As the Research Director at the CNR of Pisa with a background in computer science, Fosca Giannotti has been in charge of data mining and machine learning for 20 years. Areas that today belong in the field of artificial intelligence. A field of research that, in the common imagination, is often associated with a group of males in a small room surrounded by PCs, cables, servers, etc. An imagery that ignores the other half of a world, which includes female researchers like Giannotti, who, with sensitivity and effort, contribute to preserve the diversity needed in disciplines that aim to shape tomorrow’s society. And who at the same time face and solve everyday problems: «Among the major research projects I currently coordinate is SoBigData: a platform that puts together a dozen European research centers with the aim of making the technologies developed in the context of big data analytics available to other research fields in order to favor, according to the philosophy of open science, the greatest possible collaboration and an interdisciplinary approach to different topics».
What is the presence of women in data science?
Women in data science are at around 35%. To give you a better idea, even physicist have a better gender balance .
What are the barriers women face when entering this field?
It’s a long story, but it often has roots within the family, in the social-cultural fabric. From my point of view, the point of view of someone who meets girls in the final stages of their studies, I can tell you that they are usually better than males. The numbers and the grades attest to it. However, the most promising ones prefer to choose medical fields rather than the computer science faculties. In this sense, I think there has been a great decrease in attractiveness over time. When I signed up in 1977 the balance between women and men was 40-60, but we did not feel like we were a minority. Over the years, computer science has given itself an arid image and has ended up inhibiting potential candidates. The image of the nerd, who goes from PlayStation to coding, has been cloaked in an aura of uselessness: virtually connected with the whole world, but always confined to its own bedroom. A portrait that does not attract feminine sensitivity.
Other disciplines are different, in this.
Think of the TV series. In Gray's Anatomy, women have power and take on the same responsibilities as their male counterparts. Effort included. Sure, they still cry, laugh, fall in love, have doubts. The fact that the Big Bang Theory series portrays the protagonists as mainly male and with elements of asociality, which reach critical points in the character of Sheldon, is different. If, in regards to information technology, there were different figures of reference, our discipline would benefit. As it happens, for example, with crime TV series where more and more women who decide to enter law enforcement can count on models of investigators at the center of the scene.
Girls are usually better than boys. The numbers and the grades confirm it. The most promising ones, however, prefer to choose the medical field rather than computer science faculties
Yet there is no lack of fields of application in which women can make a difference.
Not at all. Think about the issues of migration flows, social good, subjective well-being and all those areas in which society manifests itself and where girls can do better thanks to their sensitivity and the quantitative support of computer science.
How could greater female involvement favor the development of computer science?
Those who work in research in the field of artificial intelligence right now are planting the seeds of what will be the society of the future. The risk is that in leaving this to a single category of researchers the future will be built to exclude rather than include the different components of our communities. In short, if more sensitivity and different ideas are involved in the design, so much better. Starting from the working environment, where heterogeneity is a fundamental value and a pleasure that creates less tension and stress. It's more teamwork.
If, in terms of information technology, there were different figures of reference, our discipline would benefit. As it happens, for example, with crime series
This is also where the 2.5 million euro five-year grant you were awarded by the European Research Council fits in.
Yes, in the sense that I will use the funds to further develop the Explainable AI project through which we aim to achieve a better interaction between artificial intelligence and human beings so that the latter has both the tools to interpret the software's operating mechanisms and the possibility to defend against possible bias or malfunctions. Thinking about the case, for example, of granting a bank loan or not due to a risk profile that is considered too high, for example, the idea is to recreate as much as possible the logic used by artificial intelligence to reach that decision. At the moment we are only at the tip of the iceberg.
As a woman, how did working in research impact your private life?
I will answer you in two ways. The first is provocative: would you ask a this kind of question to a man? The second, however, is more analytical. This fact comes from a real situation: often women have to carry on her shoulders the organization and management of their families. I consider myself lucky because I live in Tuscany, a region where the welfare state works very well, and I have a more flexible job than others, which allows me to organize myself at a family level. Certainly my children have also crawled on the floors of many conference rooms and my house is perhaps less tidy than others, but on the other hand I had the chance to measure myself against a highly qualified, interesting and cosmopolitan community of professionals. In short, if I were to give advice to girls who are approaching computer science or are have doubts about whether to take this path or not, I would say that this is a discipline that opens you up to the world, makes you travel and gives you the right flexibility to cultivate other interests. Which is in turn useful for quality research.