During a lively panel discussion which was ably moderated by Lavinia Cinca, PR & Marketing Manager, euRobotics, an expert line-up of presenters considered how to build a digital and technological future in which women have a strong presence and involvement. Contributions from an informed and lively audience added further to the panel’s insights.

“I have a dream that in three years’ time we won’t still be having a debate about women in technology and robotics. Because by then I hope it will be normal for people, no matter what their gender or background, to follow their dreams and develop careers based on their skills and the value they can add. The huge challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow are so important that we must ensure we have the best minds working on them, regardless of gender.” So said Marina Bill, Global Head of Marketing and Sales for ABB’s Robotics and Discrete Automation business, Platinum sponsor of European Robotics Week central event in Poznań.

If Marina’s dream is to be fulfilled on that timescale, the tech sector’s gender imbalance will need to change fast. There are currently four times as many men as women with ICT-related studies and three times as many working in the digital sector, yet 90% of future jobs will require digital skills. This is now an economic imperative as well as a challenge for gender inclusion.

Women who have already achieved positions of influence in their organisations are well-placed to advocate for others to follow their rise: “It’s about pushing to get good female candidates into the company. If there’s only a small population of women inside the organisation then you haven’t reached a critical mass. When it’s greater than 10%, they can start to have an influence. Once they find their way into senior management they can start to support other women by developing female talent inside the organisation and by encouraging more women into the organisation.”

Alicja Laskowska from Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Center (PSNC) underlined some distinct contributions that an increased presence of women can bring to the workplace, notably empathy and recognising emotions and the needs of other people: “This can lead them to design better products for people by being able to put themselves in the shoes of others.”

As with all social and economic change, education was key. One of ERW’s major themes was to promote IT/STEM education for females. For this, it was essential to find ways actively to involve girls and to develop tools to strengthen self-confidence in girls and women, according to Beatrice Masala from the Scuola di Robotica, Italy. Sometimes this was about being ready to challenge stereotypes. Marina captured this perfectly: “When I say ‘I’m an engineer’, women say ‘Well, you don’t look like one!’ so we need to be careful of unconscious bias.”

 Beatrice gave a further example from gaming, where girls tended to choose service- and rescue-based scenarios in preference to those involving combat or football. It was therefore important for a choice of scenarios to be offered. Stories about women working in tech and related fields were also important both to inspire girls and to normalise the idea of women working in this sector.

Participants in this discussion were startled to learn that in Riihimaki, Finland, the gender imbalance in robotics is addressed almost from birth. Pia Engström, an educator from Riihimaki explained: “Everyone in Riihimaki studies robotics from the age of one year old, while infants are in day-care. We see robotics as a new general knowledge. You don’t need to be an expert. You do need to understand the ethics and use of robotics in society.”

Erma Mulabdić from the UN-funded IT Girls initiative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), said that there were 8m ICT specialists in the EU, but only 17% were women. In BiH women outnumbered men at university, yet there were three times fewer women in ICT than men “That’s a deficit of 6,000 workers – a big demographic challenge. What is the decision-making process for careers? Where is the leak in the STEM pipeline? How can we ‘nudge’ girls to take on ICT skills?” Underlining the economic case for positive change, Erma said that more women in ICT could boost the economy by euro 16BN. The task required different responses at different life stages – digital skills in childhood, exposure to role models for youth, and networking for adults.

The question of what influences girls’ decision to study STEM when they transition from school became a key theme in the discussion. As Erma pointed out, there were several factors: “Parents, teachers, school environment, media, all of these influence how we perceive the world around us. Gender norms have a huge impact, how parents bring up their children, how teachers teach, how the media reports, etc. Up to final grade at primary school, boys and girls have almost equal grades in physics/computer sciences, etc. In high school, girls perform much worse.”

Marina addressed this from a family perspective: “Every female engineer I spoke to had a father or brother who was an engineer. It’s true around the world. My father and grandfather were both engineers. If you have exposure to the life, you know what the work will be, and what a normal working day looks like.

Alicja agreed: “My father showed me how to repair things. You need to involve young girls in technical tasks and build their self-confidence from an early age. My colleagues had similar early experiences.” And yet, as Beatrice observed, in so many communities, the imperative for girls to choose between a career and family is still strong: “We need to find ways to enable both.” Even where women were able to combine careers and raising families, Erma pointed out that ICT posed a particular challenge for women seeking to return to work after a maternity break as the tech world moves on so quickly.

The discussion turned to the special challenge of making opportunities available to remote, rural communities. It was important to take the skills and training to those communities (Alicja: “We need good teachers in small towns and villages to bring skills to children.”) and not merely to expect young people to come to the cities to find them. Linking this theme to one of ambition and aspiration, Marina felt that women from rural backgrounds often strove harder because they saw this as their one-time opportunities to change their lives.

As it drew to a close, the discussion cited the varied effects – not always positive – when girls at an impressionable age were exposed to role models via social and other media. Examples included the unhelpful impact that bloggers and micro-influencers about cosmetics have on girls’ perceptions and aspirations by promoting what one participant described as ‘the empty life’.

By contrast, Marina observed that the TV series LA Law had made the law as a career “cool for girls” in Sweden in the 1980s.

The  discussion ended with a recommendation from each panellist. For Alicja it was about the role of parents, particularly fathers, involving daughters and sons in technical topics. For Beatrice it was to include women in every technical subject “because we cannot afford NOT to have everyone involved.” For Marina, “It has to become ‘cool’ to have a female manager.” For Erma, it was about mindset: “If you comment on a woman’s profession, ask yourself, would you say the same about a man’s?” Finally, Pia’s advice was “Be ambitious, set goals high and go for it. With STEAM, you can make those goals scalable and then you can really impact the world with these.”

Report prepared by Steve Doswell