INTERVIEW: UN information technology chief believes all girls should aspire to be ‘geeks’
Atefah “Atti” Riazi, the Chief Information Technology Officer of the United Nations, carries the following items in her handbag at all times – a screwdriver set, a Swiss Army knife and an iPhone.
“Of course, the iPhone,” she laughs, adding that along with Skype for keeping in touch with family while travelling, her favourite app is ‘Scratch’ a programme made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to teach children how to code.
“I tell my kids they can’t play a game until they write a game. That’s the one rule we have,” she says in an interview with the UN News Centre.
Ms. Riazi notes that her own personal experience as a parent, coupled with her role as head of the UN Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT), has given her a better understanding of the challenges the global community has encountered over the past 15 years in trying to inspire and engage women and girls in science.
If there’s one thing that we don’t teach women and girls, it’s confidence.
In an effort to promote greater participation of women and girls in science, the UN last year declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In doing so, it recognized that the full and equal access to and participation in science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages is imperative for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
Ms. Riazi has ten-year-old twin daughters, the latest generation in what she describes as “a family of strong women,” although she is acutely aware of the sacrifices that many of them have made.
“I was born in Iran, and many of the women in my family didn’t have access to education. My grandmother was an orphan who was married at nine – she was never allowed to go to school. I remember helping her to read. I was probably in first or second grade at the time.
“My mother was only allowed to go to school up to the third grade – and she always says her worst memory from her childhood was when her brothers all managed to go to school and she was held back because she was a girl. She had to stay home and learn to be a housewife.”
Her mother never forgot this experience, she adds, and, along with the man who became her father, Ms. Riazi’s parents were determined to change the status quo.
“I came from a family that really believed that girls and boys could do whatever they wished to do, whatever they loved to do. Although society still put pressure on girls – as kids the girls wouldn’t study math or engineering, the boys would, and it was simply expected that the girls would become teachers and nurses. But from the beginning I just didn’t like the voice that constantly told me that you could not be what the boys could be.”
In 1979, as the Iranian revolution took place in her home country, Ms. Riazi enrolled in the electrical engineering programme at Stony Brook University in New York. She was one of just three women in her class.
“When I came to this country I decided that I was going be an engineer because my brother was always told that he would be the engineer. I kept looking back at my mom and my grandmother – at what they couldn’t have, and I knew I had to change the course. So I took engineering.
“And in the beginning it was difficult for me. Because if there’s one thing that we don’t teach women and girls, it’s confidence. And I went through that first year of engineering thinking ‘oh my goodness, this is so difficult I just can’t do it.’ But giving up was not an option. I was a foreign student. My country was in turmoil. I couldn’t fail.”
Despite the difficulties, one day she experienced a lightning bolt moment.
“I learned the beauty of mathematics once I looked at it from a social physics perspective – that’s when everything changed. Going into technology, that’s great. But doing it for the material gains? That’s the wrong path. It should be about a bigger cause. In the technology sector, we have a lot of innovation but it’s not responsible innovation. We’re moving from physics to social physics – design engineering that has a social impact.
“And if you’re going to do engineering, if you’re going to do technology, what are you trying to get? Value for humanity, that’s the ultimate goal. I realised then, that for a long time, especially in the private sector, we had used technology to improve consumers and to improve products. But how could we use technology to improve human life?”
It’s been this fundamental question, she says, that has guided her throughout her 30-year career in technology, with stints as Chief Information Officer at New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (she was on the team that introduced the Metro card) and The New York City Housing Association. Three years into her role at the UN, she balances a workload that focuses on innovation but also, with the rise of the dark web and cyber-crime, protection.
“What keeps me awake at night is what I call the ‘revenge of technology,’” she says.
Everything we do supports the core work of UN staff around the world, helping them do their jobs better and more efficiently.
“The dark web consists of websites that you cannot find and you cannot access unless you’ve been invited to go to them. For a price, you can buy a kid; you can buy a person for their organs; you can buy drugs or weapons. Technology is amoral – we’ve created a species that is a lot smarter than us, and very soon, especially with artificial intelligence, it’s going to supersede our human mind.
“The 20th century was an incredible century – a man on the moon, antibiotics and the World Wide Web changed the world… But there are side effects – 20 million humans have been trafficked and 80 per cent of that happens on the dark web. Huge percentages are women. Nearly 30 per cent are children.
“So how do we deal with this revenge of technology? How do we protect our children? If you look at the impact of cyber-attacks and cyber wars of the future, where criminals could easily bring down an electrical grid in a country – think of that impact – hospitals, water, food, transportation, human life. And we are completely unprepared for that.
“So the UN, in our mission of peace and security and human rights and development and rule of law, we need to think about what does all this mean in the cyber world? Will the peacekeepers of the future be the peacekeepers of today? Will development, as we see it in the physical world, be the same or will it be complemented by the cyber world? We have to have big philosophical discussions around those issues because in the cyber world, government, rule of law and civil society doesn’t have much meaning. How do we create a positive force within the cyber world, because the negative force has been created already, within the dark web.”
Her answer? What she calls ‘the light web’ – a space where technologists can come together with the goal of global good.
“We as the UN have the ability, capacity and capability to operate both in the physical and in the cyber world,” she insists. “Things like bringing doctors, via the Internet, to villages that no one wants to go to or simple online education – bringing knowledge to parts of the world that never had access before.”
A technology strategy for the future United Nations by United Nations
In her role as Chief Information Technology Officer, she says, her daily job means finding ways to implement technologies that support the critical work of the UN.
“Everything we do supports the core work of UN staff around the world, helping them do their jobs better and more efficiently. In that way, ICT is critical to the UN's substantive work. Technology plays a role in all of the Sustainable Development Goals and we're looking forward to working with many UN entities to get them the tools they need to do their work, whether it's predictive data analytics, new technologies in the field like digital cash or telemedicine, or just a better way to quickly search for relevant UN documents,” she says.
“The UN is also the guardian of an unparalleled database of the world's socio-economic and political history. Opening this data to the public and collaborating with partners will help us make better decisions that support the work of the United Nations in international peace and security, human rights, international law, humanitarian aid and sustainable development.”
And what does she say to those who might critique that technological innovation is impossible in a bureaucratic organization like the UN?
“I think there’s always a chance for tech innovation and for thinking outside the box,” Ms. Riazi says.
“It’s true within governmental entities that it takes longer because you have responsibilities to your citizens or to the Member States. But for instance, the financial cuts which governments often face forces organizations to innovate through technology. And that’s exactly what we’re doing within the United Nations. There’s a lot of desire to modernize, to automate processes, to become more effective, so that when we respond to crisis we respond together. We can go from crisis reaction to crisis prevention – which requires united innovation in terms of the way we’re structured, in terms of the way we respond and the technologies that we use.”
Yet as the need for innovation grows, Ms. Riazi is ever conscious that technology remains one of the most underrepresented areas for women workers, particularly in management roles. It is something that saddens her, she says, as she points to three smooth bangles on her arm:
“These are my Grandmother’s bracelets. I remember as a little girl, noticing that she never took them off. And I wondered, ‘why doesn’t she take them off?’ And I realised that, for her generation, as a woman, that was all the wealth you had. You had no security – no financial security, no rights, at any moment you could be kicked out of the house. And if you were, you needed to have the little bit that you had to your name with you.
“I wear these to remember my Grandmother, but also to remind me that we owe it to women. To make sure that we reach a point where women have the same rights, the same access to education and that they can dream and become who they want to be.”
She cites multiple reasons for why she believes women are so underrepresented in technology.
“For starters, I don’t think we teach mathematics as well to girls. They say that by age 11 if you don’t teach a girl to love math they’re going to start to turn away. And there are so many pressures on social media. If you look at TV and movies, innovators, technologists and scientists are still viewed as ‘geeks’ and that negative image for women is not supporting them getting to that space. And when we’re not there, our voices are not heard.”
It is time for girls, she says, to take ownership of the word ‘geek’ and to wear the moniker with pride.
“My girls came home one day from school and one of them had a new pair of glasses. She said, ‘Mommy, someone called me a geek.’ And I said, ‘Wow, you are so lucky they called you a geek! That is fabulous, we must go celebrate. Because geeks are the smartest people.’ It’s all about positive reinforcement, because kids do say those things, because their parents do and because the media does. What is a ‘geek?’ It’s a person who’s super smart and super brilliant. That’s what I tell my girls.”
As for her advice to aspiring tech innovators, she says: “think out of the box, think in an innovative way.” But she follows that up with a challenge.
“Let’s look at the Sustainable Development Goals. In 15 years we don’t want hunger and we don’t want disease. We want gender equality, universal access to education, smaller cities, an end to climate change, cleaner oceans. Look at all of those – can you focus on creating water out of thin air? Design plants that don’t need as much water so you can help with drought? Can you create algorithms that help improve disease detection? These are the questions I have for the young girl starting her engineering career. I say, answer one of those things for me.”
And what should parents say if their daughters announce they want to work in technology?
She grins widely and offers the following advice: “Brilliant. Great choice.”