“It’s an Exciting Time to be a Woman in AI…”
A conversation with Karen Tatarian, a PhD student in Human Robot Interactions
Over the past three decades, the ‘boy genius’ has been the poster child of technological innovations driving digital revolution in this era. The image of a brilliant, smart young man who dropped out of school to start in his parents’ garage, what-would-become the Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba and Apples of this world. The narrative of the boy genius is a compelling one that has been adapted for the big screen and told inspiringly all over the world. They make for rich content for motivational speakers and writers and career and life coaches, etc.
Of course, these stories deserve to be told just as much as we ought to know that less than 2% of the startups in the tech industry that receive funding from Venture Capitalists are owned by women. It is also worth knowing that this low figure is in spite of the fact that female-led tech startups make 200% returns on investments. So in what can be described as the most gender-biased space within tech, we should keep in mind that venture capitalists more often than not, tend to be men and naturally, any investor would rather trust someone who looks like them and one they can identify with.
This is why it is important to tell the stories of the women who are doing equally amazing work in their chosen tech fields. When we project women in AI, engineering and tech on our screens and in our news feeds and in books, we normalise their presence and essence making them relatable and easy to identify with.
On October 11 each year, the world commemorates the day of the girl child, And this year working with the theme; “My Voice, Our Equal Future”,, Women in AI together with the AI4EU platform is putting the spotlight on a young woman whose fascination with technology from a tender age, propelled her to pursue a PhD in Human Robotics.
I think the gender issues I encounter today are unfortunately quite familiar to me. From the second you step foot as an 18 years old into an engineering school, you will know early on that you as a woman are an intruder.
Karen Tatarian is a doctoral candidate in robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the Sorbonne University. She has a degree in Physics from the American University of Beirut and a Masters mechanical in Engineering from the same university. We had a conversation with her about her research interests and some gender issues within her field.
What piqued your interest to study Human Robot Interactions?
Quite honestly, I was just so fascinated by it. As much as I love engineering and physics, in all the work I have done prior, the human element was extracted from the equation. But the world does not work that way. Humans are of great essence in shaping how technologies are built and used. I just want to build robots that would complement humans and help us advance as a race.
As a researcher, what are some of the gender issues you see in your field?
I think the gender issues I encounter today are unfortunately quite familiar to me. From the second you step foot as an 18 years old into an engineering school, you will know early on that you as a woman are an intruder. Not just by the ratio of male to female but also by the sexist comments or “jokes” you encounter here and there. You learn early on that you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. Today, I consider myself lucky that I am a researcher in Europe, I think we have done a tremendous job in fighting for gender equality. I am very honored to be an EU-funded Marie Slodowska-Curie fellow.
How relevant is it to have more female researchers like yourself working in this field?
Of course it is important that more females join because then we would be able to make an impact on the research and work being done. It is a crucial step towards solving the problems related to gender bias found in today’s technologies. I also want to highlight that it is equally important to work on these issues alongside the men in this industry to create an open and welcoming environment for people from all races, ethnicities, gender..
What are some of the challenges of working in a male-dominated field?
I believe you develop a thick skin early on especially during your early studies. You learn to be bold, confident, and loud to make sure you are heard and seen. But I also want to point out that you will encounter brilliant men in this industry, who will treat you as an equal and you will learn so much for them as well.
There must be just as many victories and opportunities as well?
Of course! It’s a very exciting time to be a woman in the engineering, technology, robotics, and AI field. There is so much innovation happening around us and we have come such a long way as women to earn our place in this field. Work environments have become more open and inclusive than they were before. It’s a great opportunity to join the movement and pave the way further for future generations of women in STEM.
Us, being here, being present in the field is very important to show little girls that they can do it too; that they are welcome here and it’s super cool to be here.
How do you see your field of study evolving in the future to be more inclusive?
I believe here in Europe we have been making a lot of effort to make sure gender diversity is present. Company and university policies are taking into account female-male ratios. And most importantly, it is a topic now everyone is aware of and is talking about. More female leaders in the field are stepping forward and becoming role models for younger generations. Today as well one can speak up about gender bias more openly than in previous years. That’s good, because we can now more easily identify and point at a problem in order to fix it.
What in your opinion should we be doing more or less to encourage more female students to pursue careers in AI?
Simply this: BE BRILLIANT ENGINEERS AND SCIENTISTS! When I was growing up, the field I am currently in was not my first choice simply because I did not know it was a field that women were part of. Us, being here, being present in the field is very important to show little girls that they can do it too; that they are welcome here and it’s super cool to be here.
As a young female researcher yourself, what advice will you give younger students looking to enter this field?
You are going to have so much fun! It’s such an exciting field full of possibilities and opportunities! And if you join, I hope we cross paths so we can share our stories!
About Karen Tatarian
Karen Tatarian is a Robotics Researcher at SoftBank Robotics and a PhD Student in robotics and artificial intelligence at Sorbonne University as part of the EU funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie project ANIMATAS. Karen is enthusiastic about designing the next generation of robots and promoting their presence in real-world scenarios, including public places such as hospitals, schools, retail stores to even homes. Her current research focus is on the synthesis of multi-modal socially intelligent human robot interaction. She is also the main organizer of an academic workshop conference series called “Solutions for Socially Intelligent HRI in Real-World Scenarios”.
Passionate about raising awareness and advocating the presence of women in STEM fields, Karen has been a member of Women in AI since 2019.