Meet Dr Aisha Naseer, Director of Research at Huawei R&D UK

Aisha Naseer

Dr Aisha Naseer is the Director of Research at Huawei R&D UK, where she provides strategic direction on AI research and innovation as part of the company’s work around the development of responsible AI. She also leads several corporate discussion groups on strategic partnerships to help promote a thriving ecosystem. She is an innovative scientist and GDPR-certified professional, with several patents and research publications to her name.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’ve always had a passion for knowledge and a habit of relentlessly asking questions. As a child I remember asking so many that I was a bit of an annoyance to my parents and teachers. In class, I always made sure to sit at the very front so that all my queries would be heard and answered. As impertinent as I perhaps was, these habits developed my ability to stay focussed on topics that matter and committed to whatever task is at hand – no matter what others may think of me!

Currently, my biggest project consists of promoting diversity and inclusion in AI technologies, as these will play an integral role in the sustainable societies of the future. In the past, I’ve made impactful contributions to various global platforms, such as the United Nations and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and helped lead the global conversation around such issues.

I’m also a big believer in the vital role AI standardisation bodies have to play from the perspective of bias mitigation, accountability, and transparency, which is why I joined the British Standards Institution (BSI) as member of the International (ISO/IEC/JTC 1) and European (CEN/CLC/JTC 21) standardisation Joint Technical Committees (JTC).

I’m also proud to say I volunteer with the Women in AI (WAI) UK Leadership team as their Strategic Lead and Advisor, helping to promote initiatives and partnerships that encourage women involved in the field at all levels. In addition, I am also a founding member of the Editorial Board of the Springer Journal of AI and Ethics and sit on the MIT Sloan Management Review Responsible AI Expert Panel (MIT SMR-BCG). And I don’t plan on slowing down any time soon!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I never planned my career as such, but I have always been passionately curious, eager to do work for the good of society, and very goal-oriented. These were the qualities that set me on the path to where I am now, by leading me to complete my PhD in less than 2.5 years and maintain a positive approach even during tough times.

After my PhD, my enthusiasm in health informatics inspired me to pursue a postdoc, during which I had to deal with diverse stakeholders. I then put those skills into practice by going on to lead cross-cultural groups on diverse topics like AI ethics, trustworthy AI, semantic interoperability, health informatics, and more. And it was by building on those collaborations that I’ve come to participate in a number of industry bodies since, such as the EU AI Alliance, AI4People and the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems.

I suppose it’s a question of knowing which goals I wanted to achieve at each stage of my career, and then being able to visualise the next stage thanks to everything I had just learned. It’s not the only way to do things, but it’s certainly what worked for me.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

It’s unfortunately common for women to be faced with lots of difficulties in the workplace, especially when it comes to showcasing their achievements, asking for promotions, or challenging a colleague. Rather than correcting this state of affairs by being very upfront and outspoken, I’ve always believed it’s best to communicate these things with modesty and grace. But it hasn’t always been easy, and is something I’m not sure men have had to think about quite so much.

Moreover, as a woman who wears a head scarf, it has often been difficult to feel fully adjusted and accepted among high-flyers in Western society. People can be prone to judge you based on appearance first, and substance second.

Furthermore, being a wife and mother while pursuing a demanding career has also brought its own struggle, with some employers reluctant to hire and promote women who have children.

Despite this, I’ve never wavered in my commitment my core values of diligence and decency, as well as delivering tangible outcomes and meaningful results in my work. I hope to inspire the next generation to do the very same.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

As a woman from an ethnic minority, having my accomplishments recognised, appreciated, and acknowledged at a global level is something I’m immensely proud of. I’ve spoken at world-renowned events like the Technische Universität München’s Responsible AI Forum (TRAIF) and United Nations AI4Good Summit, and earlier this year, I received global recognition when I was selected for Women in AI Ethics’ “100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics List 2022“. I don’t know what the future holds, but when I cast a look back, it sometimes startles me to remember just how much I’ve achieved.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I would credit my values and my faith with a lot of my personal successes. From a values perspective, I always try to strike the right balance between thinking about what’s good for me and what’s good for the collective, something humanity hasn’t always got right. And when it comes to faith, I know its my belief in God that has gave me the strength to keep moving forwards in many uncertain times.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Anyone pursuing a career in technology needs to have an appetite for learning new things, as technology evolves at an ever-increasing pace. A good thing to do to keep up to date is to read the latest news articles and research publications, and you can also seek out courses and qualifications online.

For women specifically, I would advise them that while its important to adapt to any workplace, you should never compromise on who you are. It sounds cheesy, but I do think that being true to oneself is essential to achieve success, whatever the field.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

There are definitely still barriers facing women in tech, and there will be until enough global awareness of gender inequality is raised; this is a major structural problem which we all have a duty to change.

On an individual level, however, women in tech will be well served by qualities like determination and perseverance, and a passion for learning and producing knowledge. Leaning into softer, non-technical skills can be advantageous too, as every professional setting benefits from staff who can multi-task, communicate well, promote positive atmospheres and generally think outside the box!

None of these macro problems will be solved overnight, but we mustn’t forget that there are small but important things we can do to improve the here and now.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

It is imperative that companies guide and support women working in technology, by acting responsibly in terms of diversity and inclusion. One solution is for companies to provide talent enhancement and talent acquisition programmes, which can support women in the industry to progress and clarify their career paths. They should also offer internships to women in their early career stages that can lead to permanent roles.

Companies should also provide free online learning resources. As an example, Huawei’s ICT Academy offers video courses and tutorials on a range of technical skills, as well as qualifications for operating the most advanced, state-of-the-art technologies & tools.

Women only account for 21% of technology sector jobs, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would ensure a sense of responsibility towards women’s success was embedded at the core of all organisations, and that all businesses were actively working towards achieving gender equality, reducing the gender pay gap, and promoting more women to senior and executive positions.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I highly recommend they take a look at the Huawei ICT Academy, which offers a whole host of free resources on everything a tech professional could hope to learn!



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