Global tech recruiters MRL say that they are on a mission to “champion women in the tech industry”.
As such, MRL spoke to a selection of incredible women to talk about their experiences of diversity within the industry and the challenges they have faced throughout their careers.
Hannah Marcus, Associate Director at Discover.ai, discusses diversity in the AI industry and the changes she wants to see happen in the future.
Can you tell us a little about what you do now, and how you got where you are?
I am an Associate Director at a start-up called Discover.ai. We produce fast turnaround cultural insight projects for brands, by using a machine learning platform to gather large amounts of unstructured data (text and image) and provide people with the ability to read, analyse and relay that data incredibly quickly.
One of our key principles is that the AI is not replacing human expertise, but rather accelerating it; that the machine and the human working together can produce things that neither can do on their own. A weird side effect of this role is that I now have a job where I have to actively describe myself as a human!
My journey to Discover.ai was a bit circuitous – I actually studied English literature at university, and first got into market research/consumer insight through Commercial Semiotics, a practice where one analyses the signs and symbols given off by packaging, advertising and culture to understand the hidden messages people may be responding to.
When I first came across Discover, I was thrilled, because finally there was a technology that would allow me to do the type of work I loved, but cutting out the slow grunt work and logistical set-ups required to get there.
I initially wanted to bring them on as a supplier to the place I was working at the time, but very quickly ended up jumping ship, which surprised no one because I’d been going on about them so much.
What first motivated you to get into AI?
I’ve always been fascinated by technology and driven by a sense that there must be a better way to do some of the things we’ve historically been doing.
In my studies, particularly my MA in Cultural Studies, I’ve written about sci-fi and time travel, about feminist cyborg theories and the technological impact of Instagram. Most recently I had an article published on television subtitles, and what we can learn about our society and its relationship with assistive technology from the way they’ve improved.
So I think for me, the missing piece was about how to marry the theory and the reality – to take some of the abstract theories and actually find ways to apply them into my daily life, or the work I was doing.
For me, it wasn’t about technology for its own sake, but rather finding something that can actually make a meaningful difference to the work I want to do.
Is there anyone you consider to be an inspiration?
This question comes up a lot and I always find it a funny one because I think different people inspire in different ways, and at different times in our lives.
I constantly find my boss (Sophie Wright, Director of Discover.ai) a source of inspiration – she drives the very human side of our business, whilst championing very new and genuinely flexible ways of working. She also lives the reality herself by running a business based mainly in the UK from France, whilst being a single mother of two teenagers.
Recently, she unveiled an incredibly clear and consistent plan she’s been working on, for our company’s commitment to Fair Pay principles and pay equity, and it was so clearly rooted in actionable goals, and I think quite a few of us were struck by how positive and unusual that was.
At this point in the pandemic, any person who is having to work whilst homeschool their children, or take time off work to homeschool their children (and it’s not only women but let’s be honest, it’s mainly the women), are a source of inspiration to me
What advice would you share with other women wanting to start a career within technology?
I think the first thing about working in technology is that it’s not necessarily about a skillset, it’s about an attitude.
Are you comfortable with stepping out of your comfort zone, about finding ways for technology to help you do new things? If so, then you’ll be able to find a form of technology that speaks to you, whatever industry or sector you’re in or want to be in.
If you want to go learn to code, do, if you don’t, that’s also fine.
I think also remember that pretty much everyone has some form of imposter syndrome and that it’s a waste of your time but also that you’ll get over it at your own speed because everyone does.
And finally, if you are not planning on becoming a software engineer/coder yourself, learn about how to talk to and communicate with them.
Something I learned that I found really helpful is that if you need a piece of technology to do something specific, and you simply as the developer ‘can it do this very specific thing?’ then they will just say yes or no, and you might end up stuck.
But if you learn how to communicate ‘this is the end result I want’, then it’s on them to find a path to get you there, and usually, they can.
Do you think there is a diversity issue in the tech sector? Has it affected you in any way?
Yes, there definitely is. But I think it takes all sorts of shapes. There is a known issue about not enough women working in STEM, on which there are plenty of people more qualified than I to speak about.
I think one of the big diversity issues is about visibility, which is why Kerry Harrison (Founder of the creative AI startup ‘Tiny Giant’) and myself created the Machine Unlearning podcast.
What we’ve found through interviewing a variety of women for the podcast is that, like us, there are actually plenty of really interesting people working with technology in non-traditional ways, or who got there from non-STEM routes – from Immersive VR practitioners to App founders to IOT consultants and voice tech researchers.
When you dig within each of their individual fields, there are different diversity challenges and preconceptions.
So in VR, it might be about how assumptions that women’s eye shape causes motion-sickness actually gate keeps women out of VR, where a more bodily empathetic experience would actually solve the problem.
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Or in an exercise and training app, how male designers don’t think about tracking women’s cycles or sex drives.
However, this is just gender diversity, which is just one element of diversity. And I will say that I’ve become really conscious of this as we look for people to participate in our podcast – we are very aware that our interviewees today have all been able-bodied cis-women and predominantly white.
Some of that is definitely on us, and as we grow we should be able to diversify our network and give a platform to more and varied voices.
But some of it is in the industry – all industries in fact – to create more spaces for different people in the technological sides of their industries, and empowering them to want to talk about their experiences publicly.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about working in the tech sector as a woman today?
One huge misconception is that the only route into working in the tech sector is through some sort of STEM subject, or that you’re only really working in tech if you’re a software or an engineer.
Another is that technology is somehow less biased than the people who made it, and therefore that it doesn’t matter what the gender or diverse balance of the people that produce the technology is.
We build technology that reflects us, and that often takes our biases and inequalities and writes them large (something I discussed in relation to the recent ‘exam algorithm’ scandal).
It matters who builds your technology.
What would you most like to see change within your industry?
This is a huge question. I’d like to see more visibility for a wider range of roles for young people deciding what to do with their careers – more paid internships and an active relationship with access.
We work with a brilliant charity called Drive Forward, for example, who help provide career support and opportunities for Care Leavers, but this is just one example of the types of groups and organisations out there.
I also would like everyone to read ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Criado Perez, and then look at the ways in which they are or are not capturing gender-disaggregated data, and for them to do better.
And I would like, off the back of that, to see the more empathetic design built into technology products, regardless of sector. If a piece of technology isn’t working for your primary user group, the response should not be to blame the user and try to change their behaviours but to change the technology to be more in line with what people actually need.
A technology that functions perfectly when you test it once may work very differently when someone is using it 30 times a day whilst trying many other things. I would love to see more integration between the user and the developer, and more empathy being factored into the technological design, ultimately leading to better tech that does genuinely helpful things for more people.