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Top women in tech: Steph Wright

Top women in tech: Steph Wright

Data and artificial intelligence (AI) enthusiast, Steph Wright, speaks to Holyrood Connect after being named in Holyrood’s Top Women in Tech 2023.   

She has been involved with Scotland’s AI strategy since 2019 and was appointed the head of the Scottish AI alliance, a partnership between The Data Lab and the Scottish Government, in 2021.  

Wright and her team are tasked with the delivery of the vision outlined in the Scottish Government’s AI Strategy, and they oversee the majority of support functions, including communications, programme and project management, and administration. She is also the co-founder of Diverse AI, a volunteer-led organisation working to support diversity in the field through collaborations, education, and research.   

She has specific experience in the healthcare domain and has a diverse background ranging from astrophysics to genomics in academia.  

  

What is your first tech-related memory?  

I guess it is playing games on a very old Apple Macintosh that my brother had when I was growing up in Malaysia. We also had a fantastic wood panel Atari which I spent a lot of time on. Those are probably my earliest memories.    

Why did you decide to go into tech?  

I am a bit of a polymath, to be honest. I'm interested in everything, from science to arts – always have been. I don't think I actively selected to go into tech. I think it's just something I ended up in. The right opportunities were offered by the right people at the right time.  

But I've always been a total techie. Technology in its broadest sense is essentially something I've always been interested in. It is exciting. It's fast-moving. There are lots of amazing things going on. Especially, on how it can enhance our lives as humans.  

I love tech, I love how it works, and what it can do. I just love ‘geeking out’ about tech and always have. So, when I finally arrived in the world of tech, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is my tribe, everyone's a total techie like me. I love it.’  

I've also always acknowledged that there are challenges around the culture of it and what groups, and demographics dominate the field, but I think that's for another conversation.  

And who would you say was your biggest influence to come into the sector or for choosing a career in the sector?   

I don't think I had any particular influence, to be honest.  

What about anyone you look up to in the sector?    

It's quite funny because people like to say, ‘Oh, yes, Jobs (Steve Jobs) inspired me’ and things like that. I don't have that kind of story.     

There are lots of amazing people that work in the sector. Too many to call out.    

But for starters, there’s Gillian Docherty, who was the chief executive of The Data Lab at the time I joined – she's incredible. We have our current chair of the Scottish AI Alliance, Catriona Campbell – she's fantastic. All my colleagues that I work with, Brian Hills who is the current chief executive of The Data Lab, and my team, who is full of fantastic people.    

To put one person on a pedestal is a very difficult task that I'm not sure is entirely fair, because I very much doubt that anyone has ever had one person that inspired their journey. I think it's a collective effort from lots of incredible people out there that are doing amazing things.

I mean, I'm sure some people have one person that dictated their entire lives but I'm a sponge.   

Did you feel supported/struggle to be heard during your academic years or later, compared to your male colleagues within the sector?    

I think this is a difficult question. I am of a specific personality that perhaps is not too bothered by things because I always do what I want to do.    

Whereas I wouldn't say anyone was actively not supporting me, at the same time, I don't think anyone was particularly supporting me either.     

I did astrophysics at university, and that's a very male-dominated field. I then went on and did European Film Studies for my postgraduate, and the gender dynamics changed. I've also worked in the arts, where the gender demographics are very different.     

I would say, in the world of academia, not specifically in terms of my academic experience, but in the world of academia, it is not just a gender thing. There are a lot of different kinds of discrimination that go on based on what people perceive.     

I've encountered academics that don't talk to you unless you have a doctorate and I'm sure I'm not unique in that experience. Also, because of my name, I guess. So, I abbreviate my name to Steph, because I'm actually called Stephenie - my parents spelt my name in a very odd way that everyone gets wrong. So, I always go by Steph and there are so many emails I get back from people assuming I must be a man – 'Mr Wright' – and I don't know if it is because they assume that anyone in a vaguely leadership-based position has to be a male because of the sector in which we work.  

 So, I think ultimately there are much wider societal and systemic biases that aren't specific to my experience, but I absolutely know that they're out there. And I think I'm quite fortunate that I've been at the blunt end of a lot of discrimination, harassment, or unpleasant experiences. But just because it might not personally happen to me, it doesn't mean that it hasn't happened to everyone else. I recognize that those experiences are out there and it's a problem.  

And why did you decide to focus on AI?    

Like I said, I don't think there was any active decision. It was all quite serendipitous. I was working in the world of carbon capture and storage and a previous colleague of mine had moved into The Data Lab and he flagged up a role that was coming up. So, I applied, and I was lucky to get it. So, I entered the world of tech that way.  

I initially managed to work in the healthcare field and experienced AI through that, because I ran the Cancer Innovation Challenge. One of the successful projects was using deep learning to assess rare cancers better. Then an opportunity arose to work with the government to develop a national AI strategy and I did that. Everything else has followed on from that.   

I mean, AI is a field I'm very passionate about. I think it has the potential to transform our world and our lives for the better. But there's a long way to go to make sure that it benefits all as opposed to the few and I'm very vocal and very passionate about that.     

That's one of our aims at the Scottish AI Alliance – how can we bring the people of Scotland with us on a positive AI future, and ensure that everyone is involved in the conversation? AI is a technology that will impact everybody and disproportionately negatively impact those already marginalised as well as those already negatively impacted by other forms of digitisation. How do we make sure that we don't leave people behind because they happen to be born in a different country, are of a different gender, or come from a different background?    

I'm co-founder of Diverse AI, a volunteer-led community interest company with a mission to support and grow diversity in AI to ensure a more equitable AI future for all. We need to make sure that there are more diverse voices in the room and around the table.    

So, what would you say are the biggest challenges the industry is facing right now?  

There are so many challenges in the industry right now. One of the biggest challenges is cutting through the noise. It's just been a bombardment about AI for the past 12 months and it's so hard for people to cut through the noise to really understand what's going on. There's a lot of hyperbole out there and at the same time, there's a lot of fearmongering. And I think the truth lies in between.  

There are so many challenges around AI. The key one being how to regulate it. There's been great progress in the EU with the AI Act. However, it's currently being derailed slightly because of –I've no doubt – big tech lobbying. Tech and politics have become intertwined because a lot of money is at stake.    

Getting the public to trust AI is also a huge challenge. All they hear is the dodgy stuff that goes on. How do we get people to understand that AI is being developed for their benefit with the right guardrails in place?     

It’s also very hard to keep up because it's moving at such a pace. One thing the Scottish AI alliance tries to do is to empower the people in Scotland with the knowledge to contribute to the conversations around AI constructively and critically. I'm a big believer in ensuring that people have that foundational knowledge – they don't need to know how to code, and exactly how different AI algorithms work – to understand the basic concepts of AI, what it can do, and the challenges that arise from technologies such as it.   

Lots of people don't realise that AI is all around them. They're already using it in many ways.   

There's also currently a fear of missing out for many organisations because they feel like they are losing a competitive advantage if they don’t do AI, but AI is not a magic solution. It is not going to solve all your problems. So, ask the right questions and ensure you understand the business problem that you're trying to solve. If you don't understand that and launch straight into technology, then you're going to often find that you've just spent a lot of money and time on something that isn't the solution.     

So, I think there's just a lot of challenges. I don't think they're insurmountable, but I think there's a degree of collaboration that's required. From a personal perspective, which is easy for me to say from here as I am not in a position to change it, I want us to not be so afraid of large companies.  

So, should digital skills be further embedded in school curriculums?   

Absolutely. I think digital skills are a core skill because we live in a digital world, especially in the Global North. Life is digitised and we're on a single trajectory to a digital future. We are currently not preparing children and young people for this world. I'm not an educator so I'm not going to tell people what they should or shouldn't do but digital skills are key, life skills are key, and meta skills such as critical thinking are 100 per cent key.     

We don't want to be a nation of passive consumers of technology. We want people to be active and critical technology users. I'm not saying that you need to know exactly how it all works but have a degree of understanding of how things work so that if someone tried to sell you something that's snake oil, you would see through that.    

Empathy is also key for understanding that what you are developing might have different impacts on people who don't look like you.   

These are life skills, and there's not enough focus on that. There's this focus on remembering facts. I’ve never been a big fan of exams, because I'm not sure that they test what you know but what you can remember, which are very different things.     

It's quite funny as before I became a parent I said, ‘Oh, no, they won’t have this tech and that tech’ but my kids have iPads. This is the world in which they live in and to a certain degree, they need to understand how to use it and that you can't live your life on a digital device either.  

Do you believe the digital skills gender gap has widened, remained the same or progressively closed during recent years?    

I don't know the figures but it's definitely still there. I'm currently on an international research group around it.    

But you can't look at the digital gender gap on its own. It is enabled by wider systemic and societal gender gaps, biases, and discrimination.  It was created by a wider societal, historical, and political system. You can't just tackle the digital without addressing some of the issues which enable a digital gender gap to exist.  

What will happen if the digital gender skills gap is not closed?    

It's a massive well of untapped potential. If everyone doesn't have equitable access to the same digital opportunities, you are ignoring half of the population.    

We always talk about the digital skills gap but if you have people there that can fill this gap, and only because of their gender, they somehow can't access it, won't access it, or are not encouraged to access it, then that's a huge problem. You can't keep moaning about having a gap without trying to do something to fix that.   

Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?  

 I hope that in five to ten years I have made further contributions to ensuring that AI benefits all and has more diverse people working on it.    

I also hope I will be able to continue to be in a position that allows me to make a difference around that. I know it sounds cheesy, but I really would like to make a difference, and use whatever position I have, whatever leverage I have, to make that difference.

 

Read next - Jude McCorry. 

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