into robotics and then leaves again, that’s terrible. That shouldn’t be happening.”
This is why Keay’s advice to any company looking to recruit more women is to first look at their retention rates.
“I’ve come up with a very long list of the things that I would call danger signs,” Keay said. “They’re things that as a woman you’ve often experienced. When you get talked over in a meeting, when somebody else restated your idea and got the credit for it, when you put your idea forward, only to have a perhaps ill-informed loud person shout it down when you see someone promoted over you knowing that they have half the experience and skills.”
According to Keay, these danger signs are not just one-off events. They’re regular occurrences in many companies, and they lead to women feeling like their careers are stalled, and like they’re stuck doing the busy work at the company.
“The default perception with a man is to look for their potential,” Keay said. “The default perception with a woman is to look for the problems.”
50 Women in Robotics to Know
Women in Robotics hopes to push back on that perception, and many other misconceptions about women in robotics. That’s why the organization continues to publish its yearly “50 Women to Know in Robotics” list.
“Looking forward is one of the things we focus on, and it’s why we continue to publish the list,” Keay said. “It is moving the needle for women around the world, and we want that to continue.”
When the list started, it highlighted just 25 women, and over the years it has grown to 50. According to Keay, this is because she often saw the same 10 or so women speaking at events or being talked about in the industry. This contributes to the perception that only the most exceptional women will succeed in robotics. Keay wanted to highlight the fact that many women are doing amazing work in robotics every year.
The list was announced today and includes women from all regions of the world. This year’s collection represents Nigeria, India, China, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Croatia, Korea, Denmark, Singapore, Italy, Romania, United States, Sweden, Spain, Canada, the UK, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. It spans all ages and career phases to highlight women at every stage of their careers.
The entire list can be found on the Women in Robotics website, along with events that the organization will be holding throughout October.