Donatella Sciuto, Professor in Computer Engineering & Vice Rector of Politecnico di Milano, recently named one of the most influential women in Tech in Italy shares an insider’s account about the developments of STEM with regards to gender balance, how the future of Computer Science and automation will unravel, what it means to be member of varying boards and explains her significant scientific development which led her to be named Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow. For all science lovers and advocates of gender balance, this interview is must read!
You are Vice Rector of Politecnico di Milano and have recently be named one of the most influential women in Tech in Italy! What are the changes you have seen the field of STEM undergo in terms of gender balance?
Undoubtedly, I have seen an increase in the number of girls attending our engineering school with respect to the time I was a student, although in computer, mechanical and automation engineering the numbers remain disproportionally low, considering the potential job market. Where I work and teach, at Politecnico di Milano, only one student out of five is a girl when it comes to engineering programs. However, there is an increasing awareness on the lack of women and girls in STEM. As a result, companies are addressing this issue through the implementation of policies and practices, hereby also acting upon the substantial evidence which has indicated that diverse teams lead to greater innovation and more effective problem solving.
Diverse teams lead to greater innovation and more effective problem solving.
Increasing the number of women in science isn’t only harnessing the best talent to tackle the challenges we are presently facing, it also boosts the economic security of women, giving them a greater social and political voice and thereby establishing greater equality throughout society as a whole.
However, the problem which pertains is: how do we attract more women into STEM? One way of doing so is by showing them real life examples of how science and technology can have a direct effect on the world around us. Females are often drawn towards careers which have a positive impact on society. It is therefore important, especially so with young girls, to make them aware that technologies and science are inclusive and can positively change our lives! Just think about the central role that technology has gained in medicine, where applications and data can really make a difference when treating serious diseases, in particular using artificial intelligence techniques.
Still, most of the applications of Artificial Intelligence and the programs that use them are created by white males. To avoid the inclusion of implicit bias, it is important to have a more diverse workforce. We must all do our bit to ensure more females go into STEM.
What is Politecnico di Milano doing to attract, retain and support female students into STEM?
Unfortunately, the number of girls in engineering at Politecnico di Milano has only marginally increased in the last years. This is primarily due to the fact that there is a lack of encouragement by both families and schools, and because the number of female role models in STEM is low and not visible in society. This explains why many girls’ loose interest in science the older they get. We have recently published our first Gender Budget, a report on gender equality at Politecnico, and distributed it to the press and to companies. Numbers don’t lie, they have given us back a very clear picture of where we are today and where we should be instead.
At Politecnico di Milano, we aim to amend this “leaky pipeline” by offering different opportunities of learning about science and technology tailored to different ages. For 6-11-year old’s we organize lectures on the advances of science, showing why an airplane flies or how you can build a video game, for example. We regularly arrange open labs visits for families and children over the weekend. For those who attend middle school, we work with ValoreD, the association of companies which aims at boosting gender balance in the workplace. ValoreD has recently adopted a European program called “InspirinGirls”. Here, women from different professions go around to middle schools in Italy to share information about what their jobs entail. By doing so, they hope to inspire girls to pursue their passions and to understand that no work is restrained to one specific gender. Aside from this, Politecnico di Milano, in partnership with the European Commission and the universities in Milan, organizes the Researchers’ Night. The event takes place at the end of September and aims to engage a wide audience through exhibits and talks, so that people who aren’t well acquainted with science learn the value of STEM.
No work is restrained to one specific gender.
Other initiatives Politecnico di Milano has put in place to foster female engagement in STEM is a summer school in which lessons on coding and robotics are given to high achieving high school girls. In addition, we provide short courses on coding at different schools in Milan. We are trying to highlight to girls how the field of STEM has countless possibilities, in the hope that this heavily ingrained notion that science is a male orientated field can be overturned.
You have taught as a Professor in Computer Science and Engineering for 27 years. What is next for Computer Science in the coming decade?
The first significant prediction I see for Computer Science is the evolution of natural processing of languages. Verbal interaction with devices is already available but it is still limited, with texting and messaging slowly vanishing.
On a different scale, there is an increasing number of digital sensors and devices connected to the Internet and huge amount of data that are produced. To become useful information they need storage and advanced processing that must be performed often in real time and here there are numerous technological challenges to be addressed, such as cloud and edge computing, which means dividing the task of processing between the device and the remote servers (i.e. the cloud).
As intelligent things proliferate, we should expect a shift from stand-alone intelligent objects to swarms of collaborative intelligent things. In this model, multiple devices will work together, either independently or with human input.
Moreover, now more than ever before, ethics in science is an imperative: we reiterate this point to our students!
Ethics in science is imperative.
You were named Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow- an organization which develops standards for the computer and electronics industry- for your scientific contribution on “embedded systems design”. Could you specify what embedded systems design entails?
An embedded system is what we use in everyday intelligent devices. They require a combination of hardware and software which interact with one another in such a way, that they provide the expected functionality achieving the performance, security and power consumption required.
Having been Vice President of Finance of IEEE Council on Electronic Design Automation from 2008 to 2010, later President Elect and President from 2011 to 2013, in what sectors of society has automation had the greatest influence and how do you envision its future?
The electronic automation design constitutes all the tools and methodologies that are necessary for companies to design and produce hardware components and intelligent devices. Previously, many tasks required a manual process, now with the increasing number of transistors and elements that we can put together, resulting more complex systems, the demand for advanced tools has increased, and support in the design of more specific chips for advanced applications such as those based on artificial intelligence techniques, or fast 3D image processing or virtual reality.
You are a board member of the Bank of Italy, Human Technopole, Avio and Raiway. Can you give some examples what these memberships meant and why was it important for you to be on the board of these different organizations?
These are four very different organizations but all of them have enriched my competences and I think I am contributing to their governance with my technological and management competences.
Being a woman and a computer engineer with an understanding of cyber security enabled me to bring diversity to the board of the Bank of Italy. Avio and Raiway are two high-tech companies which are listed and therefore when renewing their board they had to satisfy a gender quota. As such, I was selected by headhunters on the basis of my technological competences.
My experience as a researcher in computer engineering and as a professor was considered useful. Comparatively, Human Technopole is a governmental project which aims at setting up a new research center focusing on Life Sciences, whose mission is to promote human health and well-being through an interdisciplinary approach to health and aging. I have been appointed by the Prime Minister to the Supervisory Board which is managing the startup phase, from the organizational, infrastructural and scientific point of view.
All four cases are extremely different, requiring me to study different fields and with a different perspective. Different styles of management have been required in these different positions. It has been enriching both academically and personally.
We always conclude our interview from a question from Proust’s questionnaire: With which historical figure do you most identify with?
I do not have a specific person I identify myself with, rather, I identify to two sentences by two different people. The first being the first woman mayor of Ottawa Charlotte Whitton who said: “whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good, luckily this is not difficult”. The second one being from a chief of Justice in the USA, Charles Evans Hughes: “when we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free”. This remains one of the most important sentences I have heard.