Last Thursday was Women’s Equality Day, and I’ve been reflecting on how and why there are so few women in robotics, and what we can do to change that. As the leader of a robotics project at X I’ve been trying to craft a team as diverse as the populations we hope our work will impact, and want to encourage engineers from all backgrounds and disciplines to consider robotics. This post highlights some challenges I’ve seen when hiring and some ways our team has tried to overcome them.
Coming from theoretical physics, I thought I knew what ‘low diversity’ fields were like, yet as I’ve been hiring and building my team I have been surprised and disappointed at the lack of diversity among the applicants for most roles on our robotics team.
I’m not imagining it, only 9% of Robotics Engineers are female, worse even than other STEM fields, e.g. 25% of Software and 17% of Civil Engineers and 38% of Scientists. There’s been a lot of excellent research and commentary on why there are fewer women or other minorities in STEM in general (e.g. see this summary or this article), but I’ve not seen the same level of attention on robotics. This is a shame because robotics will be such a huge part of our future, and it would be better if that future was created by a representative group of engineers.
The myth of the lone roboticist
“Roboticists” in today’s cutting-edge teams look less like the common stereotype of the lone hobbyist building robots in his garage than most people realize. Instead, the modern roboticist is more like a creative problem-solver who thrives in interdisciplinary teams, who can communicate their needs and challenges clearly, and who can handle a bit of chaos. Having deep expertise in an engineering field is good, but being able to ask for help and grow into new areas is non-negotiable.
Here are some real examples of exceptional people on my team who now all work with robots:
- A physicist whose professional experience was entirely in healthcare and agriculture
- A biomedical engineer who previously worked with patients in rehab
- A soft-goods prototyper who worked in a fashion house, and is an avid game streamer
- A skate-boarder who owns a pet snake
- A mechanical engineer who then went on to study sociology and patternmaking
This isn’t even unusual at X. Many members of the core team at Intrinsic were film makers, and are now led by @Wendy Tan White, who was a software entrepreneur. The Everyday Robots Project even has a dancer and a puppet master on staff!
Why is the stereotype so wrong? I think part of the misconception comes from a lack of awareness of what “robotics” actually is, how it relates to other fields, and how crucial collaboration, teamwork, and cognitive diversity are to the process. My high school had a great Physics class, so when I graduated, I went on to study Physics at university. In hindsight, something like Engineering would have been a better fit for me, but I barely knew what it was, and I wasn’t going to sign up for a degree I wasn’t sure I’d be good at. The field of robotics may face a similar problem when it comes to attracting diverse talent: only a minority of universities have robotics or mechatronics concentrations, and rarely are they thought of as disciplines to specialise in until you hit the workforce. Even if you do study robotics in school, the reality of working in the robotics industry is a far more collective and collaborative effort than the type of work usually done by graduate students. This is is because universities that do have robotics programs often incentivize solo-work; a person in a masters or PhD program is more likely to build and experiment with a new robot by themselves, since that’s the easiest way to prove novelty, but in the industry, we’ll often have >10 people working with or on a single robot, and no individual could or should be able to build it end-to-end.
Even profiles of roboticists often give the impression that to be successful in the field you should be able to, from scratch, with no help, build a functional robot. This creates really high perceived barriers to entering the field, especially if you didn’t have the privilege of discovering and tinkering with electronics as a kid. In reality, robotics is a team sport, and some of our best engineers would likely blow themselves up if they attempted to do someone else’s job on the team. We should do more to suggest that almost any discipline of engineering or science (or even puppeteering!) could be good preparation for a career in robotics, even if you’ve not got years of experience in every single aspect of design and control.
Common hiring fails
Something that I have learned the hard way is that descriptions of jobs and careers in robotics often don’t maximise their appeal for women. Research shows that women more actively look for social impact and meaning at work. Yet the first job post I wrote, titled “Embedded Mechatronics Engineer,” spent paragraphs talking about the technology and the challenge, before barely mentioning why it was important.
Because robotics could be many different things, I also fell into the trap of posting a long, long list of required technical skills and experience. But in reality no final candidates have everything, so I realised including a detailed list could be unnecessarily turning off awesome candidates who could have easily learnt the missing technical skill – especially women, who tend to under-estimate their qualifications when compared with men.
So, I decided to try a different approach for our current open roles. I reworked the job description to emphasize the importance of being mission-driven, audacious, and resilient, titling it “Calling for engineers and scientists for a wearable robotics project to help people walk.” I tried to use language that focuses on what unites us as a team — a drive for impact and a willingness to look ridiculous trying to do something that might fail. Instead of listing all the hard coding skills a person should have to do the job, we list indicators that suggest a person might thrive at X (i.e. “You are mission driven,” “You are audacious, brave and resilient,” “You enjoy engineering on the edge of reasonableness.”) These changes signal to potential applicants that we care more about who they are than what they have done. The job description is still far from perfect, but already we received 3 times more applicants, from a much wider variety of backgrounds.
One aspect I find especially challenging when it comes to hiring in robotics is interviewing. For software engineers, we have rigorously tested interview questions that do a decent job of testing the on-the-job skills. It’s much harder to ask someone to demonstrate robotic skills in 30 mins. As a result, people often fall back on portfolios or personal networks, which makes it harder for someone with a ton of potential but less track record to excel. I'm crowdsourcing better ways to evaluate talent in this space.
Opportunities, ideas, and lessons learnt
We have a huge opportunity here! Women and other under-represented groups are untapped pools of talented people who, despite not thinking of themselves as “roboticists,” could be vital members of a world-changing robotics team.
Here are some things my team and I have found to be effective over the last few years:
- As an industry we should all be telling stories that emphasize the collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of modern robotics, for example when publicising a project, advertising a role, or writing a profile of roboticist, avoid the ‘lone-hero’ narrative
- In job descriptions and during interviews, emphasize impact and the non-technical skills that are critical and more inclusive. Decide what skills you’d be willing to teach, remove them from the list of “requirements.”
- Write different flavours of job descriptions for the different flavours of disciplines that can live in our big tent of “Robotics.” For example, we’ve previously tweaked and reposted a biomechanics-focused job description and a software-engineer job description for the same open role, to capture different types of candidates who might all be successful
- If you’re a professional, please make time to talk to students and engineers across a wide variety of backgrounds to help explain to them what Robotics is, and how they might be suited. For example, last year I gave a talk at the Grace Hopper Conference, and was surprised how many people, especially students, reached out asking about if and how they could get involved in similar work. There are some great communities already, such as womeninrobotics.org or the similar blackinrobotics.org, which are facilitating mentorship and community initiatives
- Be strategic about outreach to groups where diverse talent exists, don’t just rely on existing networks
- Redesign your interview process to test the skills that you most care about
- This is an obvious but fundamental one: pay and level equally - don’t require negotiation, and don’t let women join, look around and discover they were brought on a level lower than male colleagues
I’ve barely scratched the surface of attracting and retaining a new generation of modern roboticists, and most of the insights here are based on a small sample of anecdotes.
I’d love more ideas and insights from you. What did this post prompt for you? Please add comments and feedback, especially extra stories, opportunities and tips either below or feel free to message me directly. If you know someone who could be an amazing, creative, collaborative roboticist but they don’t know it yet, tag them here! I’d love to be able to pool and share what the community has learned. I'll include it in a follow-up post soon.