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HPE Tech Talk Podcast: Growing Up in Tech, Episode 13

In this episode, we welcome Emily Christiansen, a Master Candidate in Applied Data Science at USC—and our host's own daughter. Robert and Emily reflect on the impact of women in STEM, the important role men play as allies for equity, and how young women can navigate early careers in tech.
 


 

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Transcript

Robert Christiansen: (00:32) Welcome to HPE Tech Talk. I'm your host, Robert Christiansen. This week, we have a special episode for you in celebration of International Women's Day and the immense impact women have had in the STEM fields. Another thing that makes this episode special is that for the first time, I have a cohost. I'm joined today by Emily Christiansen, a student currently pursuing a Master's in Applied Data Science at the University of Southern California, and someone who also happens to be my daughter. Emily, welcome to the show and I look forward to our conversation.
Emily Christiansen:

(0:41) Thank you very much for having me, Dad. It's lovely to talk to you.

Robert: (01:14) Oh, I know. It's lovely to talk to you. All right. So let's get into it. I think this is such a great topic. Can you just describe to people what STEM is for those who don't know what STEM means?
Emily:

(01:26) Sure. So STEM is a common acronym in academics and in industry, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. There is some talk of adding another E to include Economics. So it'd be STEEM, but that is not official. The remaining STEM people aren't too happy about that.

Robert: (01:53) So, I already know the answer to this, but tell audience when did you first become interested in this field, this area?
Emily:

(02:00) So, I think this is actually kind of a two-fold question. I was thinking about this the other day: It's a combination of kind of the house I grew up in where being technically literate was very easy. There was computers and video games around between you and my brother, Taylor, just constantly on some kind of electronic device. Knowing your way around, it was really easy and fun. But also, I grew up quite a nerd, and I remember Mom taking me to go see that first Ironman movie where a computer nerd became a superhero, and I fell in love with that idea of building something to kind of better the world and better your life and not be the dorky sidekick with the tape around the glasses and that sort of a thing.

Robert: (02:55) I remember in junior high, you took a computer science course. What was the teacher's name that you did? She was a woman who was really encouraging you at the time.
Emily:

(03:07) She was outstanding. That was Dr. Nancy Wallace. She's since retired, but she was just an outstanding kind of role model for me in that in seventh and eighth grade. At the end of my eighth grade before going to high school, she awarded me outstanding performance and technology. She was very proud to say that this is the first time she's given it to a girl, and that was a really fun moment between me and her at that award show.

Robert: (03:36) It really was. You were so proud. So, I think about you pursuing this masters in applied data science at USC. The age-old question that every parent has, "What do you plan on doing with this after the time you receive your master's?" We have this conversation all the time, but let's share with everybody.
Emily:

(03:55) Sure. The thing I kind of am most drawn to across any industry that I've discovered is that I really enjoy the creative aspects of it. If any way to apply the creativity or kind of a greater purpose of the mathematics and the data science. So, in previous class projects, I've been able to focus the data science lens on the media, specifically film and entertainment industries. So that right now is kind of where I'm looking to go, something like big the data science fields are emerging in Disney, Netflix, Hulu and then of course, Google and those kinds of companies that look at it in a bit more of a creative sense.

Robert: (05:05) One of the things I remember about your experience joining in the master's program at USC, that you were one woman out of 100 and that there's so many women of your age, and at this point in their career, they're dropping out or not pursuing these directions. What has been your experience and what do you think about that?
Emily:

(06:33) I think it's a really interesting kind of topic because I tend to see, in my classes, I tend to kind of focus on the other women that are in the class. A lot of the lack of women or lack of other people, for instance, the LGBTQ community, I don't directly see just because I'm looking for them. So, I focus on them and I see, "Oh, great other people in this class who are women," or a variety of people. Then when I look around and I see, "Oh, there's only two of us in this class of however many 40 or 50 since we're on Zoom," I'm discouraged, but also encouraged. I see there's a lot of women leaving the field of STEM or leaving the field of data. For instance, I have a friend who's going into data science, but then is going to go pursue a subsection of a social science.
I think that a lot of women don't pursue pure data science for a variety of reasons. One definitely being a discouragement because of the lack of women, but then also that lack of representation, but also the lack of variety in the field. So, if they have a background in something else, it's really easy for them to go pursue it, versus at least a lot of the male-oriented data scientists tend to come from a background of computer science and it's much easier sticking with the data scientists if you have that background.

 

Robert: (08:48) I wanted to take carry on, on that theme there a bit, Emily. That topic around our table almost for the last six months or so is gender bias and just bias in general in data sciences. I know that that's something that you were looking to continue to challenge that we often have deep conversations about how that manifests itself in models and training and AI and ML that show up out there. So, how do you see that as a piece of your commitment as you start moving through your career?
Emily:

(09:22) I see it as an opportunity to just kind of bring certain algorithms to the forefront of, just in general, certain algorithms that might not seem to have a gender bias, but where they're being utilized or who made them then imply the gender bias or implies a bias in some other way. Generally, we kind of call them privileged blinders. The meaning is there, and you think as a data scientist that you're following all the right steps, you're doing the right thing, but the data you're using or what you're choosing to exclude is making it a biased algorithm. I think that's very interesting of thinking that you're doing a very objective program or a very objective model, but when it's used practically, it's not at all. Part of that is you can claim is no fault of the programmer themselves, but at the same time, it is on the programmers or the data scientists' shoulders to understand the data that they're using and the systems that they're using and the detriments that they might have.

 

Robert: (10:51) So, how do you balance that then, Emily, with the lack of data that gets collected that represents minorities or those who are disenfranchised, just the fact that we're not even collecting the data, let alone that it's not being included? We're not even collecting data that could influence or direct these models into the correct direction, or at least one that's more socially aligned with our thinking.
Emily:

(11:17) Well, the good thing is that there are systems in place for missing data. Right? This is a data science problem that has been addressed since the beginning of this kind of a field of missing data or data that is corrupted or skewed. But knowing that the data is missing is the problem, knowing that there is a population of people or events that is not being represented is where the real kind of tricky business begins because if your model works and it looks like it works and it's telling you what do you want to see, then why would you pursue anything else? Why would you change it? Why would you try to let it understand a population that you don't even have data for in the first place? This concept is pushing a lot of data scientists out of their comfort zone because they have a model that works.

 

Robert: (12:20) I'm given the answer that I want.
Emily:

(12:23) I'm getting the answer I want. It's a great model. It's robust. It's complex. I understand it. I'm able to understand it. Why do I have to go backwards now? But the argument is, well, if it's not finished in the first place.

Robert: (12:42) Therein lies the challenge of our own way of thinking. So, part of this whole podcast that you and I have talked about here was the switching the tables. I'm going to switch it over to you now and let you ask some questions of me as an executive for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, specifically as it relates to the International Women's Day and these topics that we're talking about.
Emily:

(13:24) It's very interesting for me who will be joining this industry fairly soon in a year or two, but to still see people at your level, generally not represent me, people who are kind of entering entry-level. So, what are some success stories that you've seen? What do you do think you could do as an individual or we can do as an industry to continue this and support this?

 

Robert: (14:01) That's a great question. I've been giving it a lot of consideration, and I think there's a lot more that can be done. I think let's just be clear on that. A couple of successes that I can think about is we've brought on, we had three open recs in our team, in the CTO office team, and we brought two women to fill those there. It's a very important aspect of our recruiting is that we have a diversity mindset, meaning that we're constantly looking for candidates who can not only just in the female category, but around race and gender and ethnicity, just all of those things that are important. HPE has an overall, a very, very aspirational goal that we publish our numbers. We are part of an international coalition to help elevate those. I'm really happy that we just recently made two offers and they were accepted by women that joined our team. They work within our innovation center. So, they're right in the middle of it, Emily. I think this is really cool.
(15:05) In addition, Janice Zdankus, who's on our team, sits on the board of a number of organizations for women in technology. She's done such a good job of representing the voice of women in technology, not just in HPE, but broadly. She's always coming to me and saying, "Hey, are these things that you are aware of? Did you know that we could step in and advocate for women in these various areas?" It's nice having somebody who's that strong in the community as an awareness barometer for some of the things as we as a team, the CTO office, or we as an organization, as a whole, HPR, can do to help elevate women in technology.
Emily:

(16:45) Outstanding. I was able to speak with Janice, I believe, a couple months ago.

Robert: 16:50) Yeah
Emily:

(16:52) That's so important of somebody who kind of, it's an overused phrase, but a finger on the pulse of topics and discussions that might not even be relevant to, or it might not seem to be relevant to a lot of other people in the industry because it doesn't affect them. Like I said, I'm a first-year master's student at USC, so I have got another year to go. But what are some of the main challenges do you think someone in my position should expect going into this?

Robert: (17:24) It's going to depend on the company you join. The programs that companies are offering, how publicly facing they are with their numbers, actual hiring numbers, the percentages, how many people are coming through the recruiting, these are numbers that most companies are not publishing. HPE does publish their numbers and we've been listed in the top 50 of the most inclusive companies in the world. We're very proud of that, but the challenge is going to be for you, Emily, is to vet out the opportunity to do what you want to do, versus the people that you do it with. No two companies are alike. There are some companies that have very, very limited view on this topic. They simply are not making an effort. They don't plan to make an effort. They don't see that there's a problem. Then there are others who have very, very strong programs.
Emily:

(19:39) That's very interesting. It's really applicable to some studies I'm doing right now and some readings. The term I was looking for earlier was a privilege hazard, which it's a phenomenon that makes those who occupy the most privileged positions, so good education, good credentials, accolades, so poorly equipped to recognize instances of oppression in the world. I'm quoting from a fantastic book called, "Data Feminism," by Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein who were MIT professors that did a fantastic job kind of breaking down a lot of the data problems right now socially.

 

Robert: (20:22) So, privilege hazard?
Emily:

(20:24) Privilege hazard is what they call it.

Robert: (20:25) Privilege hazards. So, I could see myself stepping into that from time to time as well. So, this is something that you and I go back and forth on is you helped me have a mirror up to how I behave inside. So, like every human, I have blind spots and I don't know what I'm saying, maybe right or wrong or good or bad, and I have some very, very strong women in my life all around me actually, who I continue to catch myself, either my thinking are my sayings and stuff like that, and I continue to work and elevate and to really open the doors as best I can. So, I like that term. Thank you for bringing it to me.
Emily:

(21:03) It's important for me as well just because I'm not a person of color, but it's important for me to have people of color in my close circle to be kind of... It's a different topic, but just, "How is your opinion on this X, Y, and Z?" So that kind of just continuously cyclical, and then they go ask their friends who are of a field that they don't particularly have much insight into. So, it's a really important, I think, idea and I appreciate you listening to me and mom in that way.

 

Robert: (21:34) Well, of course. But I think the key here is that we have to have difficult conversations. We have to have the courage to have conversations because let's be clear, I am a privileged white man in a position of power. Because of that, just the sheer nature of that conversation is challenging. There's got to be some courage in it. Can I approach my friends who may not look or believe the same way as I do like that and say, "Hey, I'm giving you permission to tell me things that I'm not hearing or seeing." It's earning their trust and me earning their trust back is so important to do that.
Emily:

(22:26) The last question that you guys presented for me and I appreciate is the #ChooseToChallenge, so focusing on calling out gender bias and challenging the status quo. So, dad, what is your personal commitment to this theme? I know we just kind of talked about it a bit.

Robert: (22:50) Yeah. I think if we double click back onto that, the theme of the International Women's Day is the #ChooseToChallenge. What do we mean by challenge is to have those courageous conversations in a way, I think, that enables people to hear them. There comes a time when you got to have a megaphone. No doubt about it, right? You got to march, and you got to carry our momentum and your energy into situations because that's the only way you could disrupt an environment. I'm generally turned towards the good in people and I say to myself, "Can we get this done with conversations and bring it to light and education and to call it out when we see it?" That commitment that I've made, I continue to make every day, is when I see it, I call it out. I have one-on-ones with all of my direct reports. I have one-on-ones with all the people who, a lot of people in the organization.
(23:54) When I see something, I say something. And that's the most important part is that if you see it, you got to say it. More importantly, I think that the first step would be on my part is I have a private conversation first and I have it pretty darn quick. If that does not fix the problem of where I'm not getting the feedback that I need, I escalate. What I mean by escalate, I tend to go to the supervisor and if I don't get any action on the supervisor, then I take it to other means, and we have other paths inside our company to help that. But the commitment here is this, is that if I see it, I'm going to call it out and I'm going to elevate, continue to elevate the diversity the representation of women from STEM specifically in our organization as we continue to advance the HPE forward.
Emily:

(24:43) I'd like to add something to that.

 

Robert: (24:45) Sure.
Emily:

(24:45) ..something I was talking about with some friends in my class, some other women in STEM in my classes who I've been talking to obviously only virtually, but the whole see something, say something, but then share it. Share what you're doing with... It doesn't have to be another person and another woman in STEM or just a friend, preferably another friend. I would tell a friend in my class, "Oh, I just got really rudely interrupted. I called him out on it." Tell somebody close to you or a friend what you just did and what you're going through because that might give them the courage to do the same the next time, and that kind of effect, that kind of ripple effect of, "Okay, you know what? I'm not going to let this happen next time because she was able to stop it. I can too."
(25:40) I've discovered, because as you know, as a little part-time gig, I coach a girl's high school swim team and I know how much that kind of comradery among other women is so important to the general mental health and wellbeing of what you're doing. So, see something, say something and then share it.

 

Robert: (26:28) That's wonderful advice. I very much want to take that with me as a result of this podcast. That's fantastic. All right. Emily, thank you so much for joining me today.
Emily:

(26:40) Thank you very much for having me. This was fun.

Robert: 26:43) Hey, this is Robert Christiansen with Tech Talk. Thank you for joining me for this special edition for HPE Tech Talk. I'm Robert Christiansen, your host. Be sure to join us on the future episodes as we talk more about the influences of technology, both in our society, as well as when the companies we work with, and more importantly, the technology advancements we're making society as a whole. Take care and we'll talk to you next week. Bye-bye.

 


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