Celebrating Women in Robotics: An International Women's Day Conversation with Laurianne Sitbon

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s a perfect opportunity to shine a light on the invaluable contributions of women in technology. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Laurianne Sitbon, the new lead of the Human Robot Interaction program at QUT Centre for Robotics, about her experiences as a woman in technology and her dedication to promoting gender equality within the robotics community. Below are some highlights from our inspiring conversation.

As the new lead of the Human Robot Interaction program, what inspired you to pursue a leadership role in this field?
I was trained as an engineer, and my early research was very much technology driven, in the language technologies space. 10 years ago, I took a turn into Human Computer Interactions, and when through a journey of reframing the way I think about research, about technology, and about the people who will eventually be impacted by the technology, hopefully in positive way. I could see that this perspective was not well represented in the centre, and my multidisciplinary background could help take more people on a similar journey to become more open to the perspective of people who engage with the technology. I see so many opportunities to elevate the fabulous work that is already conducted in the centre.
At the same time, my own research in inclusive technologies, at the nexus of disability inclusion and AI, has a lot of opportunities to align with existing themes of the centre. I have already engaged with a lot of components intelligent systems, and as language technologies are now influencing some robotics, I also see opportunities for vision technology to influence inclusive technologies, so this is a natural fit. Collaborative robots for manufacturing lend themselves to support more people to access job opportunities, increased level of vehicles autonomy has the potential to reduce the cognitive demands on drivers, and of course, social robots are a hit with my participants!

How do you envision leveraging your position to promote gender equality and inclusion within the robotics community?
Well, I am still quite new to robotics, so it may be difficult to speak to the field as a whole. I think that demonstrating the value new perspectives, multidisciplinary approaches, connecting roboticists with other discipline, can all contribute to a change of mindset that can promote inclusion, and diversity as a result, including but not limited to gender equality. The lead role also comes with more visibility of women in leading positions in the field, which I hope can contribute to transforming expectations, reduce unconscious bias and encourage more women to join.

What unique perspectives or contributions do you believe women bring to the field of Human Robot Interaction?
I am not sure that women necessarily bring unique perspectives, but clearly if we only recruit half of the population in a field, we are missing out on amazing talent! Anecdotally, I have noticed that women in technology were more often interested in multi-disciplinary perspectives, with many undergraduates undertaking double degrees for example. Human-Robot Interactions are very complex, and require a passion and understanding of people, context and technology, which can only be approached with multi-disciplinary perspectives.

Can you share some challenges you’ve faced as a woman in technology and how you’ve overcome them?
I don’t think I have realised this in the moment, and for a long time I really thought that I had been spared of any and all challenges that relate to my gender. I still believe that I have been rather privileged, but this is also because I have steered away from places where I was not welcomed. Reflecting on other people’s experiences, I have come to realise however that I have often not been taken seriously, seen as lacking confidence, and perhaps not been offered opportunities to lead, speak or mentor as much as my male colleagues. I could never tell if this has been because indeed, I am not good enough (is it impostor syndrome or is it real?), because of my attitude, because I don’t look old enough, or whatever else. Perhaps my stubbornness, optimism, and flexibility to not hang out with the oppressors have been my way of overcoming challenges I didn’t even realise I was facing. But more importantly, some amazing people have really helped me to read in between the lines, and find my voice and confidence along the way.

In your opinion, what are some key strategies for encouraging more women to pursue careers in robotics and technology?
I think that both celebrating and showcasing the many different facets of robotics and technology, how that can relate to other fields such as psychology, design, business or law, can really tap into the multiplicity of interests that we often see women displaying. Making women in technology part of the norm, particularly in the minds of primary school teachers and parents, can also help change how decisions about careers are influenced. It starts with embracing all these facets within the same teams, like we are doing in QCR, so that robotics and technology no longer just equates to starring at code or bolts all day.