How one Amazon scientist views the challenges facing women in computer vision

Amaia Salvador helped organize this week's Women in Computer Vision workshop held in conjunction with ECCV 20.

Amaia Salvador is a computer vision applied scientist within the company’s North America Consumer organization, though her team is based in the company’s Berlin office. She’s also an organizer of the Women in Computer Vision workshop that was held on Aug. 23 in conjunction with ECCV 20. Prior to the workshop, we asked Amaia about the challenges women face in the computer-vision field, what she sees as possible solutions, and what she hopes to accomplish with WiCV.

Amaia Salvador
Amaia Salvador is a computer vision applied scientist and an organizer of the Women in Computer Vision workshop.

Are there issues specific to the field of computer vision (CV) that make the field more or less likely to attract women?

Computer vision is a subfield of computer science, thus it directly inherits the same gender gap. If only 18% of the students graduating from computer science degrees in the US are women, how can we expect to have 50% female representation in CV? It’s not a matter of women choosing CV over other computer science fields or vice versa. The core problem resides in the series of circumstances that make it hard for women to pursue this type of career and make it far enough so that CV becomes an option.

Every opportunity to work with women provides a chance to learn from their experiences, and how they deal with the challenges they encounter.
Amaia Salvador

In computer science, or STEM fields in general, we lose women at every step of the ladder, both in industry and academia, and while the reasons vary, there are clear patterns that cannot be ignored. Harmful stereotypes, the lack of female representation, and lack of work-life balance throughout the tech community are some of the reasons that prevent women from pursuing a career in STEM.

What needs to happen to reverse the trend of women not pursuing careers in CV?

What is most important is to work toward removing social barriers. First, by educating our peers, our leaders, and, perhaps most importantly, our educators, to be aware of gender biases and give them mechanisms to fight against them. But where do these biases and stereotypes come from? I believe women are seen as the caregivers of the world, and we are raised in societies that tell us that’s one of the main things we are here to do.

It’s not only that women are discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM, but even if they choose to go for it, they often discover their careers are not compatible with their lives outside work. This explains why many women eventually quit their jobs or work part time, and why women are also less likely to hold leadership positions—this applies to most fields.

I believe we need to accept men and women are equally capable of caregiving, and that the default must be to assume equal responsibilities. This is why ensuring employees can maintain a successful career that is compatible with their personal duties should be a priority of every employer.

How important is mentorship for women in CV? Who are your role models in this field?

Mentorship is a powerful mechanism to enhance the experience of women as they build their professional careers in a field that was not created with them in mind. The field of computer vision is still falling short on success stories of women in CV, so it’s not surprising that many women feel that their career path is unprecedented. This translates into insecurities of all kinds, including the dreaded impostor syndrome. Being mentored by someone you identify with, and who already has been successful in the field, helps alleviate these issues. We are striving for more female leaders and role models, but they will not appear magically. The solution isn’t making it suddenly easier for women to get to the top, but rather about removing the extra obstacles and sacrifices that only apply to women.

We are fortunate enough in CV to have successful female researchers such as Cordelia Schmid, Kate Saenko, and Tamara Berg. Their careers have, and continue to, set strong examples. That said, to me it has always been more important to see female representation within my context. It's great to have big names, but I believe personal connections with women as you build your career are more important. I haven’t had that many opportunities to work with women, but I am thankful for every chance I've had, and that I continue to have with my female colleagues at Amazon.

Finally, what do you hope to accomplish with WiCV?

One of the goals of WiCV is to grow and maintain the community of women in CV, which is harder to do in a virtual setting since participants are less likely to meet and interact. That said, we hope that they will still be able to enjoy the workshop and get the most out of it. This will be the eighth edition1 of the workshop, and its purpose and goals have not changed much in the past five years. We are aware that our power to make an impact through WiCV is limited. We focus on the women that have already made it this far, and our ultimate goal is to enrich their experience and contribute to their success.

WiCV has turned into a community within CV that is growing every year. It is a place where women can share experiences and give advice. We host keynote presentations from renowned female researchers in CV, and we provide a venue where junior researchers can present their work and get feedback. We also coordinate with sponsor companies to provide awards to our participants so, for in-person conferences, they can at least partially cover the expenses associated with attending an international conference such as ECCV (which is an enriching experience for a junior researcher).

Each WiCV edition is coordinated by a different group of women in CV, and the number of applications that we receive to be part of the committee is growing every year. That’s an encouraging sign. I hope to see the issues women face in our field disappear but until then, WiCV will exist for as long as it takes.

1WiCV is an annual event, but was held twice in both 2018 and 2020 at CVPR and ECCV.

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