The 5th Annual Women in Tech Symposium Sheds Light on the Ag-Tech Field and Inclusivity

five female silhouettes, with a tech background

By Michelle Kaganovsky. In order to share the experiences of women in the technological field, the Women in Tech Symposium selects a tech-related topic each year and holds panels and discussions to dive deeper into the area of focus. This year marked the 5th Annual Women in Tech Symposium titled The New Era in Human-Computer Interaction. The event aimed to highlight cutting-edge technological innovations as well as the challenges in designing inclusive Human-Computer Interactions (HCI).

This event was organized by the Women in Tech Initiative (WITI), now renamed to Expanding Diversity and Gender Equity (EDGE) in Tech Initiative, which was jointly founded by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and Berkeley College of Engineering. The objective behind changing the name to EDGE is to commit to being a resource for women, as well as other under-included identities in the technology field. Despite the renaming, EDGE in Tech Initiative will continue with the events WITI held, including the annual Women in Tech Symposium, the Leadership Roundtable Conversation, and the Athena Awards.

At the start of the event, Camille Crittenden, the Executive director of CITRIS and Banatao Institute and Cofounder of WITI at UC, brought attention to the disturbing reality of COVID-19’s impact on working women. According to recent news articles and literature, over 860,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September 2020 alone. To put this into perspective, the number of women is four times greater than the 216,000 men who left the workforce around the same time. The mental health of women in the workforce has also been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Senior-level women are significantly more likely than men in equivalent positions to feel exhausted, pressured to work greater amounts and  constantly be ready for the next task or challenge.

The disparity between the experiences of men and women working remotely has been illuminated by the finding that men were promoted three times more frequently than women during the pandemic. Additionally, it was determined that 34% of men working remotely with children at home received a promotion, compared to the 9% of women working in remote settings with children at home. A study also found that 26% of men received a pay raise while working remotely compared to 13% of women.

These shocking statistics and the factors that cause them may be the reason about 2.2 million women left the workforce from February to October of last year. As a result, Crittenden emphasizes now, more than ever, is time to make systemic changes that will solve the challenges women face in the workplace.

 “To better address these barriers and to be more intentionally inclusive, it’s important that leaders evolve to address the nuanced and complex challenges and benefits of intersectionality,” Crittenden said. “Research literature from business, healthcare, political science and other disciplines has recognized that diverse teams find more creative and robust solutions.”

The topic of this year’s symposium is Human-Computer Interactions (HCI), which is a multidisciplinary study that explores the interaction between users and the design of the technology. Dr. Leila Takayama, professor at UC Santa Cruz, recognizes HCI to be an important and timely topic amidst the recent rise in xenophobia.

“I think it [HCI] is particularly relevant today because of the global trends we are seeing and people becoming more xenophobic in a lot of places, and I think human centered design presents opportunities for being more conscious about inclusivity,” Dr. Takayama said.

The symposium covered a host of topics associated with HCI including health, gaming, diversity and agriculture. Each panel held a distinguished group of speakers who discussed their research and experiences surrounding the topic. For the agriculture and HCI portion, which was entitled HCI and Food: Feeding 10 Billion People, Dr. Erin Hestir, associate professor at UC Merced, made opening remarks that stressed the significance of the intersection between technology and food production in feeding a rapidly growing population.

“The digital transformation of our food system is underway and agriculture is changing fast yet farming and food production has its own specific requirements and constraints that make considerations of human-computer interactions vital to a successful food future,” Hestir said.

One of the panelists, Dr. Ankita Raturi is a professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University and focuses her research on software engineering to improve food and agricultural systems and their resilience. Dr. Raturi’s Agricultural Informatics Lab investigates agricultural informatics, designs and models and uses software engineering to build resilient food futures. The intersection between HCI and agriculture is employed to design technologies that will assist the needs of farm stakeholders through various means, all while considering the limitations and requirements of ecosystems.

Dr. Raturi has also made significant contributions to ensuring the intersection of HCI and agriculture is accessible. Currently, she is designing a course to equip agriculture students with technical skills that are often only taught to students studying technology-related majors in order to prepare them for the growing usage of technology in the agricultural sector. Additionally, she co-founded GOAT, an online space for people interested in open ag-tech to be able to connect and communicate with one another. She was inspired to move forward with this idea after seeing how dispersed and difficult it was to contact others pursuing careers related to the intersection between agriculture and technology.

“A lot of the things we are finding in sustainable agriculture and HCI and the intersection of those spaces is that we are all over the place and not in the most obvious spaces, so building community to bridge that gap between computing and agriculture is important to me,” Dr. Raturi said.

The next panelist, Dr. Jenna Rodriguez, is the director of strategic accounts at Ceres Imaging where she works with customers to translate aerial imaging and irrigation analytics into efficient decisions and actions for farmers. Dr. Rodriguez discovered her passion during her doctoral research as she was trying to find new approaches to using remote-sensing in ways that made sense to farmers. She specifically focused on using remote-sensing to help farmers manage their crops after earthquake-driven hydrologic events because of the aftermath that disrupts farmers’ harvests or growing seasons.

Now, at Ceres Imaging, Dr. Rodriguez is continuing to work on a similar objective. At Ceres, she uses aerial spectral imagery to identify challenges that arise in farms and further helps farmers understand the technology and utilize it in a practical way. Dr. Rodriguez and her team have been compiling a mobile and web application to allow for pins and comments to emphasize certain features and turn around the data gathered from the images rapidly because of the dynamic nature of agriculture.

“We build up that imagery literacy at scale, which has been really exciting and really difficult to deal with for remote sensing, and so that’s where I found my spot, working with growers across all different crop tops in Australia, United States and Canada to help use remote sensing in practical way,” Dr. Rodriguez said.

The final panelist, Dr. Shellye Suttles is a professor of economics at Indiana University, where she concentrates on local and regional food systems, municipal food policy, agricultural energy production, climate change impacts with a focus on public health and socially-disadvantaged farmers. Dr. Suttles first experience with HCI and food systems was during her time implementing food policies at the municipal government level for Indianapolis. There she worked with a team to create an application which would help households facing food insecurity navigate the complex network of the charitable food system.

Currently, Dr. Suttles is back into research and has been collaborating with colleagues in informatics at  Penn State, specifically looking to understand how technology can aid urban farmers. Urban farmers face a plethora of challenges including improving profitability given tight margins, navigating local food systems in an urban environment and dealing with a lack of land availability. Dr. Suttles and her colleagues in informatics are completing an ethnographic analysis to better understand the needs of urban growers and their production practices.

“Understanding push and pull in this market scenario is important, and also looking to see if there is a technological solution, but also as an economist I am looking to know if there is an opportunity cost of accepting technology,” Dr. Suttles said.

The conclusion of the 5th Annual Women in Tech Symposium reinforces the interdisciplinary nature of technology and its prevalence in seemingly all aspects of daily life: from food and sustainability to health and entertainment. Human-Computer Interactions is only one of many fields that must be more inclusive in order to best meet the needs of the diverse group of people who rely on and benefit from it. The symposium shed light on the importance of increasing women representation in STEM fields and provided an opportunity for influential women in the community to share their work.

This article originally appeared in The Leaflet, March 31, 2021, and is re-posted with permission in the UC IT Blog.

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