On International Women’s Day 2023 (Wednesday 8 March), the UNSW Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute, the Women in AI Australia network and the UNSW Data Science Hub (uDash) organised an event titled the ‘International Women's Day in AI and STEM Celebration – Cracking the Code’. 

Supported by uDash and the UNSW Faculty of Engineering's EDI Team, the event celebrated the critical contributions and achievements of women in AI, data science, and technology. The goal was to create a supportive community and to encourage the next generation of women to pursue careers in these areas. 

The event included a panel discussion featuring inspiring speakers followed by a networking session with female industry leaders, researchers, and experts in the field. The program included an opening address by Women in AI Australia Ambassador Angela Kim and a welcome message from UNSW AI Institute Director, Scientia Associate Prof Haris Aziz, who highlighted the inclusive values of UNSW and the contributions of female members and initiatives in AI research.

Women share their experiences

During the panel discussion, moderator Professor Flora Salim asked the panel members to share how they began their career journey and arrived at their current positions.

Stela Solar, who leads the National AI Center, said she started with a degree in Commerce and Arts and a passion for music, film and theatre. She accidentally landed her first job in technology in inside sales, leading her to product management, partnerships and solution design. She discovered her passion for connecting technology with business outcomes and became a translator for businesses. She worked on digital transformation and picked up additional tech skills via short courses. In Stela’s eyes, it is important that children can appreciate STEM in activities they love. As an example, she shared her own passion for sailing and how she only later realised the importance of physics for understanding the dynamics of sailing. Furthermore, she explained her mission to activate the positive adoption of AI by coordinating the ecosystem.

A/Prof. Fatemeh Vafaee, Deputy Director of uDASH and Associate Professor at the School of Information Technology and Environmental Sciences at UNSW received her Masters in Software Engineering and PhD in Computer Science. She emphasised the importance of male champions and praised the support of both her father and husband. While studying and working in STEM, she realised that she was one of few females in large research labs, but she developed a strong sense of self-efficacy and determination to break through barriers.

Kate Carruthers, Head of Business Intelligence of UNSW AI Institute, gave some background on her diverse experiences working in IT for various large corporations before starting at UNSW. She said that although she never loved maths, her can-do attitude enabled her to pick up necessary concepts and tools via her postgraduate studies and on the job, as needed. She also recounted one corporate board meeting where a woman came to serve coffee, and she realised she was the only other woman in the room. Since that time, she has worked to provide opportunities for a diverse workforce. However, she feels that diversity is starting to improve in work teams across the country.

Sonal Surana, General Manager of CommBank.ai, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, discussed her journey into the field of data analytics and artificial intelligence. Sonal was pursuing investment banking roles during her MBA politics but landed a role in credit risk and data analytics, which opened up a world of possibilities for her. She spent several years working with various companies across Europe and Asia, and is now excited to be at CBA, where she is focused on combining AI and banking to create a leading global AI bank. Sonal highlighted the challenges many women face in pursuing their careers in traditional societies, and underscores the importance of determination, hard work, and persistence in overcoming obstacles and achieving success.

The power of AI

After these inspiring stories, the conversation shifted to sharing examples of how AI has been used to solve real problems in different industries. Examples included Commonwealth Bank harnessing AI to detect and prevent transaction abuse, and UNSW’s machine learning model that predicts which students are likely to fail a course, enabling intervention and offers of support to these students.

Vicki Liu, Vice President and General Manager, Partner Ecosystem APAC at IBM, emphasised the importance of aligning strategy, stakeholder engagement, and funding to support innovation–and discussed how AI could bring people together to create breakthrough innovations. She also discussed the challenge of work-life balance, particularly for women, and encouraged young women to plan their time and prioritise their needs to achieve balance.

The Q&A session invited discussion with the audience members and led to valuable learning for everyone in attendance. Dr Ros Dubs, an External Advisory Committee member for the UNSW AI Institute, acknowledged the potential of AI as the next big step in improving automation and the importance of changing the culture to accept AI and move things faster. She highlighted the need to target parents in order to shift attitudes toward STEM education at a young age. Ros discussed the issue of gender imbalance in STEM fields and acknowledged that it would take time to address the systemic problem. The group also discussed the idea of personalised medicine, and Day of AI education initiatives. The Day of AI is a full day of highly interactive teaching materials for students Year 5 to Year 10 about artificial intelligence; the course materials are designed by UNSW, MIT, i2Learning, and CS in Schools. 

Ms. May from Intersect, an organisation focused on promoting collaboration between academia, industry, and government in the technology sector, talked about the importance of parenting and having female scientists and leaders in agriculture and technology who can inspire young girls. According to Ms May, parents need to be re-educated in order to teach their children, who will then become tomorrow's parents. She believes it is essential to start young and use different means to engage with parents.

Suncorp Bank’s Project Manager Jasleen Anand thanked the panel for organising such a great event on International Women's Day. She said that as a working mother, she finds it challenging to balance work and personal life as she does not have much family support. Jasleen agreed with Kate Carruther’s point about having conversations about AI and data with kids at an early age, but also made the point that it's never too late to start. She also talked about the challenges her daughter is facing while trying to choose a subject and gain work experience, considering the numerous options available to her.

Next, the event showcased a video by Christine Xiaomei Wang, CEO of PathoAI, a healthcare company using AI solutions to make cervical cancer testing more accessible to women. They are actively seeking opportunities and collaborations with IBM and potentially female researchers from UNSW where more females, especially from less privileged areas, can be involved in AI for health research projects. The AI-powered company can assist pathologists in the early detection and diagnosis of cervical cancer by analysing digital images of cervical tissue samples. The use of AI for women’s health can be especially crucial in disadvantaged regions where access to trained pathologists is limited.

The event emphasised the importance of empowering women and minority communities to become experts, innovators, and leaders in AI and data while ensuring the ethical and responsible applications of AI. Participants were encouraged to network at the end with drinks and nibbles provided.

The International Women’s Day event was an inspiring experience for many attendees with participation from secondary school students, experienced female AI and data science leaders and several male colleagues.

Suncorp Bank Project Manager Jasleen Anand affirmed this, saying, “This week I couldn’t resist the temptation of attending an International Women's Day 2023 event that would be perfect not only to cater my appetite for Technology and AI but also be appropriate for my High schooler daughter who is on a quest to find the right career for herself."

“Thanks to UNSW AI Institute for hosting the International Women’s Day in AI and STEM celebration. It was a diverse panel of renowned female leaders to celebrate the achievements of women in the fields of artificial intelligence, STEM, health and much more. Great panel discussion on the challenges and also opportunities to increase awareness in educating women in AI.”