A call for increased visual representation and diversity in robotics


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Sometimes it’s the obvious things that are overlooked. Why aren’t there pictures of women building robots on the internet? Or if they are there, why can’t we find them when we search? I have spent years decades doing outreach activities, providing STEM opportunities, and doing women in robotics speaker or networking events. So I’ve done a lot of image searches looking for a representative picture. I have scrolled through page after page of search results ranging from useless to downright insulting every single time.

Finally, I counted.

Above: Graph: Image search results via Google showing results of what comes up when the term “woman building robot” is searched.

Image Credit: Andra Keay

My impressions were correct. The majority of the images you find when you look for ‘woman building robot’ are of female robots. This is not what happens if you search for ‘building robot’, or ‘man building robot’. That’s the insulting part, that this misrepresentation and misclassification hasn’t been challenged or fixed. Sophia the robot, or the ScarJo bot, or a sexbot has a much greater impact on the internet than women doing real robotics. What if male roboticists were confronted with pictures of robotic dildos whenever they searched for images of their work?

andra keay's example images women building robots showing female robots, sex robots, fake robots, and men explaining robots to others

Above: Example of image results from Andra Keay’s Google search for ‘women building robots’

Image Credit: Andra Keay

The number of women in the robotics industry is hard to gauge. Best estimates are 5% in most locations, perhaps 10% in some areas. It is slowly increasing, but then the robotics industry is also in a period of rapid growth and everyone is struggling to hire. To my mind, the biggest wasted opportunity for a young robotics company growing like Topsy is to depend on the friends of founders network when it leads to homogenous hiring practices. The sooner you incorporate diversity, the easier it will be for you to scale and attract talent.

For a larger robotics company, the biggest wasted opportunity is not fixing retention. Across the board in the tech industry, retention rates for women and underrepresented minorities are much worse than for pale males. That means that you are doing something wrong. Why not seriously address the complaints of the workers who leave you? Otherwise, you’ll never retain diverse hires, no matter how much money you throw at acquiring them.

The money wasted in talent acquisition when you have poor retention should instead be used to improve childcare, or flexible work hours, or support for affinity groups, or to fire the creep that everyone complains about, or restructure so that you increase the number of female and minority managers. The upper echelons are echoing with the absence of diversity.

On the plus side, the number of pictures of girls building robots has definitely increased in the last ten years. As my own children have grown, I’ve seen more and more images showing girls building robots. But with two daughters now leaving college, I’ve had to tell them that robotics is not one of the female-friendly career paths (if any of them are). Unless they are super passionate about it. Medicine, law, or data analytics might be better domains for their talents. As an industry, we can’t afford to lose bright young women. We can’t afford to lose talented older women. We can’t afford to overlook minority hires. The robotics industry is entering exponential growth. Capital is in abundance, market opportunities are in abundance. Talent is scarce.

These days, I’m focused on supporting professional women in the robotics community, industry, or academia. These are women who are doing critical research and building cutting-edge robots. What do solutions look like for them? Our wonderful annual Ada Lovelace Day list hosted on Robohub has increased the awareness of many ‘new’ faces in robotics. But we have been forced to use profile pictures, primarily because that’s what is available. That’s also the tradition for profile pieces about the work that women do in robotics. The focus is on the woman, not the woman building or programming, or testing the robot. That means that the images are not quite right as role models.

andrea keay's image search results that better represented females in robotics showing images of women brainstorming on a see-through whiteboard, and sitting near constructed robots

Above: Further examples from Andrea Keay’s image search results that better represented females in robotics

Image Credit: Andrea Keay

A real role model shows you the way forward. And that the future is in your hands. The Civil Rights activist Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

A set of images from andra keay's search results displaying the few good images found in the search more accurately representing women working in robotics

Above: A set of images from Andra Keay’s search results displaying the few good images found in the search more accurately representing women working in robotics.

Image Credit: andra keay

So Women in Robotics has launched a photo challenge. Our goal is to see more than 3 images of real women building robots in the top 100 search results. Our stretch goal is to see more images of women building robots than there are of female robots in the top 100 search results! Take great photos following these guidelines, hashtag your images #womeninrobotics #photochallenge #ibuildrobots, and upload them to Wikimedia with a creative commons license so that we can all use them. We’ll share them on the Women in Robotics organization website, too.

Andra Keay's guidelines for what does make a great photo of women in robotics includes: real robot programming, adults of various ages working on robotics, active single subject of the image, individuals pictured shown using tools or code to build a robot, unbranded images, and images that have permission from the subject to be use

Above: Andra Keay’s guidelines for what makes a great, accurate, and realistic photo representing women in robotics.

Image Credit: andra keay

Hey, we’d also love mentions of Women in Robotics in any citable fashion! Wikipedia won’t let us have a page because we don’t have third-party references, and sadly, the mention of our Ada Lovelace Day lists by other organizations have not credited us. We are now an official 501c3 organization, registered in the US, with the mission of supporting women and non-binary people who work in robotics, or who are interested in working in robotics.

andra keay's women in robotics photo challenge additional example and call for submission to photos@womeninrobotics.org

Above: Additional details of the women in robotics photo challenge additional example and call for submission to photos@womeninrobotics.org.

Image Credit: andra keay

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then we can save a forest’s worth of outreach, diversity, and equity work, simply by showing people what women in robotics really do.


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