Adnan Masood On How We Can Increase Girls Participation in Engineering and Robotics

An Interview With Vanessa Ogle

Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

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Addressing bias and stereotypes: Tackling the biases and stereotypes that hold girls back from engineering and robotics is a critical piece of the puzzle. This requires a concerted effort from educators, parents, media, and the industry as a whole. We need to be mindful of the messages we send, from the toys we market to girls to the way we talk about these fields. In my work, I make a point to challenge assumptions and celebrate the diverse faces of engineering and robotics. Whether it’s highlighting the stories of trailblazing women in STEM or calling out biased language, every action counts in creating a more inclusive narrative.

Despite the growing importance of engineering and robotics in shaping our future, women remain significantly underrepresented in these fields. This series aims to explore and address the barriers that discourage girls from pursuing careers in engineering and robotics. We are talking to educators, industry leaders, pioneering women engineers, and robotics experts who have made significant contributions to their fields, to discuss the strategies they believe can inspire and increase the participation of young girls in engineering and robotics. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Adnan Masood.

Dr. Adnan Masood is Chief AI Architect, and Lead AI engineer at UST. In his role, he is responsible for the firm’s overall strategy for AI, machine learning, generative AI, and academic collaborations.

Adnan is a seasoned researcher, engineer, author, and thought leader with over two decades of global experience in financial technology, and developing large scale systems. He is recognized as Microsoft Regional Director, and MVP (Most Valuable Professional) for AI for his outstanding contributions.

Dr. Masood collaborates with Stanford AI Lab, MIT CSAIL, and leads a team of data scientists and engineers building AI solutions to produce business value and insights. Dr. Masood advises C-suite execs across Fortune 500 companies and startups, is an author of bestsellers in Responsible AI and Data Science. He is also a sought after speaker at conferences, code camps, and user groups; he dedicates part of his time to volunteer as a STEM robotics coach for elementary and middle school students, promoting diversity in the workplace.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your ”backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My journey into the world of software engineering and robotics began early on- I was fascinated by machines and how they worked, and started programming at 8 on IBM 286. This curiosity led me to study computer science and engineering in college, and eventually a PhD in AI and Machine Learning. As part of visiting scholar and academic collaborator for UST, I work with MIT CSAIL, and Stanford AI Lab, both with world class robotics labs. I have designed hardware circuits for robotics, but my true passion was ignited when I started volunteering as a robotics coach for FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams. Seeing the excitement and ingenuity of these young students as they built and programmed their robots was truly inspiring. It made me realize the immense potential of engineering and robotics to not only solve complex problems but also to empower the next generation of innovators. This experience solidified my commitment to not just advancing the field myself but also to mentoring and encouraging young minds, especially girls, to explore these exciting domains.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of the most memorable moments in my career was when one of our rookie FLL teams won the Innovation Award at the FIRST World Expo, which is highly competitive. This team, especially the girls, had worked tirelessly on their project, which focused on developing a robotic solution to assist with recycling. They faced numerous challenges along the way, from technical glitches to self-doubt. But they persevered, and their hard work paid off. Seeing their faces light up as they were announced the winners was a moment I’ll cherish forever. It reinforced my belief in the power of mentorship and the importance of creating inclusive spaces in STEM. That experience has fueled my commitment to encouraging more young people, especially girls, to pursue engineering and robotics.

What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering or robotics, and how can we replicate that inspiration for young girls?

My inspiration to pursue engineering and robotics stemmed from a deep fascination with problem-solving and a desire to make a positive impact in people’s lives. I believe we can replicate this inspiration for young girls by exposing them to the exciting possibilities of these fields early on. This can be done through engaging, hands-on learning experiences like robotics clubs, coding camps, and maker spaces. It’s also crucial to provide girls with role models- women who have succeeded in engineering and robotics and can share their stories and guidance. Personally, I’ve seen the power of this through my involvement with the Stanford LINXS program, where we connect promising minority students from Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) with mentors and immersive research experiences. When girls see themselves represented in these fields and are given the tools and support to explore, their inspiration and confidence soar. This is my third year participating in this program for Stanford, and the previous two cohorts have been wonderful!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am incredibly grateful to my Dr Altamash Kamal, SM ’80, ScD ’82 (MIT), who was the one who first encouraged me to participate in computer science, electronics, and robotics. Growing up in a developing nation poses its own set of challenges- but encouragement from people like Dr. Kamal, and various other mentors over the years help builds confidence. Every child wants someone to believe in them- and the little encouragement goes a long way. The confidence I gained from Dr. Kamal’s encouragement, and from support of my high school teachers like Khusro Azmat, showed me that I was capable of excelling in this field and sparked my passion for computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Without these mentors’ encouragement and belief in me, I might not have pursued this path. Their impact on my life is a testament to the power of dedicated educators in shaping young minds and opening doors to new possibilities.

Can you share a story of a challenge you faced as a person in engineering or robotics and how you overcame it?

There are several professional stories, but I would like to share one with my robotics team- since it involves one of our most resilient students, M (name redacted for privacy). This is really one of the most challenging and inspiring moments I experienced — — it was during a robotics competition with one of our FLL teams. Just a week before the qualifier, our 12 year old robotics run lead M, fell seriously ill due to undiagnosed diabetic ketoacidosis and was hospitalized. It was a shocking and difficult time for all of us. However, what I witnessed in the following days was a testament to the resilience and spirit of these young students.

The entire team rallied around M, taking on her tasks and responsibilities while she was in the hospital. They worked tirelessly to ensure that the robot was ready and that M’s contributions were not in vain. I was deeply moved by their compassion, dedication, and teamwork in the face of such adversity. Miraculously, M pulled through and was able to join us for the qualifier, though she was still recovering. During the competition, the judges asked about the challenges the team had faced. The kids eloquently explained how M had been in the hospital until less than a week ago, and now, here she was, making the robots run. The judges were visibly impressed, not only by the team’s technical achievements but also by their resilience and unity.

This experience taught me so much about the power of community and the incredible strength that can be found in the face of challenges. It reinforced my belief in the importance of fostering not just technical skills but also empathy, collaboration, and perseverance in our young engineers and roboticists. These kids showed me that with a supportive team and an unwavering spirit, we can overcome even the most daunting of obstacles. It’s a lesson that I carry with me in my work and in my life, and it’s one that I strive to impart to all the students I have the privilege of mentoring.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am an avid reader, and it’s difficult to choose a single book- many come to mind including The Worlds I See by Dr. Fei-fei Li, Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble, Unmasking AI by Joy Adowaa Buolamwini, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (or virtually anything by Issacson) are great, but one book that had a profound impact on me is Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. You must have heard of it- it’s also a movie now- it tells the incredible story of the African American women mathematicians who played a crucial role in NASA during the Space Race. Reading about their brilliance, resilience, and the barriers they overcame was both inspiring and eye-opening. It resonated with me deeply because it highlighted the often-overlooked contributions of women and people of color in STEM. It also reinforced my belief in the importance of diversity and inclusion in these fields. I remember sharing the stories of these remarkable women with my robotics team, particularly the girls. Seeing their eyes widen with admiration and the realization that they too could be pioneers was a powerful moment. That book has become a touchstone for me, a reminder of the incredible potential that can be unlocked when we break down barriers and create opportunities for all.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” This quote has been a guiding principle for me, both in my personal life and in my work. It reminds me that challenges are not obstacles but rather chances to learn, grow, and innovate.

One of my fellow coaches, Ali Ismail who is an electrical engineer, has a famous catchphrase that he repeats often: “At the end of the day.” It has become such a staple in our robotics club that the kids have picked up on it, and it’s now our team’s mantra. In fact, it’s even printed on our team’s t-shirts!

I remember one particularly amusing incident during a robotics competition. Our team’s robot, affectionately named “R2D2,” was having some trouble navigating the course. It kept veering off track and bumping into obstacles. The kids were getting frustrated, and tensions were running high. That’s when Coach Ali chimed in with his signature phrase: “At the end of the day, R2D2’s just a little directionally challenged. He’s not trying to cause trouble; he just needs a little guidance!”

The kids burst out laughing, and the mood instantly lightened. Inspired by Coach Ali’s perspective, they started brainstorming ways to “guide” R2D2. They came up with the idea of adding a color sensor to help Robbie distinguish between the lines and the rest of the course. Lo and behold, with this new addition, R2D2 started navigating like a pro!

This experience taught us all a valuable lesson. When faced with challenges, it’s easy to get caught up in the stress and frustration of the moment. But if we step back and approach the problem with a little humor and a lot of determination, we can find innovative solutions. Coach Ali’s “at the end of the day” philosophy reminds us to keep things in perspective, to persevere through the setbacks, and to never lose sight of the joy in the journey. It’s a mindset that I try to cultivate in all my students. Engineering and robotics can be tough, but if we can learn to laugh at our missteps and celebrate our successes, we’ll not only be better problem-solvers but also happier and more resilient individuals. And who knows? Maybe one day, ”At the end of the day” will be printed on t-shirts worn by engineers and roboticists around the world!

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’ve tried to use my expertise, and success to make a positive difference in a few key ways. First and foremost, I’m passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM. Through my work with programs like FLL and Stanford LINXS, I’ve had the privilege of mentoring hundreds of brilliant students from all kinds of backgrounds. Seeing these kids light up as they discover a love for engineering and robotics, and then watching them go on to break barriers in their careers- that’s what it’s all about for me.

I’ve also been an advocate for more inclusive practices in the industry itself. We can’t tap into the full potential of what diverse minds can bring to the table if we don’t create environments where everyone feels welcomed and valued. Another area I’m really invested in is advancing responsible AI to mitigate discrimination. I actually wrote a book about this with my co-author Heather Dawe (a great female AI leader and colleague), looking at how we can mitigate harmful biases in algorithms and machines. It’s a complex issue, but a critical one as AI becomes more and more integrated into our lives.

At the end of the day, my goal is pretty simple: to use whatever influence and resources I have to help create a future that’s a little bit brighter, a little bit fairer, and a little bit more full of possibility for all. If I can inspire the next generation of diverse tech leaders and push our field in a more ethical, inclusive direction, I’ll consider that a success.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this report, only about 16% of engineering positions in the US are held by women. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from Engineering and Robotics?

Despite the progress we’ve made, there are still several factors holding back women from fully participating in engineering and robotics. One major issue is the persistence of stereotypes and bias. There’s still a pervasive notion that these fields are male-dominated and that women don’t belong or can’t succeed in them. This can discourage girls from pursuing their interests in STEM from an early age. Another challenge is the lack of visible role models. When girls don’t see women thriving in these fields, it can be harder for them to envision themselves in those roles. Additionally, there are often systemic barriers in education and the workplace. From gendered toys and marketing to hiring biases and unequal pay, these structural inequities can limit women’s opportunities and advancement in engineering and robotics. Addressing these issues requires a multi-faceted approach, from challenging stereotypes to promoting inclusive policies and practices. It’s a complex problem, but one that we must tackle if we want to tap into the full potential of our workforce and drive innovation forward.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should enter the Engineering and Robotics fields?

Absolutely! There are numerous compelling reasons why we need more women in engineering and robotics. First and foremost, diversity drives innovation. When we have teams with a mix of genders, backgrounds, and perspectives, we’re better equipped to solve complex problems and create solutions that cater to a wider range of needs. Women bring unique insights and approaches that can lead to breakthroughs and advancements in these fields. Moreover, increasing women’s participation in engineering and robotics is crucial for closing the gender gap in STEM and promoting greater equality in our society. It’s about ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to contribute their talents and shape our technological future, regardless of their gender. There’s also an economic imperative. As our world becomes increasingly driven by technology, we need a diverse workforce to meet the demands of the 21st century. By excluding or discouraging women from these fields, we’re limiting our potential for growth and competitiveness on a global scale. Finally, having more women in engineering and robotics provides powerful role models for the next generation. When girls see women thriving in these careers, it opens up new possibilities and aspirations for them. It’s about creating a virtuous cycle of representation and empowerment that can transform these fields and our society as a whole.

Can you please share “5 Things We Need To Increase Girls’ Participation in Engineering and Robotics?”

Absolutely- here is my list of 5 things.

1. Early exposure and engagement: It’s crucial to introduce girls to engineering and robotics concepts from a young age. This can be done through fun, hands-on activities in schools, after-school programs, and summer camps. For example, in our FLL robotics teams, we make sure to have a balanced mix of boys and girls and create an environment where everyone feels welcomed and valued. We start with simple tasks like building Lego models and gradually move to more complex programming and problem-solving challenges. By making these experiences accessible and enjoyable, we can spark girls’ interest and confidence in these fields.

2. Inclusive learning environments: Creating inclusive and supportive learning spaces is essential for fostering girls’ participation in engineering and robotics. This means actively challenging stereotypes, using gender-neutral language, and showcasing diverse examples of success. In our robotics clubs, we emphasize collaboration over competition and encourage everyone to share their ideas and take on leadership roles. We also make sure to highlight the contributions of women in STEM throughout history and invite female engineers and scientists to speak to our students. By creating an environment where girls feel seen, heard, and supported, we can help them thrive.

3. Mentorship and role models: Connecting girls with mentors and role models in engineering and robotics can be a game-changer. When girls see women who look like them succeeding in these fields, it can be incredibly inspiring and motivating. Through programs like Stanford LINXS, we pair students with mentors who can offer guidance, support, and real-world insights. I’ve seen the transformative power of these relationships firsthand. One of my mentees, a high school girl who was initially unsure about pursuing robotics, ended up winning a major competition and securing a scholarship to study engineering in college, all thanks to the support and encouragement of her mentor. I always try to bring in female technology speakers and practitioners to my classes to show students the art of the possible. Here you can see my former student, Dalia, having a conversation with Dean Kamen, founder of FLL Robotics.

A Student Conversation with Dean Kamen- FIRST Looks

4. Addressing bias and stereotypes: Tackling the biases and stereotypes that hold girls back from engineering and robotics is a critical piece of the puzzle. This requires a concerted effort from educators, parents, media, and the industry as a whole. We need to be mindful of the messages we send, from the toys we market to girls to the way we talk about these fields. In my work, I make a point to challenge assumptions and celebrate the diverse faces of engineering and robotics. Whether it’s highlighting the stories of trailblazing women in STEM or calling out biased language, every action counts in creating a more inclusive narrative.

5. Community and peer support: Fostering a sense of community and peer support is crucial for sustaining girls’ engagement in engineering and robotics. When girls feel like they belong and have a network of supportive peers, they’re more likely to persist and thrive in these fields. In our FLL teams, we create opportunities for girls to connect and collaborate, whether it’s through group projects, team-building exercises, or social events. We also encourage our students to participate in wider STEM communities, such as attending conferences or joining online forums. By building these networks of support, we can help girls navigate challenges, celebrate successes, and form lasting bonds that can carry them through their journeys in engineering and robotics.

In your opinion, what are the most effective ways to introduce girls to engineering and robotics at an early age?

I believe that the most effective ways to introduce girls to engineering and robotics at an early age are through hands-on, engaging experiences that showcase the creativity and real-world applications of these fields. FLL is a great venue for this — a great approach is through play-based learning. Building with blocks, assembling simple machines, or experimenting with basic coding concepts through interactive games can be powerful ways to spark girls’ interest and build their confidence. It’s about making these subjects fun and accessible, rather than intimidating or abstract. Another effective strategy is to connect engineering and robotics to girls’ existing interests and passions. For example, if a girl loves animals, we can explore how robots are used in wildlife conservation or how engineers design prosthetics for injured pets. By showing how these fields relate to things girls already care about, we can make them more relevant and exciting.

I believe in the power of storytelling. Sharing the stories of diverse women who have made groundbreaking contributions to engineering and robotics can be incredibly inspiring for girls. It helps them see themselves in these roles and understand the impact they can have. Whether it’s through books, videos, or in-person interactions, exposing girls to these role models early on can plant the seeds for a lifelong interest in STEM.

How do you think the portrayal of women in STEM fields by media and educational materials impacts girls’ interest in engineering and robotics?

The portrayal of women in STEM fields by media and educational materials has a significant impact on girls’ interest and engagement in engineering and robotics. When girls see positive, diverse representations of women succeeding in these fields, it can be incredibly empowering. It sends the message that they too belong and can thrive in these domains. On the flip side, when women are underrepresented, stereotyped or portrayed in narrow, gendered roles, it can discourage girls from pursuing these paths.

I’ve seen the impact of representation firsthand in my work with FLL and other robotics programs. When we make a conscious effort to showcase diverse examples of women in STEM, whether it’s through the materials we use, the speakers we invite, or the mentors we provide, girls’ engagement and confidence soar. They start to see themselves in these roles and feel like they have a place in this world. On the other hand, when girls are consistently bombarded with images and messages that suggest engineering and robotics are male domains, it can be incredibly discouraging. It creates a sense of “otherness” and can lead to self-doubt, even among the most talented and passionate girls.

This is why it’s so crucial that we’re intentional about the representations we put forth in media and education. We need to show girls that STEM is for them, that they have a valuable perspective to bring, and that their contributions are needed and welcomed. This means diversifying the examples we use, highlighting the stories of pioneering women, and actively challenging stereotypes and biases.

It’s not just about increasing the number of women we show, but also about showcasing the breadth of roles and possibilities within STEM. We need to paint a picture of engineering and robotics that is as varied and vibrant as the girls we’re trying to reach. When we do this, when we make STEM feel accessible, relevant, and full of opportunity, that’s when we’ll see more girls eagerly embracing these fields. Ultimately, the way we portray women in STEM through media and education has the power to shape girls’ perceptions, aspirations, and choices. It’s a responsibility and an opportunity to open doors, change narratives, and create a future where every girl can see herself as an engineer, a roboticist, or any STEM role she dreams of. That’s the vision I’m working towards, one representation at a time.

What advice would you give to girls who are interested in engineering and robotics but are hesitant to take the first step?

My advice would be this: believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid to try. I know it can be daunting to venture into a field that has historically been male-dominated, but your passion, your intelligence, and your unique perspective are invaluable assets that the world of engineering and robotics needs.

Start small, if that makes you more comfortable. Join a robotics club, take a coding class, or find a mentor who can guide and support you. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your abilities. And remember, everyone starts somewhere. Even the most accomplished engineers and roboticists once stood where you are now.

It’s also important to embrace failure as part of the learning process. In engineering and robotics, we often learn more from our failures than our successes. Each setback is an opportunity to grow, to problem-solve, and to innovate. So don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. Embrace it as a necessary step on the path to success.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone else’s stereotypes or expectations define what you’re capable of. You have the power to shape your own path and to make a meaningful impact in this field. Trust in your abilities, follow your passion, and know that there’s a whole community of people, myself included, who are cheering you on and ready to support you every step of the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be one focused on fostering empathy, critical thinking, and ethical responsibility in the development and application of technology. We live in an age where technology, particularly AI and robotics, is advancing at an unprecedented pace. While this presents incredible opportunities, it also comes with significant challenges and risks.

We are living in the era of Generative AI — the landscape of employment, jobs, and work is about to change. I believe we need a movement that puts human well-being and ethical considerations at the forefront of technological advancement. This means educating the next generation of engineers and roboticists not just in technical skills, but also in the moral implications of their work. It means encouraging diverse perspectives and cross-disciplinary collaboration to ensure that the technology we create serves the needs of all people, not just a privileged few.

This movement would also emphasize the importance of transparency and accountability in tech. We need systems in place to catch and mitigate harmful biases, to protect privacy and security, and to ensure that the benefits of technological progress are distributed equitably. Ultimately, the goal would be to create a future where technology is a tool for empowerment, for solving global challenges, and for bringing people together. A future where innovation is driven not just by profit or efficiency, but by a deep sense of responsibility to our shared humanity.

I believe this kind of movement has the potential to shape not just the trajectory of technology, but the trajectory of our society as a whole. By putting ethics at the heart of innovation, we can create a world that is not only more advanced, but also more just, more compassionate, and more resilient. That’s the vision I want to work towards, and the movement I hope to inspire in any way I can.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would love for your readers to follow my work and join the conversation around responsible AI, diversity in STEM, and the future of engineering and robotics. They can start by visiting my company portal, [https://www.ust.com/en/boundless/boundlessthinkers/adnan-masood-phd], where I regularly post blogs, articles, and resources on these topics. I’m also quite active on social media, particularly Twitter [@adnanmasood] and LinkedIn [https://www.linkedin.com/in/adnano/]. These are great places to get updates on my latest projects, publications, and speaking engagements.

For those interested in diving deeper into the topics I’ve discussed, I highly recommend checking out my book, [Responsible AI in the Enterprise: Practical AI risk management for explainable, auditable, and safe models with hyperscalers and Azure OpenAI], which is available on amazon [https://www.amazon.com/Responsible-Enterprise-managementexplainable-hyperscalers/dp/1803230525]. It’s a comprehensive look at the challenges and opportunities surrounding responsible AI development.

I’m also always eager to connect with fellow advocates, educators, and innovators in this space. If any of your readers are involved in initiatives related to diversity in STEM or ethical AI, I’d love to hear from them. They can reach out to me directly through my email, AdnanMasood@gmail.com.

Ultimately, the issues we’ve discussed today- increasing girls’ participation in engineering and robotics, promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM, advancing responsible AI — these are challenges that require collective effort and ongoing dialogue. By staying connected and supporting each other’s work, we can continue to drive meaningful change. So I encourage your readers to stay engaged, to keep learning and sharing, and to be part of shaping a future that is more inclusive, more innovative, and more equitable for all.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About The Interviewer: Vanessa Ogle is a mom, entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. Vanessa’s talent in building world-class leadership teams focused on diversity, a culture of service, and innovation through inclusion allowed her to be one of the most acclaimed Latina CEO’s in the last 30 years. She collaborated with the world’s leading technology and content companies such as Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Broadcom to bring innovative solutions to travelers and hotels around the world. Vanessa is the lead inventor on 120+ U.S. Patents. Accolades include: FAST 100, Entrepreneur 360 Best Companies, Inc. 500 and then another six times on the Inc. 5000. Vanessa was personally honored with Inc. 100 Female Founder’s Award, Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and Enterprising Women of the Year among others. Vanessa now spends her time sharing stories to inspire and give hope through articles, speaking engagements and music. In her spare time she writes and plays music in the Amazon best selling new band HigherHill, teaches surfing clinics, trains dogs, and cheers on her children.

Please connect with Vanessa here on linkedin and subscribe to her newsletter Unplugged as well as follow her on Substack, Instagram, Facebook, and X and of course on her website VanessaOgle.

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Vanessa Ogle
Authority Magazine

Vanessa Ogle is an entrepreneur, inventor, writer, and singer/songwriter. She is best known as the founder of Enseo