22 February 2022

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Zaandam, February 11, 2022 – It was February 11, 2015, when the United Nationals General Assembly declared the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This day is dedicated to promoting full and equal access to, and participation in science, as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes development goals for science and gender equality. Today, we take the time to reflect on the current status of women and girls in science by interviewing Mariya Hendriksen, a young woman who has an impressive track record in Artificial Intelligence. We ask her about her vision on equality in the field of science and she offers us her best advice for women and girls dreaming of a career in this area.  

Hi Mariya! Can you share a little bit about yourself? 

I’m originally from Russia, Siberia, and I am currently a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). I started with a bachelor in Linguistics at Novosibirsk State University and soon realized I had a big interest in computer science and mathematics. This led me to a masters’ degree in Artificial Intelligence at KU Leuven and several internships in Switzerland and Belgium. One of these internships focused on linguistic intelligence. We worked on a system that would improve writing. You have spell checkers at most writing applications now, but this system would be able to target instances of racial or gender bias and suggest ways to rewrite this. After that I wanted to pursue this career path through my PhD, which led me to the UvA and AIRLab.  

AIRLab is a research initiative of UvA in collaboration with Ahold Delhaize, can you elaborate a bit about AIRLab and the partnership? 

AIRLab stands for Artificial Intelligence for Retail Lab. Our research takes place at bol.com and Albert Heijn, and it’s an industry lab focused on innovation and conducting research into socially responsible algorithms. To clarify what that entails, imagine being a customer browsing through a web shop. If you are researching which fitness tracker you would like to buy, it would be helpful to see a range of relevant products. If, however, you have made up your mind already, this is not something that would add value for you to see. One of our research projects aims to better understand when to display information like this. But we are also researching robots to support warehouse associates for example. I think this is why AIRLab is a unique and valuable concept, as its the goal to not only do research, but to ensure this research is meaningful in the context of the industry.  

We pay attention to days like this to promote science amongst young women. How would you describe the current representation of women in your field? 

Well, when it comes to academia there’s this infamous ‘leaking pipeline’. In the bachelor phase, the numbers are more or less equal. But as the academic stages progress, men tend to pursue their academic career further than women. The higher on the academic ladder, the less women you come across. Looking at AIRLab, we have a relatively solid gender balance. There’s about 40% women in the lab and we actively try to encourage women and minorities to apply for vacancies. But statistically speaking, on a global scale there’s still a long way to go, especially in computer science.  

What could be a first step towards closing this gap? 

As a society, it is very helpful that we are acknowledging the existence of these biases now. Very often biases that prevent women and minorities to pursue certain career paths start during early childhood. Unintentionally, visions from parents and teachers could go a long way and if you are aware of certain biases, you could actively support boys and girls when they need it. And I am quite positive because this is actually happening right now and we are growing into it. As an example from the business side, at AIRLab we specifically mention in our vacancies that we encourage people from all kinds of backgrounds to apply. Additionally, I think having role models is very important for girls to find their way into science. For me personally, I missed having those. As I progressed in my career, I did find those mentors and it goes a long way to motivate and inspire.   

For girls wanting to go into science, or women thinking about transferring into this field, what would your advice be? 

Well, I would definitely say go for it! I can imagine it to be a big step, but there are these communities for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), women in machine learning, Artificial Intelligence etcetera. I am part of those communities and it is very empowering to have support from other women experiencing the same. At some point it might feel like you are the only woman in this area but that is definitely not the case and the communities are very open and supportive, providing mentorship and great advice. Don’t be afraid and go for it! 

Can I just say, I am so impressed and inspired by everything! Thank you very much for your time and insights, it has been a pleasure. We would like to wish you luck with all of the current projects and your PhD research, hopefully we’ll get to hear more from you in the future! 

Are you interested in finding support and mentorship for your career in science? There are many communities to be found online and offline, varying from global to country-focused. Two examples are the Girls who Code and the Community for Women in Science. Curious about AIRLab, their work and the possibilities they have to offer? Find out more at their website (https://aiforretail.ai/ )