Ruchi Sembey is a PhD researcher at Melbourne’s Monash University and has been researching into different immersive reality futures in education and training, ranging from virtual reality to augmented reality and extended mixed reality.
However, despite her success and pioneering research in the field, Ruchi’s path to the top has not been smooth sailing. During her earlier studies, she was one of just a handful of girls at university courses which meant her opportunities for support were found lacking.
Now at Monash, and supported by a range of fellow female women PhD students and academics, the path is smoother. Sembey tells B&T what it’s like to be a woman at the forefront of technology.
How did you come to be involved in tech, particularly at such a high and experimental level?
Ruchi Sembey: My interest in technology was sparked in the early years of my schooling — I was very curious and always asking questions , enjoyed problem-solving, and loved tinkering with gadgets by breaking and putting them back together.
I went on to study electronics and telecommunication engineering before specialising in UI/UX design in my postgrad degree in professional computing. I worked in the industry on a range of IT projects and was teaching into STEM courses for undergrad and postgrad students at Swinburne and Monash and delivered guest lectures on invitation internationally at FPT University in Vietnam.
So, despite starting as a professional engineer, I moved into human-centred computing over the course of my career because I was — and still am — fascinated with how humans interact with technology. Utilising the potential of technology to augment human capabilities and quality of life when designed thoughtfully and centred around the human is also close to my heart and a really exciting area of tech to be involved in. I wanted to explore this further with innovative, emerging technologies such as artificial Intelligence and virtual reality and decided to pursue a PhD to sate my curiosity.
Can you tell us about your research and its potential implications?
RS: My broad research area is emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and extended reality technologies, so think virtual reality, as well as augmented and mixed Reality. As technology becomes more pervasive, it is critically important that designers and developers understand who is going to use it, as well as where and how, to ensure that the software and system meets their needs.
My PhD research explores how technologies such as virtual reality immersive learning experiences can help software engineers better empathise with the users to truly understand their needs and challenges. My particular interest is in designing technology for neurodivergent people, and people living with dementia. It is super important to understand how technologies can be designed more thoughtfully with a deeper understanding of users to help improve their quality of life. Another objective of my research is to explore how innovative technologies such as Virtual Reality can be used more effectively for teaching and learning.
Many people we have spoken to for this interview series have discussed that there needs to be more support for women studying STEM in schools and universities. What is your opinion on the state of women in STEM in education?
RS: It is widely known that women are under-represented in STEM education — both in enrolment numbers as well as course completion and this disparity is even more profound when we consider women with disabilities, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, and the LGBTQIA+ community. So, the gender divide goes further back than employment and begins at the education level. Understanding barriers that prevent women from pursuing STEM education is very important and it is only then that the barriers can be addressed.
Speaking from my personal experience, there were no engineers in my family. In fact, I was the first in my family to go to university. There, I was one of just five girls studying engineering in a class of more than 50 boys. I know how isolating the academic experience can be in male-dominated fields of study. The majority of the professors and industry speakers who taught us were men and not having those female role models affected my level of confidence at times and made me question if I really belonged there!
It took me a long time to develop my ‘engineering identity.’ The classic IT stereotype is a 25 year-old , hoodie-wearing, anti-social dude. This perception of the field, and the language used to describe it, coupled with the lack of awareness about STEM courses and lack of support and community are some examples of the barriers that prevent women from taking up STEM courses.
Talks, excursions, or workshops can be a useful way to build awareness of STEM courses for school students. In the past, I have run interactive workshops for grade 7 and grade 9 girls to help give them exposure to technology projects and skills early on and before they have to make crucial decisions about their future. There is certainly a need for more support at universities so the women that enrol in STEM courses feel adequately supported to complete their education. However, support also means that they see role models within the field.
Plus, there need to be more industry speakers, apprenticeship, networking opportunities with fellow women and non-binary students and faculty members. Having positive and inclusive study experiences is also essential to ensure women get an equal chance of success.
What has Monash been doing to help women feel empowered around campus and are there any specific initiatives?
RS: I joined the Monash Faculty of IT for my PhD research in 2021 and it was refreshing to see Professor Ann Nicholson as the Dean, as well as the many other accomplished female academics and researchers in the faculty leadership team.
Monash has a range of initiatives including scholarships, mentorship programs, student groups, and clubs that champion gender equity. For example —the Women in Technology mentoring program pairs students with industry professionals to help them gain critical insights in the field and expand their professional networks for a headstart on their careers.
The Graduate Research Women’s Network is being reactivated this year to bring together female HDR students and build a community of support. It will run social and professional development events targeted at women and non-binary research students to help give them more support in the field. Initiatives like these provide much-needed safe spaces and opportunities to women students foster connections and have positive experiences that help them thrive in their studies.
What changes would you like to see in the tech industry to make women feel more empowered and more visible?
RS: Bias and stereotyping drives many young women away from STEM fields and this needs to change! The tech industry is still male-dominated and the gender imbalance causes women to face numerous instances of gender-related hurdles.
Women are still often not taken seriously, there is still a pay disparity, and maternal stereotyping stymies career progression. Mentoring programs, flexible work arrangements, and inclusive workplace culture are critical. Women often second-guess themselves when applying for new jobs, promotions, and awards, so having strong support systems and networks in order to make them feel empowered to take the next step, can really make the difference for women to achieve their full potential. More advocacy is needed for women at all levels and in all roles — whether it is teaching or research, entrepreneurship, leadership, or anything else. Women also need male allies that champion gender equity and take responsibility to bring about this change — both in their words and actions.
A key message to communicate is that IT is for everyone, regardless of gender, race, background. In my field of human-centred software engineering, there are a multitude of opportunities to be creative and innovative when solving real-world problems and to make social impact. We work in multi-disciplinary IT teams with researchers and industry professionals that have wide-ranging backgrounds covering everything from sociology and anthropology, to psychology, data science, design, and more.
There is a huge body of evidence about the benefits of diversity and the innovation, creativity, and unique perspectives that it brings. If we truly want a human-centred future with these emerging technologies, we need diverse experiences, diverse backgrounds and diverse ways of thinking. IT is for everybody and having multi-disciplinary, gender-balanced tech teams and workforce benefits everyone!
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