Australia, Interviews

Arti Agrawal – Associate Professor and Director of Women in Engineering and IT

Addressing the long-standing and complex challenges in gender equality in tech needs bottom-up and top-down action, from calling out inappropriate micro-aggressions or behaviours that you see, to policy-level mandates for equal pay and flexible work.

Dr. Arti Agrawal joined UTS in January 2018 with time evenly split between roles of Associate Professor in the School of Electrical and Data Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering and IT, and Director of the Women in Engineering and IT programme. Previously Dr. Agrawal worked at City, University of London from 2005-2017 in the Department of Electrical Engineering. She was a Royal Society postdoctoral fellow, and her PhD was on modelling methods for optical components, completed at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in 2005. 
Dr. Agrawal’s research interests lie in optics: modelling of photonic components such as solar cells, optical fibers, sensors, lasers etc. She is an expert on numerical methods for optics such as Finite Element Method (FEM). She has written a book on FEM, and edited a book on trends in computational photonics. She is also an Associate Editor for the IEEE Photonics Journal. She is passionate about increasing the representation of women in Science and Engineering. She is currently the Associate Vice President of Diversity for the IEEE Photonics Society. 

In a Nutshell: Tell us a bit about your job and what role technology plays in it?

My job is an exciting 2 halves that make up more than a whole! And both halves are very tech involved.

50% of my time is spent as a ‘traditional’ academic doing research and teaching in electrical engineering. My research is in modelling the behaviour of light in photonic components such as optical fibres, solar cells, sensors etc. Essentially I am developing tech solutions for society in telecommunications, biomedical applications, energy etc. I solve Maxwell’s equations to do that and use a lot of scientific software as well high performing computing for that.

I work with my wonderful team to realise our vision of creating and leading social change so that education and career journeys in engineering and IT are not limited by gender.

The other 50% of my time is as Director of Women in Engineering & IT. In this really exciting role I work with my wonderful team to realise our vision of creating and leading social change so that education and career journeys in engineering and IT are not limited by gender. To do this we visit primary and high schools to inspire young girls to see engineering and IT as viable study options: we create hands on tech and engineering activities for them to play with. We support our current students through our mentoring program which has relied heavily on tech this year as it is all online due to Covid-19.

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and I was hooked. That wonderful world of Science had me pursuing STEM subjects in high school and then Physics at Uni.

It was an early start: I knew I wanted to do Science, from when I was 8 years old and could not even spell the word “scientist”. I saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and I was hooked. That wonderful world of Science had me pursuing STEM subjects in high school and then Physics at Uni.

I completed my studies in Physics in India, graduating with a PhD in Fibre Optics from IIT Delhi in 2005. Then I spent a few years as a research fellow and eventually joined the faculty at City, University of London, prior to coming to UTS in 2018. On the way I got involved in volunteer work for professional bodies in Photonics, to promote diversity and inclusion, particularly gender equity in STEM.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

The rate at which tech is transforming is speeding up all the time! The biggest tech transformation I have witnessed is related to telecommunications and its impact on all aspects of life.

I remember using landline phones and overseas calls being expensive in my childhood. Entertainment was a few TV channels or the cinema.

Then came mobile phones and the internet. From using a clunky but expensive mobile phone for the first time during my PhD to today where everyone has smartphones. The internet, mobile devices, apps like whatsapp, skype, facebook etc. and streaming services have revolutionised connection. Now the way we do business, education, entertainment or just talk to our loved ones has been transformed by telecommunications technology. During this COVID-19 pandemic, the reliance on tech for remote working is another example of how far we have come.

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

I think of the Women in Engineering and IT programme at UTS!

We always hear there are not enough women working in Tech. What needs to happen to change that, which steps should be done to achieve gender equality in tech?

Addressing the long-standing and complex challenges in gender equality in tech needs bottom-up and top-down action, from calling out inappropriate micro-aggressions or behaviours that you see, to policy-level mandates for equal pay and flexible work. There are many systemic factors that will take time to address, such as the influence of toys and mass media on girls (that lead to stereotyping), into gendered beliefs/behaviours in our families and cultures, how STEM is taught in schools and universities, and workplace norms and expectations.

Observe and notice gender disparities in representation, from books, TV, films etc. that your family reads/watches to who is in your team and greater organisation, and who does what. Is there disparity or bias that needs to be addressed?

But – every action matters and change starts with you! You do not have to be a woman in tech to champion for change, the step change that needs to happen will take all of us. Thinking about your realm of control and influence, what can you do in your family, at work, in your immediate work team? Observe and notice gender disparities in representation, from books, TV, films etc. that your family reads/watches to who is in your team and greater organisation, and who does what. Is there disparity or bias that needs to be addressed? Having the difficult conversations is also needed, as we can’t make change without talking about it first. Safe spaces matter: find those with who you can have meaningful discussions with, and together you can widen the circle of those ready to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and ask the hard questions.

It can be change at an individual level too, because we know that mentoring and sponsorship works. Is there someone that you can reach out to, be it a younger person, a colleague to tap on the shoulder for an opportunity, or to mentor or sponsor? Or a mentoring program that you can join?

We know that school outreach works if there are multiple contact points over time, especially if it is in earlier school years. And primary school is not too early, research shows that gender norms and views are formed in the first few years of primary school, if not before.

Or, you can give back to our younger generations by putting your name down for volunteering to share your journey as a role model in school outreach, or helping to develop an interactive activity that showcases what working in tech is like. We know that school outreach works if there are multiple contact points over time, especially if it is in earlier school years. And primary school is not too early, research shows that gender norms and views are formed in the first few years of primary school, if not before.

Be loud and proud about what you do. Visibility matters: post on LinkedIn, write a newsletter article or blog post for your school, company or university – sharing what you are doing is how we can build a movement!

Finally, be loud and proud about what you do. Visibility matters: post on LinkedIn, write a newsletter article or blog post for your school, company or university – sharing what you are doing is how we can build a movement!

How different would our world be if more women worked in STEM?

I think it would be a more fun world where gender would not be an issue at all in tech or other walks of life. There would be more freedom for everyone and better opportunity for all, where everyone can bring their whole selves to work. A more humane and just world.

Which was the best decision in your career?

To follow my twin passions: for STEM and working for equity.

What advice would you give to women who want a tech career?

Follow your passion for tech and persevere in spite of setbacks. Develop support networks of friends, advisors and sponsors to help you in tough times. Do not hesitate to seek out good mentors to help you chart your journey. Look to keep learning and growing. Believe in yourself and the wonderful talent you bring to tech: it is much in need.

Dr. Arti Agrawal joined UTS in January 2018 with time evenly split between roles of Associate Professor in the School of Electrical and Data Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering and IT, and Director of the Women in Engineering and IT programme. Previously Dr. Agrawal worked at City, University of London from 2005-2017 in the Department of Electrical Engineering. She was a Royal Society postdoctoral fellow, and her PhD was on modelling methods for optical components, completed at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi in 2005. 

Dr. Agrawal’s research interests lie in optics: modelling of photonic components such as solar cells, optical fibers, sensors, lasers etc. She is an expert on numerical methods for optics such as Finite Element Method (FEM). She has written a book on FEM, and edited a book on trends in computational photonics. She is also an Associate Editor for the IEEE Photonics Journal. She is passionate about increasing the representation of women in Science and Engineering. She is currently the Associate Vice President of Diversity for the IEEE Photonics Society.

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