B&T’s Changing The Ratio conference commenced this morning at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre, with first cab off the rank George McEncroe, CEO of female ride sharing company Sheba, on MCing duties.
McEncroe warmed up the crowd and delivered a keynote of her own before handing over to Sally-Ann Williams, engineering community & outreach manager at Google Australia, for her own address.
With a focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – education, Williams says that as a female, she was the exception to the rule in terms of entering her profession.
“At school I studied all of the STEM subjects, because I was good at them, yet had no visible pathway to the Google engineering role I’m in now. People like me should be able to go into careers like mine not by chance, but by design.”
Williams also highlighted the many ways that historical design and engineering has failed both women and minority groups.
“Female drivers are 47% more likely to be badly injured in a car crash. And that’s because seatbelt design failed women due to the size of the crash test dummies that were used historically. Airbags routinely caused death and serious injury to women and children because they were not included in the research into them.
“Very early speech recognition technology were also exclusively made using male voices. Speech recognition tech didn’t work with females. Problems arose because there was not diversity in the teams of creators.
“But inclusion isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘must-have’ when building products.”
Williams was quick to identify why these oversights occur and stressed that being aware of why it happens is the key to achieving change.
“Bias is not intentional in this design, but there are reasons why it happens. At any one time, 99.996% of a our decision-making is based on the unconscious bias.
“After all, children make gender biased career associations from as young as three. And that’s because they’re noticing the images around them.
“How we interpret the world is determined by this filter. And if you don’t intentionally, deliberately and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude. We need to recognise each and every one of us have unconscious bias. But it can’t be an excuse for our behaviour.”
Williams then touched on Google’s own period of introspection in 2012, which put the company’s diversity levels under the microscope.
“Google was the first in the tech industry to publish its diversity statistics. And it was at times an uncomfortable experience. But if you don’t measure these things, you can’t move forward. We need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
“We need to think about the problems and how do we solve them for the next generation. How do we inspire them to find the solutions?”
There’s still a long way to go, Williams stressed, in terms of achieving parity in the tech and engineering space.
“We need to change the ratio in the STEM space to encourage more young women to move into this realm.”