Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the most glamorous areas of Computer Science (CS) that deals in making machines ‘intelligent’. An ideal intelligent machine is a flexible rational agent that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its productivity. Due to the field’s technicalities, it comes as no surprise that there’s lack of gender diversity when it comes to CS in general and AI in particular. According to a research, women comprise over 49.19 per cent of the population of Pakistan, but sadly the number of women enrolling in Computer Science and Information Technology is just 14 per cent. Even with such low percentage of women in the field, it is quite heartening to see them making waves in areas that were once considered a man’s domain.
One such woman is Syeda Saleha Raza who has been associated with Computer Science for the past two decades. Her interests lie in learning, teaching and experimenting with AI. She completed her PhD from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in 2015 and joined Habib University as an Assistant Professor. Prior to this, she worked in software industry and academia.
This week, You! talks exclusively to Saleha Raza who represented Pakistan at Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing, held in October 2016 in Houston, Texas. Read on...
You! Why did you choose Computer Science?
Saleha Raza: My interest in mathematics led me to the field of Computer Science. After getting the exposure of CS, I found it a very natural choice for myself. I always enjoyed being in this field whether it is about working in industry for software development, teaching CS courses, or doing research in AI. Also, a big advantage that I see in this field is that it enables me to do a lot from home.
You! Can women achieve success in this field?
S.R: Why Not!. There is no reason they cannot succeed in CS. The problem is that many women themselves are not confident that they can excel especially in technical fields. Seeing the performances of their male colleagues put them under a lot of pressure. And since they are more sensitive and shy by nature, they are easily demotivated, which in turn affects their work. If they can stay positive, remain focused on their projects and work hard, there is no reason that they won’t succeed. No doubt, there are stereotypes in society too that also discourage women participation in STEM and is another main reason of their underrepresentation in Science and Engineering.
Also, we need to change the perception that it’s only professional work that can give a woman stupendous success. There are many women who stay at home and still intellectually contribute to the society in different forms. We should acknowledge their contribution too .
You! What has been the sole reason of your success?
S.R: It is important to stay focused in life and have an urge of continuous learning. Moreover, you should enjoy what you do so that your work doesn't become a burden for you. Then, as Paulo Coelho said in The Alchemist, 'When you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it'. I have always been blessed with some excellent people around me who were of great help.
You! How has the journey been so far? Did you have to overcome any hurdles?
S.R: Overall, the journey has been very smooth. There are hurdles, but they are there to be overcome. And when you overcome them, you feel more accomplished and mature. You have to prove your merit by constantly putting in more time and more effort. When I worked in industry, I used to be the only girl in my team most of the time. Though the trend is changing now, it still needs a lot more improvement.
Besides that, women have to play a key role at their homes. Balancing between work and home is the biggest challenge that I think a working woman face. I want to excel in my field, but, at the same time, I don’t want to neglect my home at any cost. This, at times, becomes difficult to manage and need compromises.
You! You have been part of different scientific/research societies (e.g. WiCSE and KarachiKoalas). Tell us about your experience.
S.R: Working for KarachiKoalas was the most enriching experience of my career. KarachiKoalas was an ambitious effort of building a team of robots that play soccer. We started that project at Artificial Intelligence lab, IBA, when I was doing my PhD and then we participated in Soccer World Cup of Robots (known as RoboCup Soccer) from 2011 to 2013. We did a lot of programming and research, travelled a lot and competed with teams from some best universities of the world. Undoubtedly, it gave us a remarkable exposure. We received a lot of appreciation from within and outside the country. At times, people were surprised that a team from Pakistan participated in such a world-class competition. It gave us a satisfactory feeling that we, in our humble capacity, tried to create a soft image of our country.
Habib University is committed towards the cause of promoting women in the field of Science and Engineering. In this regard, we have setup Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WiCSE) society at Habib that aims to bring more women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and make their sailing smooth. In the same context, I attended GHC of Women in Computing that was held in October 2016 in Houston, Texas.
You! How was your experience of being a representative from Pakistan at Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing?
S.R: Attending Grace Hopper was a wonderful experience. GHC is the largest gathering of women in computing and it was really motivating for me to meet and listen to many exceptional women belonging to my field. There were several meet and greet and receptions besides formal sessions and exhibition where I had the opportunity to connect with other females working in my area and share experiences with them. I must say that being in such a big gathering of outstanding women belonging solely to your field makes you feel good about yourself and your profession.
You! What are your future plans?
S.R: I want to continue my work in CS, principally AI. However, I am getting more interested in seeing the impact of AI in various disciplines of life. I look forward to do more interdisciplinary work in future. Moreover, promoting the education and research of AI in Pakistan is another thing that I am enthusiastic about.
You! Any message for the readers?
S.R: Let me reiterate the three lessons that IBM's CEO Ginni Rometty shared in the opening keynote of GHC ’16. She was of the view that you never let someone else define who you are. Only you define who you are! Also, she said that growth and comfort never coexist and last but not least, no matter where you are in your career, you work on something you're passionate about and work on something bigger than yourself.