Looking to the future: talk 11/8/16

What follows is the slightly edited text from a talk I gave on Thursday the 11th of August, as part of an event between WISE and ExxonMobil.

“It’s such an incredible pleasure to see our members here with brilliant women from ExxonMobil. My talk will be slightly aimed more towards the students, but it will hopefully include ideas everyone can get behind.

For the students among us, we haven’t really entered the real world yet. We’ve completed high school and suffered all the injustices that your teenage years and early 20s provide and certainly we can enter bars (mostly) and gamble and get our democracy sausage  but universities are often a small-l liberal bubble – the large-l liberal youth branch notwithstanding.

What kind of issues exist within this small l liberal bubble? Well it’s things like the informal mentoring and sponsorship that men often benefit from. It’s how men assume they’re smarter than their female classmates. It’s the social pressures that mean the involvement of women in undergraduate computer science degrees peaked in the eighties and has since declined. Women made up 37% of comp sci undergrads in 1985. In 2012, that was 18%. It’s the social pressures that means I first got the Grandchildren Talk at 20. As a queer woman, I’ve had precisely zero role models for the bulk of my scientific journey but if you’re a white man you’ve got a glut of them.

Having said all that, this is a bubble – we are safer and more respected within this space and it’s associated with our ability to choose the spaces and people we interact with. You’ve chosen WISE, which was a great start. That isn’t a luxury that’s necessarily available or encouraged when you get straight out of university. We all know how bad the job market is – who here is confident of getting a job when we graduate?

There’s a feeling that you have to take what you can get and keep your head down. It’s a big jump into the workforce from university and nobody wants to make a splash. Because after all, it’s one thing to be a woman in a STEM degree. It’s another thing to be a young woman in STEM career.

There are ways to bridge that gap. Workplaces will have an HR induction that should clearly detail things like complaints policy – and you’re never so far down the pecking order to invalidate your complaints. It often feels like there’s a pressure to call out sexism or feel like we’ve betrayed the sisterhood. This pressure can fall on young women, with ideas like the “generational shift in thinking” which is meant to incrementally close the pay gap at some point around 2075. Or, if you’re staying in Australia, the gender pay gap increased from 15 to 17.5% between 2005 and 2013, and this year according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, it’s 19.1%. That’s ridiculous.

Young people need to be more politically engaged, young women need to be more outspoken, we need to ask for more, actively seek out mentors, surely we can just lean in – I’m sure so much of this room has heard a variety of one or all of these. But sometimes calling out sexism, or working yourself to the bone, or being an activist is honestly not worth it. The entirety of women’s rights doesn’t rest on our shoulders and sometimes we’re not safe or able to call something out without risk. Never compromise your safety for ideals.

Having said that, I do enjoy calling out sexism. Some of my favourite ways involve being a bit sarcastic, maybe leaning back and going “is that… is that right?”, “huh”, or “That sure is an opinion, and you definitely have it.”

But in all honesty, transitioning to the workforce isn’t just being punched in the face with sexism, homophobia, and racism – things which during my brief foray into the working world I have watched or experienced, and that’s in New ZealandNew Zealand is like a less terrible Australia. But it isn’t just that – it’s things like finally having money, not having homework (unless you do law which, why did you do law), it’s cool older friends, working out what you want from life, and maybe starting to take a multivitamin like a real adult. It’s fun!

It’s just scary, and that applies to an extent to all changes you make from safety to newness. It is confusing the first time a colleague queries borderline aggressively into your personal life, and colleagues of mine now get subtly asked if they’re planning a family soon. I get the added difficulty that it’s likely my partners will be female so talking about personal life is this balancing act of trying to work out if you’re homophobic before letting anything slip.

But what are we likely to face in our future?

  • We’re likely to face jobs that aren’t necessarily in STEM. There was a recent news article about how science degrees were not great degrees, which realistically read like someone bitter that their law degree didn’t handhold them right into a partnership. STEM degrees qualify us to research effectively, to problem solve, and to think critically – and that’s applicable far beyond strict STEM careers.
  • Unless something dramatically changes, we’re not likely to see equity in parliament.
  • We’re probably going to continue to be higher-qualified and get better marks than men.
  • Amazing trailblazing women are going to continue to push for pay transparency, because that will be the easiest way to get paid the same as men very quickly.
  • The discussion about feminism will becoming increasingly mainstream. The difference even since 2009 in how easily feminism, the wage gap, gender-based issues will be discussed as a real issue rather than relegated to extremist, bra-burning lesbians.
  • Beyoncé will continue to be a beautiful feminist icon.
  • We’re going to have way more female astronauts – the groundwork is already there to fill space with women.
  • The rates of reporting of sexual violence will likely continue to increase. That means we won’t really know if the actual rates are going up or down – which is beside the point because they’re disgustingly high – but reporting might mean that things change.
  • We aren’t likely to have long-term jobs. The average job length for a millennial is 3-5 years. This means if you have a bad work environment, or boss that’s not good, you can shift jobs and that’s becoming normalised.  We’re also likely to change careers a lot, so you can chill on that immediate post-university choice.
  • We’ll have more control of our fertility and bodies than ever before (unless you go to the USA).
  • Thanks to the connectivity of the world and the democratisation of storytelling (thanks, twitter), we’re going to have more access to inspirations, mentors, and women who accurately reflect us. We’re not going to have to fight the way people even 30 years older than us did.

The women who went before us changed a lot of the world which meant we aren’t going to have to fight for the right to work while married, for the ability to do what we want. The future can seem stressful and bad but the world is changing – for the better. And that’s great.”

The panelists at the event where this talk was given. Names above refer to panelists, right to left. Photo thanks to Jess Vovers.

The Research Bazaar

From February 1st to 3rd, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Research Bazaar, a free three-day intensive set of workshops in digital tools for researchers. I attended the one in Melbourne, but Bazaars were also held in Dunedin, Vancouver, Perth, and many more sites worldwide. (If your city missed out, and you want to host your own, check out the cookbook for making your very own ResBaz)

The origins and development of the Research Bazaar is covered here, but the short form is: there are a lot of digital tools that researchers need. It’s hard to find out about them, and once you do, there’s not a lot of support. Teaching yourself takes valuable time out of saving lives/increasing food security/understanding the world, and honestly, it’s hard.

The Research Bazaar (“ResBaz” to those in the know) comes to the rescue by running two days of intensive workshops for particular tools – this year, Melbourne included R (the statistics package), Python, MATLAB, D3 and many more – and short sessions for introductions to tools on the third day. They bring experts and researchers together, but it’s not the opportunity to upskill (for free) that makes this special. It’s the focus on community, networking, and helping each other.

There was a session on Twitter, and I’m not saying I won the session on Twitter, but I definitely won Twitter (with this tweet).

It’s been a long time since I sat down in a class for more than an hour, so two days of Python workshops was always going to be a struggle. Arriving on Monday morning (late, without coffee) to have my boots sink into damp grass while I tried to hear the “key story” didn’t set me up particularly well but, like the weather, my mood improved.

ResBaz worked us school hours (9:30-3:30-ish) and the afternoons were left for more social events. The lack of structure gave this time an unconference vibe. On the Tuesday afternoon there were professional masseuses, a personal trainer, and yoga sessions available. The one possible problem was there was very little to force people to mingle – you could go through the entire event without meeting anyone. However, leaving all social events opt-in contributed to the relaxed feeling of the Bazaar.

Top left: the ResPlat(y) branded chocolates they plied us with. Bottom left: my (in theme) reading material while at the Bazaar. Right: Jess Vovers and Rosie the ResPlat(y), ready to change the world.

ResBaz in Melbourne this year had a focus on diversity, reflected both in the attendees and in the three key stories across the conference. It was therefore slightly disappointing that the final panel appeared entirely Caucasian and was four men and one woman. While they were clearly all heavyweights in their respective fields, it was more than a little jarring after the rest of the Bazaar had been such a celebration of diversity.

The Research Bazaar 2016 was a very fulfilling experience – I learned some things, I met some people, and I maintained my flexibility with the yoga session. The catering was A++ and the relaxed feel meant I didn’t get overloaded. I intend to return next year, possibly as a helper for one of the sessions, and would thoroughly recommended keeping Research Platforms and ResBaz on your radar – and trying to attend ResBaz 2017.


Future Assembly 15

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Future Assembly (“Australia’s newest emergent technology festival”) on Saturday the 14th of November as part of WISE UniMelb through the Wade Institute. The expo ran over the Friday and Saturday, with workshops and talks on both days. I was slightly disappointed to have missed the genomics panel on Friday, but the experience was still fantastic – and the talks may be going online, so I can live in hope!

FA (#fa15) was held at the Melbourne Showgrounds in a large, open-space building, with easy flow between the stalls and talks. The entire space had an excited and hopeful buzz.

To spend any less than half a page on each of the (20 + stalls) present would be to do them an injustice, and so I apologize in advance. The Wade Institute were present, spreading the news of their brand new Masters of Entrepreneurship, and it was nice to check in with our pals at Robogals!

Various groups from the Microsoft “More Personal” Hackathon had stalls as well. The two I took particular note of were Dr. Band, an app  to connect clinicians and their patients more effectively using wearables, and Ani, a robot that one day will (hopefully) provide in-home help.

Picture of a computer screen with the bot (Ani) saying "Don't worry, our conversation is confidential"
Ani occasionally said things that were ah… slightly unnerving.

Plattar gave me a taste of home, as the Augmented Reality company were demonstrating an AR game they made for Hell’s pizza, set on a pizza box/in the Auckland CBD. They also filmed me for a reality augmentation for the WISE 2015 membership card – watch this space!

There were at least four different 3-D printing stalls, and almost all of them had a printer in action, which was capitvating to see. The two particular stalls that caught my eye were make-create, a maker space in Brunswick, and Avargadi.

Avargadi uses a corn-based polymer to print eco-friendly lampshades, drawing inspiration from flowers for their design. They fit eco-friendly bulbs, and the use of a corn base means  you can just throw your old lampshade in the compost. I was incredibly taken with their designs, and spent a long time watching a lamp being printed.

8 illuminated lampshades modelled on flower shapes including jasmine, rose, and lily.
Examples of Avargadi lampshades, illuminating the space. The grooves left by 3-D printing made the lampshades look incredibly organic, bringing to mind ceramics or pottery.

Further into the darkened part of the display hall, I couldn’t help but feel bad for Semantrix, right at the back in the cold. They seemed to get a similar flow of people to the rest of the hall. Their sensor to detect various forms and types of movement will hopefully make a major difference in aged care and independent living.

The final stall that requires mention is Cheeky Chameleon, a stall presenting Depthless. Depthless is a game designed for the Oculus Rift using the Unity engine that is a science-fiction horror, “along the lines of Alien”. You are the first manned mission to Europa, and you get trapped under the ice and have to find drones, survive, and conserve your power. The demo version (thankfully) was peaceful. I’m not sure if I’d be up for Virtual Reality with jump scares, but the ability to motor around some clams was fun and incredibly immersive. I’m a big fan of Virtual Reality, and that this group from AIE has built an Oculus game in 8 weeks suggests a large number of VR games may be just around the corner. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

I only attended one talk, as one of the (very few) drawbacks of Future Assembly was that the stalls were so fascinating I didn’t want to stop looking and talking. The talk I attended was Phil Goebel of Quanticare, discussing technology in the form of preventative healthcare. At that point my FA companion was Shaz Ruybal, a malaria researcher, so we absolutely could not miss the health talk.

Phil did not disappoint. The first half of the talk discussed the general use of technology, apps, and wearables in healthcare, and how greater patient access to data could empower them and decrease hospitalizations. The second half was more specifically about Quanticare:

We are building a walking frame with an integrated sensor that measures how well a user is walking, allowing clinicians to enable more proactive falls prevention management of our seniors. By collecting continuous, passive and contextual gait performance data, Footprints will deliver the right data set to the right people at the right time, keeping our seniors mobile and independent. – Quanticare Website

Senior care is a rapidly growing field, as 15% of the Australian population are currently over the age of 65 and that proportion is only going to increase. People at FA had definitely picked up on that; both Semantrix and Quanticare are geared towards geriatric care.

Two things surprised me about Future Assembly 15: firstly, how complimentary a lot of the stalls were. Very few of the stalls and groups appeared to be in direct competition with one another. I hope that FA15 inspires a few collaborations between particularly complimentary businesses.

Secondly, the diversity of the attendees, speakers, and exhibitors. Before any tech event I always clench slightly in preparation for the deluge of obnoxious boys. Future Assembly was so far removed from that as to be in the future, and I hope that this is what the future of tech looks like, because it’s somewhere I can belong.