Women in computer science: a “problem-solving” approach

Dr Beate Grawemeyer from the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab and Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, reports on the research seminar led by Professor Niki Trigoni from the University of Oxford.

(L-R) Professor Niki Trigoni, Professor Alex Poulovassilis and Dr Tingting Han

Does a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) pose specific challenges for women? What are some of the challenges facing women pursuing a Computer Science career in the University sector? These questions were among those explored with Dr Niki Trigoni, Professor of Computing Science at the University of Oxford, who visited Birkbeck on 28 June 2018 to deliver a presentation on her current research and to discuss the challenges facing women in STEM. The event took the form of a conversation between Professor Trigoni and Dr Tingting Han, Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.

Professor Trigoni began with a research presentation on the topic of context inference and control in artificial intelligence (AI)-driven cyber-physical systems. She explained how by analysing the data gathered from ubiquitous sensors, it is possible to make sense of a human activity in built environments such as homes, hospitals, and construction sites. She discussed how AI and Machine Learning techniques can be used for integrating different kinds of sensor data, inferring human activities, and reacting to human preferences. She also highlighted how crowdsourcing can be used to generate additional high-value data, including for inferring a map of an unfamiliar building from the pathways that humans follow through it. Professor Trigoni concluded with a discussion of the privacy concerns around gathering and processing raw sensor data.

Her presentation was followed by lunch and a networking opportunity for the attendees, and a discussion with Dr Han. During the discussion, Professor Trigoni talked about her early passion for computer science, which stemmed from her interest in mathematics and its real-world applications.  She discussed early positive experiences of studying mathematics and working in the IT sector in Greece. After this, she completed a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge, then a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University, and she took up an academic post at Birkbeck.

Professor Trigoni discussed reasons why there may be a lack of women in computer science in the UK, including girls’ experiences in schools and within their families.  She noted the possible implicit negative impressions relating to women’s careers in computing but observed that these may now be reducing as some progress has been made as more women in the UK are entering the field of computer science. However, it is important that encouraging women’s careers should not be at the disadvantage of male computer scientists. Instead, computer science can be made more interesting for women by, for example, relating it to subjects where women are well-represented, such as biology.

To attract more women to the discipline, the current focus on “coding” should instead be replaced by a focus on “problem-solving”, which is a much more gender-balanced skill learnt in school. There should also be a general raising of the status of engineering and computer science as career paths, including higher relative salaries, as is the case in other European countries. Finally, in terms of pursuing a career as a woman in academia, she highlighted the importance of travelling and networking for career development and progression and the fact that this may be challenging for women if they have a family with young children.

In a working environment where there are more women, particularly senior women, who have gone through similar experiences themselves, there may be more understanding and support available.

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