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How Women Make Engineering Great

by Debra Danielson on Tuesday June 23, 2020

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On International Women in Engineering Day, our CTO Debra Danielson gives examples of female engineers who have made a profound impact and why diversity in engineering matters.

When you stop for a moment to look at your surroundings, you’ll find everything was built by engineers: our roads and power grids, automobiles, appliances, mobile devices, your home smart devices, and so much more. Great engineers have passion to improve people’s way of life and have a deep talent for innovation.

Engineering is not “just a profession” to be learned by someone who is complacent and chooses it simply to make a living. It extends beyond that and is one of the few career paths that enables a person's talent to improve, and often reshape, the well-being of our community in a positive way. 

In celebration of International Women in Engineering Day, I want to share some great examples where female engineers have made a profound impact. For me, these are just a few examples that show why it’s important to emphasize more diversity in engineering, as it’s proven to lead to better results.

Joy Buolamwini and the Algorithmic Justice League

Joy Buolanwini was a Ghanaian-American computer scientist and digital activist based at the MIT Media Lab. When Joy was a graduate student at MIT her project was getting a robot to “mirror,” which means programming the robot to recognize a human and then mimic what they do. In order to track Joy’s movements, the system used a commercial facial recognition program. During the experiments, Joy and her team found a huge disparity – the program could only identify light-skinned males, with a margin of error being only 0.8 percent. When tested on darker-skinned women, the error rate greatly increased to more than 20% in one case and more than 34% in other cases. This raised questions about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) powering facial recognition software and which images are fed to AI during its development.

Joy responded by adding a large number of diverse faces, including women of all colors and non-white men into the AI and began assessing major facial recognition programs, including IBM, Microsoft and Megvii's Face++ and sharing her findings with each company. IBM responded positively and when Joy tested its system again, the accuracy for correctly assessing dark-skin males went from 88.0% to 99.4%, for dark-skin females, it went from 65.3% to 83.5%. For light-skin females it went from 92.9% to 97.6%; light-skin males stayed the same at 97.0%.

Facial recognition software has huge implications in our society – verifying a picture on Facebook is one thing, but when trying to use the software for law enforcement, surveillance or other critical needs, accuracy is essential. Joy’s work has helped reshape how AI is thought of and if she had been a light-skinned male, her research would have never uncovered this gaping blind spot.

Joy is the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, which is an organization that combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of artificial intelligence. If you’re interested in Joy’s facial recognition research, I recommend watching her TED Talk.

Massively Expanding the Gaming Market: Sheri Graner Ray 

Sheri Graner Ray is an American computer game designer. Since 1990, Sheri has worked for major franchises including Electronic Arts, Origin Systems and Sony Online Entertainment. She is the gaming industry’s leading expert on gender in computer games and wrote the book Gender Inclusive Game Design-Expanding the Market in 2004 that revolutionized the gaming industry. Her primary goal was designing games for the “rest of the market.” Over the past 15 years, the percentage of female gamers has increased from 38% to 46%. That’s 46% of roughly the 2.2 billion global gamers today. The increase in women from 2005 to 2020 represents about a $65 billion-dollar growth to the market.

This growth is incredibly important for diversity, because gaming is historically how children have become computer literate. Early computer literacy gaps between boys and girls persisted and amplified into a persistent gender gap in technology and engineering.

Creating Diversity in Computer Science Education: Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College

Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, came to campus in 2006 to a student body that was only 20% female. One of her biggest priorities was tackling the “pipeline problem,” which still exists today, as only 18% of computer science graduates are female.

According to Inc., which ran a feature on this success story, Maria “started with the hypothesis that if Harvey Mudd created an environment that was supportive and engaging for everyone; if the school built confidence and community among underrepresented groups; and if it demystified the path to success, a diverse group of students would be attracted to the college and succeed there.”

With this approach, Maria successfully boosted Harvey Mudd College's attendance, with 50% of the 2023 class being female and pursuing degrees in computer science, engineering and physics, making the college one of the highest in STEM-focused higher education.

The worldwide technical labor market has taken a hit since the coronavirus, but a huge talent gap existed in tech in 2019, and personal hiring experience shows that the market for tech talent is still tight. Cultivating inclusion and diversity, as Maria did, can help address the dearth in talent.  

Cultivating New Ideas & Innovation: Amy Millman

Amy Millman co-founded the successful non-profit Springboard Enterprises in 2000. The platform assists women-led, scalable startups to obtain equitable access to venture capital and accelerate growth. 

Springboard’s mission is to accelerate the growth of entrepreneurial companies led by women through access to essential resources and a global community of experts. They are a leading network of influencers, investors and innovators dedicated to building high-growth companies led by women who are transforming industries in technology and life science.

In just over 20 years, Amy and the Springboard program have assisted more than 750 of these women-led companies to an aggregate of $20 billion in value.  The Fortune 500 today has 37 women in CEO roles (do the math – that means 463 men). 

I hope these examples have shown the positive impact women have on engineering, and why we need to continually strive for more inclusion.

Tags: Company News

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Debra Danielson

Debra Danielson is the Chief Technology Officer & SVP of Engineering at Digital Guardian.