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The Journey of Women in Stem through Aruna Pattam's lens

Aruna Pattam is a Global AI Thought Leader from Sydney, Australia.

Aruna has been recognised recently for her contribution to AI including “AI Global Ambassador 2022” by Swiss Cognitive World-Leading AI Network, “AI Changemaker Leader 2022″ by 3AI a leading AI & Analytics community, “The Most Admired Global Indians 2021” by Passion Vista - Global Magazine. She spent the last 22+ years delivering analytics platforms, decision support systems and analytics solutions using data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Concurrently, she has held many technical and executive leadership roles in Commonwealth bank of Australia, Westpac, AMP financial services, SAS Australia and has implemented solutions covering fraud detection, anti-money laundering, credit risk, privacy, and compliance and so on. Her present focus is on how to use AI and Data Science at scale to solve business challenges across a variety of domains including financial services, insurance, retail, utilities, telco among others. She is a thought leader, speaker, mentor, blogger, vlogger with the goal of educating and providing awareness on AI to the business and wider community.

An area she is highly passionate about are Women's role in AI, Responsible AI and how AI is helping organizations meet ESG expectations. Her success story sheds light upon the role of education, perseverance and passion for the STEM field, especially for women. We hope this interview inspires you in some way.

How did your journey in STEM start? What brought you to the ML/AI field?

It was quite a fortunate accident. My professional education actually began with business administration and ended with an MBA. While I was interested in computers, I wasn't brave enough to try it. I had to move to Australia because my spouse (then my boyfriend) wanted to continue his higher education there. I was also interested in pursuing further study, and while selecting a program, my passion for computers reignited, and I enrolled in Post-Graduation in Computer and Information Science. That's how I discovered the STEM field. My professional career began with SAS, a worldwide analytics firm. As a result, I've spent my entire career in the field of analytics which has now evolved into AI/ML. In short, I've been working in the field of STEM for 24 years now. Around 22 years ago, I began my data analytics/AI/ML journey.

What is the biggest change you have observed in the industry now versus when you entered in the field at the start of your career?

I think the biggest change I've seen in the industry is the rate of change. It's been truly amazing to see how much faster progress is now than when I started my career in 2000. There are lot of people who are working in analytics/AI/ML field. We are seeing significant applications of these technologies. Big data and cloud computing have contributed to this change in progress, but I think it's the algorithms that are the true heroes. They keep getting better at an incredible rate, making all these applications possible.

The sophistication of analytics has continued to improve exponentially over time. There's also a lot more information available now than there was before. And not only data, but knowledge about the analysis itself, including what different techniques exist and when one should be used over another.

Also, back in 2000, it wasn't very common for an average person to have access to robust tools (such as SAS Enterprise Miner back then). And even if they had access, it was very difficult for them to learn how to use those tools. Thus, analytical capabilities were largely found in the hands of few "experts" who had access to expensive tools and training or consulting support.

Today, there are so many analytics tools out there that is free to access and also lots of free or affordable training programs and books. And many of the tools and platforms even offer interactive, one-click tutorials so you can get started quickly.

How do you think technology has empowered the women of today?

Technology has been a great boon for both men and women. For women, especially today, it's allowed them to be much more integrated into the workforce by giving them access to jobs that require computers and other technologies. They are also able to work at home, taking care of their children while having a job, which would have been nearly impossible decades ago when women were mainly stay-at-home moms. Technology has also provided an outlet for women's creativity that wasn't available years ago. In the past, fashion design, web design and other artistic fields were limited to those who had physical access to materials and tools of creation - which usually meant going out of house to a studio or shop. Now any woman can open her laptop computer and have access to most of the materials and tools she would need with a few clicks.

Technology has empowered women in so many ways, it's hard to list them all here. So, I think it's great that women today are empowered by technology in so many new ways. It's also helping them connect more with other women worldwide which is empowering as well.

How do you personally learn about the emerging technologies and ideas?

I personally follow LinkedIn, twitter, AI communities such as WAI, Swiss Cognitive, 3AI, AI4Diversity, MKAI, MIT, Gartner etc. I also read tech news and tech magazines. I also participate in conferences to get access to the latest technologies and share ideas with other people who care about these topics as well.

I don't think there is one single way of staying up to date. We are living in an era where information can be easily shared with people, therefore it is very important for each of us to spend some time and be up to date with the emerging technologies and most importantly their applications.

What excites you about taking up new technologies and the vast fields of AI?

If you look at the current generation of AI, algorithms have taken a major leap in terms of performance due to availability of large compute resources. We are also seeing a growing number of applications that benefit from machine-learning capabilities in areas such as computer vision, speech recognition and natural language processing.

In my opinion, what really excites me is the ability to solve real-world problems and make a difference in people's lives. It is not every day that you get the opportunity to work on cutting-edge technology that can potentially change the way people live their lives. I believe that AI has the power to truly disrupt and revolutionize the way we live, work and play.

With the number of problems in this world that need solving, it is extremely exciting to be a part of this exciting journey that is at the forefront of making a positive impact on people's lives.

How do you see the women in the STEM community grow? How do you involve yourself within this community and what change can we bring to have women take up technical roles?

It is great to see so many women moving forward in the tech community, or any career where they are a minority. While we are still a minority and are under-represented, I see it as a great start. My goal is to find a way to help the women in the AI & tech to grow and succeed. Specifically, being in tech events for women and participating as a speaker, sharing my knowledge, experience, my career path, challenges faced etc. If I can help by making more women join this field and helping them get to where they want, then I've done my job.

I think a big problem for the low number of women in tech is the lack of exposure, which can be seen as a lack of role models. If more women see that it's possible for them to have a career in AI & tech, then they would want to do so themselves. Also building upon this exposure is mentorship - either from senior level employees or from those who have successfully climbed the ladder. Finally, I find it important to provide a good support system and a strong network of friends and mentors who understand what they're going through, without being too critical. Because everyone else wants them to succeed just as badly.

All of this possible, by having a strong community for women such as Women in AI.

What advice would you like to give women who are pursuing their careers in the STEM field? What can set them up for success in the field?

My advice is to not let anything get in the way. This means don't think of ways you can't do something or why you shouldn't do something for whatever reason -- limits only exist if we set them. This industry needs people from all different backgrounds, and I would encourage women who want to be in this field to know that it's not just for the boys. ;)

Some helpful tips I can think:

  • Don't let other people determine your self-worth. If you want to be a successful woman in STEM, know that it will take work, but you should never allow anyone else's time frame or definition of success for you to determine your goals and validation.

  • Be confident. You need to be very clear about what you want, who you are and how you want to be treated. You should be confident in your abilities and unapologetic about the value you bring to your industry.

  • Find a mentor, find a champion. Having some kind of guidance will really help keep you on track as well as provide an opportunity to get advice and also practice professional relationships without risk or obligation. You don't have to go at it alone!

  • You should never compare yourself to other people, only present your work as it speaks for itself. That said, there are always lessons that can be learned no matter what stage you're in and someone has been there before you.

Lastly, if you're the only woman in the room, try not to let it intimidate or discourage you. Don't get discouraged by what you don't know; instead get excited about learning new things and push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Why is it important for more women to take on roles across the vast fields in STEM?

STEM is often considered to be 'male professions' and believed to be most suited for men; society has taken this view of these subjects because of the lack of females in these professions. It is important that more women take up roles in STEM, as it will allow other young girls to look up to their role models and have a better chance at pursuing their interests without being looked down upon by others.

Women in STEM professions will also be able to prove the stereotype wrong and show that they can be just as successful in their careers as men; we need more female role models in STEM to help break this stereotype.

If more women were working in the STEM sector, businesses would benefit from having differing opinions on their products / services which could lead to more innovative ideas.

As the STEM sector is increasingly becoming a part of our lives, women are needed in these professions to bring their distinct perspective on new inventions and technology.

To thrive in today's economy, businesses need all kinds of minds working on problems together - female perspectives are an important part of solving our greatest challenges.

What brought you to WAI? I found that women are underrepresented in AI and wanted to help increase the representation. I was looking for a women support group for AI and while searching in the web, I came across Women in AI community.

When I researched, I found WAI a global AI community with amazing women, who has been successful in AI career, and contributing to the Women in AI community.

The Women in AI turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to interact with many successful women from all areas. I have been able to learn from their experiences and hope that I can contribute as much as they do for this community.

What inspired me was the idea of working towards diversity and inclusion. The idea was not only to inspire young women but also to bring together the community and ensure a continued support system. It's very important for me to network with such an amazing lineup of women professionals, it helped me connect with them, ask questions whenever I needed help or simply to learn from their experiences.

It was great to see such a diverse group of women and the ability to connect with them and share our experiences. Meeting and learning about people who were passionate about what they did and taking the time out of their day to be present at this event was really inspiring.

I am a huge fan of women empowerment and want to give back to the community as much as I can.

What I liked about this community was that everyone was very open and accepting. Everyone wanted to work together to ensure that others were supported.

Any last thoughts or words of wisdom for our readers?

"If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space".

I think we should never be afraid to take risks and ask questions. We should share what we do and promote diversity. Do not hesitate in doing something if it is your passion. Do what drives you and not what everyone wants you to do. Be the change and never stop learning.

For someone new, I would suggest they network with WAI and other supportive communities, ask questions and try different things. It's a very supportive community so don't be afraid!

And for the veterans of the AI community, I would like to say that we should always take time out of our busy schedules, to stop and listen to people who are new so that we can encourage them.

And for those who have been a part of WAI or AI, let us not forget what brought us here, so be supportive and helpful towards the newer ones. Last but not least, remember that you're awesome! Never forget your awesomeness as this is what brings you forward and helps achieve your goals. You can do it!


We’d like to sincerely thank Aruna for her initiatives, work and perseverance!

If Aruna's story inspired you and you'd would like to join our community, let's be the change together


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