Want diversity in robotics? Address workplace culture first

Professor Wendy Moyle knows what it’s like to face barriers in pursuing robotics research.

She’s had people throw things at her when presenting at conferences, and she’s faced difficulties accessing grant funding to study the effects of robots and technology in aged care. Once, a journal editor even penned a nasty two-page editorial about her research.

“Initially it was an absolute nightmare, and I do sometimes wonder why I actually continued,” she says.

But with tenacity, Moyle ultimately secured funding for her research, now considered “the largest study that’s ever been done on social robotics. And it’s still held up as the most rigorous study that’s ever been done,” she says. 

Today the Griffith University professor is program director of health care practice at the Menzies Health Institute, and has been recognised as one of the world’s most renowned women in robotics.

‘Skills and diversity’ is one of four central themes highlighted in the robotics strategy discussion paper released earlier this month and Moyle’s experience is directly related to the theme.

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Professor Wendy Moyle / Supplied

Growing Australia’s robotics sector requires more STEM graduates and professionals, and more diversity in perspectives and backgrounds including more women, First Australians and underrepresented groups the paper says.

Moyle’s experience isn’t uncommon.

By digging deeper into people’s personal stories, University of South Australia researchers found “really awful work cultures” and “general hostility” are driving women and underrepresented groups out of science, technology and engineering fields.

Dr Deborah Devis, lead author of ‘From Insight to Action’ says the research unpicks the reasons behind the massive drop off in women pursuing further research or STEM careers after undergraduate study.

“It’s so important to do the qualitative analysis of what people are saying and hearing their stories […] without doing that, that’s how issues become invisible,” she says. 

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Dr Deborah Devis / Supplied

Dr Isabelle Kingsley, a senior research associate at the Office of the Women in STEM Ambassador, says “women and people from marginalised groups are definitely underrepresented in robotics related fields, especially in the computer science and engineering fields.”

Women made up only 23% of the workforce in robotics-related fields, and even less at the top leadership levels in 2021, according to the Department of Industry’s STEM equity monitor.

“Representation is even lower for Aboriginal Australians, for culturally and racially marginalised people, people with disability and people with multiple intersecting identities,” Kingsley adds.

She says when it comes to encouraging interest in education, evidence shows “bringing out the social relevance of engineering” is crucial.

“Making learning experiences in areas like engineering and computer science socially relevant, really helps increase learning and interest for everyone, but especially girls. Because girls typically attach more value to the social context of learning.”

Engineers Australia research arrived at similar conclusions.

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Dr Isabelle Kingsley / Supplied

But as the UniSA research shows, sparking initial interest in science, technology and engineering is only the starting point. In post-graduate research and professional roles women and underrepresented groups often face bias, challenging work-home dynamics, exclusion and hostility in the workplace. 

The report delves into experiences of 75 participants, through a series of discussions and surveys. There were common themes, even though participants came from a range of fields and levels of experience.

“STEM isn’t nerdy or unpopular anymore. Pursuing STEM is normal but staying in STEM is hard for girls,” says one participant quoted in the report.

Stereotypes and bias that exist in society are exacerbated in workplaces, Devis says. For instance, women were expected to take on administrative tasks their male equivalents weren’t asked to do. Communication skills weren’t valued as highly as technical skills, she says.

Disproportionate caring responsibilities meant women were less keen to take on management roles, Devis says. As one participant explains, “being in a leadership role can be exhausting, especially as we know that women still bear the brunt of the mental load at home […] Management is just babysitting and I already have children.”

“To incentivise women into leadership positions, you can’t just give them more money. Some women will go for that. But the majority of women already have too much of a cognitive load that it’s not worth it. They’re looking for other incentives,” Devis says.

Incentives like childcare subsidies, flexibility, more annual leave or the ability to buy time off work were more likely to appeal, she says.

The lack of appropriate role models and mentors was an issue across the board.

Devis says the solutions to these problems depend on where people are at in their career. Future employees – students or career change professionals – need mentors in positions they might see themselves in within five years. “People that don’t seem so distant that its incomprehensible,” she says.

For current employees, solutions include practical measures like equal parental leave provisions, flexibility, and normalising job sharing that recognise people in the workplace have different experiences. 

Government strategies tend to focus on changing women, rather than “targeting the real problem which is workplace culture”, Devis says. Instead, government could focus on helping workplaces implement gender-responsive budgeting or practical design techniques. 

Kingsley adds that strong action on things like bullying and harassment, and diversity in the leadership team are also important.

She says, government can play a role implementing policies and legislation that, that promote diversity, equity and inclusion.

Examples might include setting diversity targets for government-funded robotics initiatives, or requiring robotics companies that bid for government contracts to report on diversity metrics or implement diversity targets.

Moyle says robotics remains “very male dominated”, with men often occupying leadership roles, or chosen as key note speakers at conferences. 

But she now has PhD students and post-docs coming from all different fields to work with her. “My team has huge diversity in it,” she says.

Together they are developing new approaches, particularly co-design, bringing together a diverse range of people, perspectives and skills to developing robotics solutions.

“I think I’ve been able to make an impact in the world in terms of aged care, and also the use of robotics, and that’s probably broken down some of those barriers,” Moyle says.

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