You need to be inspired in your work and be doing things that make you think ‘what next, what’s cutting-edge, what is beyond this
Tell us about your background and your journey to your current role?
I am a Professor of computer science and I had a very interdisciplinary journey to get to this stage! People are often very surprised at my background and how things have turned out (laughs)
At university, I started off doing literature but I took a linguistics module on the side. This interested me more than literature, actually. I then moved in to computational linguistics and I ended up in computer science.
What I really enjoy about my subject now is that it is still highly interdisciplinary, so my roots are still there.
What was the best opportunity you’ve had in your career thus far?
There was a very defining moment when I attended a summer school in computational linguistics. I had never heard of the subject!
Just by chance, I saw a poster in my department about this summer school and then managed to secure funding to go. I was so excited by the methodologies of this work, combining linguistics, maths and programming. Within just one week of that summer school, I then decided ‘YES this is what I want to do!’
If you provide someone the opportunity to look outside their current world or field, that is just so valuable and exciting.
Who inspired you along that journey?
I had three or four female role models.
During my UG, I moved from literature to the linguistic department because of a really amazing lecturer. She inspired me from her enthusiasm for her subject, I just loved her lectures – they were funny, clever and challenging. Later, at the summer school, there was also a PhD student from Germany giving a lecture and she has wowed me, she gave the lectures in brilliant English and made it all sound so simple! I walked up to her and said ‘Sabine, I want to be like you’. She recommended I do a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh because of its reputation for technology – that sent me on my way to do just that.
When arriving in Edinburgh, I had an excellent MSc supervisor, Professor Johanna Moore. She supported me and put me on a great path.
At the beginning of my MSc programme in Edinburgh I had a really, really hard time because I hardly knew any programming! It seemed to me that that II was the only one, everybody else came from computer science – I felt desperate. I then took a course, taught by Professor Judy Robertson, and she gave me lots of tips and was incredibly supportive, teaching me not to feel so bad about myself. Again, she was instrumental to my success now because in the first couple of months, I was ready to quit.
At all these important decision-making points, there were incredible women who kept me on the path I am now and pushing me forward.
What does a typical day look like for you now?
When I was a PhD student and Post-Doc, I was actually doing research: implementing it, running it, executing it. Now, I see myself as more of a manager.
You get to project manage and think about the big ideas and if you’re lucky, you have someone there to do the actual research – then you get to discuss and critique the results. I enjoy the directing aspect of it. However, I’m not a hands-on research person anymore. I sometimes feel a bit removed from the subject, like a bystander – my students often know more than me! (laughs)
On a day-to-day basis, my day is a lot of emails and meetings. If it’s a good day, I get to look at a research paper. There’s some teaching sprinkled in there, as well.
Is there anything you wish you could do more of and change the way you’re working?
I’d love to attend more conferences and read papers. That’s where I get really excited and inspired. You need to be inspired in your work and be doing things that make you think ‘what next, what’s cutting-edge, what is beyond this?’
As a manager, your time is consumed by the daily grind of admin, responsibilities and meetings. Attending conferences is hard for me as well, because I have two young children. Travelling and staying away overnight is almost impossible. As they grow older – in 5 or 10 years’ time – I’m sure I’ll be able to do more conferences again.
Focusing on the gender element more – do you find your work supportive of women?
Hmm, mostly, it’s getter better. There is now an awareness. I really like my department, it is a very supportive environment and I’m lucky with my colleagues. In my research area, there is a push to attract more women.
However, at conferences, the majority of participants are men who have the freedom and flexibility to just ‘go’ – who is taking care of the children? There are encouraging initiatives, such as childcare at conferences, which is new. But, it isn’t working. A recent example – I went to a conference and it was a crazy journey and I was breastfeeding my baby. I called ahead and said I’ll need a Mother’s room to express milk. They said ‘yeah yeah, we have a child-friendly policy’. I arrived, they gave me an entirely unsuitable room that I couldn’t lock, with massive windows where everyone could see in.
People don’t understand how something as everyday as breastfeeding a baby works, or pumping. If you’re feeding a baby and the baby isn’t there, you still have milk to get rid of, for example. This is something that most people in the workplace don’t think about. Being a woman in an academic environment is a challenge, and being a mother in academia is even harder. It’s not widely understood what that means on the day-to-day: having very little sleep, having sick children, the challenges of balancing it all. And this is all still very much the mother’s role – but in my department, I look around and men are in the office from 8 am – 6pm and I think ‘how is this possible?’. Well, I can only assume that their wife takes the role as the main carer. This changes everything – how you work, the level you can concentrate, the demands on your time, your cognitive load. I wish I had a stay-at-home wife or husband.
However, my relationship is very equal, I have an extremely active and supportive husband. He is also a computer science professor…we are equally knackered! (laughs)…at least it is fair!
Can you share the amazing work you’ve been doing as a computer scientist, particularly how you incorporate your feminist agenda in to your work, such as the research with your PhD candidate Amanda Curry on #MeToo in Artificial Intelligence?
I stumbled across this specific issue when I was part of the Amazon Alexa challenge. Our team was part of this big international challenge to build an Alexa bot, which Amazon sponsors university teams to do and ours was a team of amazing PhD students. One of the main drivers to take part was to get real user data. We were really excited about this. Now, we have millions of real user interactions with our bot.
Looking in to that data, we saw that a lot of the data was really quite nasty and lots of people weren’t nice to our bot. They were harassing it based on its gender. Our bot was female, as are almost all conversational assistants, because they’re in assistant roles and often are domestic. They’re very subservient, they’ll do whatever you say, and we saw that reflected in our data.
Our data showed that people were abusing the female bot, and targeting it specifically based on the fact it was a woman. What really surprised us was the scale and the types of harassment. We anticipated people would say things like ‘oh you stupid bot, you won’t understand me’, things you would say when you’re frustrated. It went far beyond that – this is the work I’m doing now with my PhD student Amanda Curry, and we’re looking at how the bots respond, and how they ‘should’ respond to this gendered abuse. We’re running a study comparing different systems, academic and commercial, looking at how bots respond to harassment and then draw conclusions on whether the ways they respond to the harassment actually stops it in any way.
This all fascinates me because it looks at how our own world and biases are projected in to systems. We need to redesign, in evidence-based ways, the personalities of bots. At the moment, it’s gone horribly wrong.
Looking back on your career thus far, what would you recommend to women and girls?
Don’t be afraid to take risks – the defining moments of my career having involved changing path and subject – and find something which is fun, not necessarily easy, but something that inspires you and grasps your imagination. Don’t let people discourage you. People have said to me before ‘that won’t work’ – and guess what, it did work.
As women, we find it harder to take risks. That’s where role models come in. I have lots of female PhD students and I feel strongly about supporting them. Find a mentor – doesn’t have to be female, but it helps, I understand the problems that women face in the workplace and in personal relationships and there is an obvious interplay between work and the home for everyone.
Do you have a hero or heroine?
You’re probably expecting a famous woman but for me, it’s the unsung heroines. The women who do all this additional work everyday. Being a mum I understand all the extra, unpaid, under-recognised labour women do. Actually, these women are the real heroes. When people say ‘oh she’s just a housewife’ – they’re doing an amazing job.
What do you do when the working day is over?
When my working day is over, my real work begins because of my two small children. Being at work is my relaxing time, my holiday. The strain is often from my mothering work, which I love so dearly, but it is extremely hard sometimes.
Being in my office is wonderful – have a cup of tea, talk to people! Lovely. (laughs)
Professor Verena Rieser
Professor of Computer Science, School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh