Many people focus on how to ‘get women to study STEM’ or ‘get women to stay in STEM’ — the answer is quite simple, it is not about giving women a voice — it is often about getting men to shut up long enough to listen. Ultimately, I think we will see a sea change in how many women apply to — and stay — in STEM when we have daughters who think “I want to be an engineer just like Mum”. It requires treating the current generation of women with respect in order for them to want their daughters to do engineering. I think that the level of aggression and bad behaviour over the last decades towards women in technology has led to the reduced number of women pursing it as a career. If you — as a mother — have been treated badly in an industry because you are a woman would you really encourage your daughter to follow such a career path? I think we have seen the answer — STEM has a very bad reputation and it’s something that we all need to work to address.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Catherine Mulligan. Cathy Mulligan is a Visiting Researcher at Imperial College Business School where she co-founded, with Professor Knottenbelt, the Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering. She’s worked with blockchain research — both economic and technical — since 2010. Cathy works to understand the impact of technology on industry, society and the overall economic structure of the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of how you decided to pursue this career path? What lessons can others learn from your story?
I’ve been programming since I was 10 years old and really loved it — when faced with the decision of what to study post high school my careers advisor suggested I should study law — since ‘smart women study law’ — my Dad told me ‘smart women study what smart men study — what they find interesting’ so I chose to study technology. I entered the telecommunications industry and had a lot of fun but started to realise that technology was starting to have a deeply profound impact on how our world worked and functioned — both economically and environmentally so I decided to pursue a Master’s and a PhD that investigated those aspects. Post my PhD, I ended up at Imperial College Business School leading several grants that were deeply focussed on the role of technology in the real world. I was lucky enough to work on projects across the globe from India to the USA/Australia and even the North Pole. My aim is to use my research to deliver the opportunity of digital technologies to everyone, while balancing the negative aspects.
Blockchain is really unique– it is truly the world’s first ‘digital economy’ technology in that you need to both have technical and economic knowledge in order to work with it effectively. When I saw it emerging in 2008/2009 it was an obvious area to do some deep research in.
What others can learn: follow your passion/interests — you never know where you’ll end up and you’ll never be bored at work because you are genuinely interested.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I am working on a few projects at the moment including something called “DataNet” that is investigating how blockchain, AI and other technologies might help redefine how telecommunications and data networks are built in the future.
In addition, I am a member of the United Nations’ Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation where we are investigating values, modes and methods of digital cooperation in particular how we should balance positive aspects against the obvious negative aspects.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes — there are so many actually; you only get to be as lucky as I have been with a lot of help — success requires a village. My parents never questioned their daughter was going to be technical — they supported me from the day I picked up my brother’s electronics kit through my entire career until today. My high school computing studies teacher introduced me to something called the internet in 1989 via an acoustic coupler in Sydney — that was incredible, and she encouraged me to think it was OK for a woman to be good at computing and maths! My head mistress ensured my school had as good as possible computing equipment despite it being a girl’s school. My lecturers during my undergraduate degree spent a lot of time ensuring that the women in my course (of which there were 9 women in about 190) never once felt different or ‘less than’ because we were women — Christine VanToorn at UNSW deserves special mention there as she has done that for over 20 years for numerous generations of female students and I never realised how much effort that took until I started teaching myself. Finally — Jennifer Zhu-Scott is a fellow woman in blockchain who gave me a lot of support and confidence.
There have been many others as well; I just hope I have been as inspirational and supportive as those people have been to me.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
· Blockchain represents a key shift in the way we apply digital technologies. Previous waves of technology, including IoT, big data, mobile have been about doing the same processes faster or ‘on the go’. Blockchain is about completely redefining how we do business at all. That holds profound potential across the entire economy
· I am actually very excited that blockchain has actually started to pass its “hype cycle” — people are starting to realise this is not a panacea for all the world’s problems but just one technology is a large toolkit. Now we are starting to pass that peak, we are able to fully develop proper solutions
· Personally, I am very excited about the potential of blockchain to redefine how research is prioritised, selected and funded — we can see the potential to dramatically change that and harness the ability of broader population in defining what the ‘important questions’ are to be researched, rather than just the usual channels.
· Blockchain and crypto hold the potential to redefine investments and make them more accessible — this however requires a lot of deep thought and work to ensure it is appropriate and reduces inequality, protects consumers and is not fraudulent.
· I am also excited about the possibility for the possibility to scale blockchain properly and reduce the environmental impact — the biggest challenges often offer us the biggest opportunities.
What are the 5 things worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
· Immature solutions are being sold as fully-thought through and mature. This is a complex technology that touches on both economic and technical issues — often simultaneously — many of the solutions being pitched in today’s world will need significant re-engineering to work effectively.
· The fact that the majority of the teams who come to visit or discuss me are mainly (young) men — there is really less diversity in blockchain than even in other areas of the technology industry. If smart contracts are going to be used to deliver services in society, they need to be coded by a diverse range of people — from all walks of life
· The lack of governance mechanisms that align with regulation and social norms — again our discussion of how society should function, be organised and managed when things go wrong is a discussion that needs to be held across all of society — not solely within technology “elites”. As our use of technology challenges our social contract, this discussion will become more and more urgent.
· Polemicized reactions to the technology — it’s either seen as the technology we have all been waiting for or the worst thing in the world. The truth — as always — is that it is a tool that can be used for good and bad. We can’t blame technology for the way we apply it, but it often challenges us to think through ethical and moral questions.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I led several projects around helping rural communities use technologies to scale in India, Malaysia and the rural UK.
I also was technical support on Beringia 2005/2006 — a mission to the North Pole to help Climate Change researchers gather data on the melting of the ice caps and bird flu.
Mostly, I would like to think my contribution to students’ projects is a contribution to the next generation — nothing is really more important than that for me and it’s the thing I love most about being an academic. They are the generation that really needs to pick the issues of digitalisation, social impact and environmental impact head on. We need to train them as best we can and give them enough confidence to lead in a world that is going to be changing dramatically from what we know today.
As you know there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the blockchain space to thrive?
1) Take your space. The men do, so don’t be shy about butting in in a conversation where you don’t agree with what’s being said — there are very few experts in blockchain, so all questions are valid
2) If you are not being listened to in your current role — move on — don’t waste time on people who don’t recognise you as an engineer or as competent in technology.
3) Just get on with it. Whatever you want to do — do it — it might not look like you imagine it in your head, but you will feel better about trying, which will give you more energy for the next thing you want to try. This is the approach I take in every new technical project I take on.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the blockchain industry?
The same as is required in the rest of technology industry — respect. Many people focus on how to ‘get women to study STEM’ or ‘get women to stay in STEM’ — the answer is quite simple, it is not about giving women a voice — it is often about getting men to shut up long enough to listen.
Ultimately, I think we will see a sea change in how many women apply to — and stay — in STEM when we have daughters who think “I want to be an engineer just like Mum”. It requires treating the current generation of women with respect in order for them to want their daughters to do engineering. I think that the level of aggression and bad behaviour over the last decades towards women in technology has led to the reduced number of women pursing it as a career. If you — as a mother — have been treated badly in an industry because you are a woman would you really encourage your daughter to follow such a career path? I think we have seen the answer — STEM has a very bad reputation and it’s something that we all need to work to address.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” William Arthur Ward
For those days when it seemed all the doors had been shut and I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I knew I had to move on.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would empower people to rebuild the economy via digital technologies — ones that gave individuals power not corporations.
How can our readers follow you on social media?