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Men still dominate robotics, but new Pittsburgh group hopes to promote more gender diversity

Economic development leaders in Pittsburgh have long-viewed the robotics sector as key to the region’s future.
Keith Srakocic
Economic development leaders in Pittsburgh have long-viewed the robotics sector as key to the region’s future. Pictured is a CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform robot, known as CHIPM, performing a set of doorway tests at the National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh.

While the robotics sector usually figures heavily into economic development strategies for southwestern Pennsylvania, there’s an effort underway to make that vision more gender-inclusive.

The Pittsburgh Robotics Network is seeking volunteers to form a local Women in Robotics chapter. The group will be part of a global organization open to women, non-binary people, and allies.

“The world of what we would call deep tech or very high-tech industry areas such as robotics, [artificial intelligence], machine learning … is growing fast, and it tends to be male-dominated,” said Jennifer Apicella, director of strategic partnerships and programs at the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.

Women hold about one-third of positions at the nation’s largest tech firms, though they fill just one-quarter of technical roles. They account for an estimated 7% of robotics engineers in the United States.

“We are seeing a need for intentional outreach and engagement to other groups that aren't naturally flowing into that workforce,” Apicella said.

She said organizers of the local Women in Robotics group want to improve the workplace experience for employees in their industry who are not men while also increasing access to jobs.

“We have over 100 robotics companies that currently operate here commercially,” she said, referring to the robotics sector’s footprint in the Pittsburgh region. “And there are women working at just about every one of those organizations. They may be experiencing in their day-to-day not a lot of other interactions with other women in robotics within the culture of their companies.”

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Through the Women in Robotics chapter, those individuals could identify measures such as flexible hours and remote work policies to attract and retain more diverse employees, she said.

“We are seeing a lot more companies realize that the humans that do this work, the humans that build the machines, the humans that troubleshoot the machines, the humans that sell these machines or that run the teams – the humans are the ones doing this work, and they are the ones with the needs,” she said.

“And so I think any company that wants to create more diverse, inclusive and equitable opportunities has to become more insightful about what it is they're offering and what types of humans they're welcoming into their company culture.”

Apicella said the local chapter would likely launch programs early next year. Chapter members will determine which programs to offer, she said, though she expects there will be mentorship opportunities.

People who work in industry or academia are welcome to participate, as are those interested in pursuing careers in the field. They can sign up here.