From science classrooms, through university lectures, to office meetings, Emily Williams is used to being in the minority – but that’s never stopped her. Driven by her desire to push the boundaries in robotics, Emily is showing the way for women in STEM by leading the charge for Oxbotica.
Read more about Emily’s career achievements, what inspires her and what’s next for her and Oxbotica.
What made you want to join Oxbotica and what were you doing before then?
I originally studied Civil Engineering at Nottingham University before moving onto do a PhD. This led me into the world of mapping areas with no GPS, such as mining or tunnelling, and from there I started a joint venture to produce mapping equipment for underground mining robots. I’d seen Paul Newman speak at various events and was inspired by him as a British leader in my field. When I saw that Oxbotica had launched, I sent my CV to Paul and by January 2015, a few months after Oxbotica was founded, I joined as the first “external” employee.
What team do you currently work in and what do they do?
I work in the Systems Integration team which pulls together all the areas of development to make sure everything is working and suitable for deployment on both internal projects and for external customers. Simply put, we turn theory into product, and focus on making stuff work. Being able to turn something that might be quite proof of concept into something reliable and robust is the best bit.
What’s it like being one of few women working in the field?
It’s changing all the time. I have always done engineering so have always been in a class with guys – I was one of two girls in the school classroom and then at university one of five out of 200. It’s not different to what I’ve always known but, of course, it’s a challenge every day.
Meetings can be a challenge when you are the only woman in the room – being spoken over or having your ideas repeated back to you a minute later. You don’t overcome these challenges; you make incremental steps to ensure your voice is heard. You make people listen and work hard to achieve what you want. I find allies in the company and confide in them which helps others to see it and understand it – it won’t solve the problem immediately, but it will have a longer term impact.
For me, I’ve never had a female teacher or lecturer. I’ve never thought of myself as a role model, I just try to be the best I can be.
“You make people listen and work hard to achieve what you want.”
Do you think the industry needs to do more to encourage women into STEM then?
I don’t necessarily think there’s any problem in encouraging women into STEM – nobody ever told me not to do it. What I think is that we don’t keep women in STEM. After the first few years, women tend to drop off and move laterally within companies. They are often encouraged to use their breadth of skills over technical expertise, and move into areas requiring organisation and management skills such as project management. What we need to do is keep the women who are already in engineering in those positions and give them a strong engineering career path for them to take.
What advice would you give to a young teenager considering a career in STEM?
For me, I did what I liked in the moment. I loved science and maths at school so when I went to university, I found civil engineering was a good combination of these. I never thought “what do I want to be?”, I just wanted to do something I found fun, and that ended up being robotics. It’s all about doing what you enjoy because you will do it well.
My best piece of advice once you get into the industry is don’t back down if people are not listening, work harder and prove them wrong, prove that you deserve to be listened to.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s any problem in encouraging women into STEM - nobody ever told me not to do it. What I think is that we don’t keep women in STEM.”
What do you love most about working at Oxbotica?
One of the highlights of my job is that there is no real typical day, every day is different. You never know what’s going to come through at the start of the week, but my overall goal is that I don’t get stuck on the same problem twice. What I really love about working at Oxbotica is everyone’s attitude – everyone has a voice in the conversation. If someone disagrees with an approach then they can question it and make people stand by their decisions. I love that. Everyone can ask questions and challenge, and that’s the way we make things better.
What excites you most about the future of mobility and autonomy?
It will be awesome when we have fully autonomous projects operating for customers worldwide with different driving conditions and environmental factors. We have a lot of proof of concepts and small-scale fleets that work well already, but I will be so proud when we have systems that are run autonomously 24/7 worldwide with a team looking after a large-scale fleet of vehicles all from our offices in Oxford. That’s when I will know the SysInt team has succeeded.
On a personal level, I want to be the one taking decisions for Oxbotica, looking for ways in which we can improve ourselves and our product, leading the team to deliver world-changing tech in a product that becomes a business and household name.
“What I really love about working at Oxbotica is everyone’s attitude - everyone has a voice in the conversation.”