In the second edition of this interview, one of our FutureFest 2018 speakers, artist and UCLA Professor Rebecca Allen, discussed gender equality and what it's like being a woman in tech.
In your early career, you worked on various high-profile music videos. As a young woman, how did you network and forge these connections?
I was so passionate about what I wanted to do and bold enough to just forge ahead and not really consider the obstacles in my path. I loved music and I knew I needed sound for my films. So that drew me towards certain musicians. There were musicians who I felt aligned with myself as a visual artist, they were experimenting with new technologies and combining visuals with music. At that time, I worked at the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology. In order to create visual imagery with digital technologies you had to be in a research lab as there were no personal computers then. Many computer graphic and animation techniques were invented there, so that gave me a great advantage to work with musicians who were interested in this emerging field. Being a rare artist and a woman in this area was helpful as well. And I also had experience producing finished art works which was not typical for research scientists. I had to listen to a lot of no’s, but I just ignored them and forged ahead. You need a certain kind of confidence.
When inventing new things, there’s this general sense that you’re doing the wrong thing, but you have to instinctively know it’s right even when nobody else agrees.
Women struggle to gain recognition in the art-tech world to this day. You carved out a significant position in this space at a time when this was even more challenging. How would you encourage other women to do the same?
I knew then that technology and the computer were a new area of pursuit within art. I thought as an artist this might allow me to invent new forms of art that would give me leverage in the art and tech worlds. When I was studying animation, I discovered that women weren’t allowed to be animators at companies like Disney. I remember thinking, maybe I can use computers to work independently so I don’t have to work for these companies. Then maybe I can move into this undefined art-tech world, and by being a part of it from the beginning, I can establish myself as a new kind of artist. The tech world is still very masculine these days. But if you feel confident in your abilities, knowledge and talent, you have to try and block out all the things telling you that you can’t do it and ignore the criticisms you might face.
Were you very conscious of the challenges you faced in comparison to your male peers?
In a way, I was very aware of it but at the same time I pushed it into the background to stop it from intimidating me. I was also determined to be different from male artists. I thought, my work will naturally reflect my female perspective and it’ll distinguish me from my peers as there were so few women in this area. As women in a lot of fields know, you have to be really good at what you do, and you have to work even harder than your male counterparts to establish yourself. Because I was so passionate, I was motivated to devote my time and work harder. I was in a research lab filled with male computer scientists inventing programmes and algorithms. I thought, I could never compete with these exceptional programmers, I’m not a good programmer, so what can I do? I remember I had to scramble to find ways to differentiate myself. I took on new problems, such as human motion simulation and facial animation, that gave me an advantage and allowed me to prove myself. I learned to push technology in a new direction and to create new forms of art. Even now, I’m attracted to the newest technologies and I’m always considering how I can push them further and define new art forms.
How do you feel women’s role in the tech world has evolved since the 1970s?
It’s important for people from a variety of disciplines to form a machine’s personality. I’m disappointed that this hasn’t been the case to this day. Our technologies would look, feel and behave very differently if there were more of a diverse group of people behind them. Technology has always been conceived from such a male perspective and I think that’s detrimental. It’s out of balance if only one gender or one racial group is behind these machines.
A lot of women still feel very uncomfortable challenging the patriarchy and pushing for this change.
When women challenge the norm it’s seen as threatening and unattractive but when men do it it’s seen as bold.
I’ve had to be insistent about how I wanted to do things even when I met resistance. Not everybody likes that kind of attitude in a woman.
We are conditioned to stay in the background, not make waves. That’s why it’s so important to consider your own actions and question where they’re coming from. Challenging these perceptions within ourselves will help us drive the overall change. Even if intellectually you think you are beyond prejudices, you are conditioned, and as women we often can’t be help but be part of the problem as well. Consciously, we have to change.
If you want to hear more from Rebecca, you can watch her talk from this year's FutureFest