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WOMEN IN HIGH-TECH

Interview With
Ioanna Lytra
21.11.2022

In this installment of our Women in High Tech series, I got the chance to interview my highly accomplished coworker, Ioanna Lytra.

Ioanna is a woman of many talents. She is a Senior Data and Knowledge Engineer at the Semantic Web Company with experience in Semantic Web Technologies and in various industrial and research projects. Ioanna is the author of numerous research papers, skilled in both project management and coordination, and mother of two.

In this interview, I asked Ioanna to share her journey, advice and experience to help put the spotlight on females in tech jobs –  with the hope to inspire more women into tech and leadership roles.

Semantic technologies fascinate me.They essentially blend artificial intelligence and human knowledge. Our semantic solutions are being used and implemented by an increasing number of businesses today to help them address their problems.

Ioanna Lytra

Ioanna Lytra

Senior Data & Knowledge Engineer, Semantic Web Company

Ioanna supports companies in setting up Enterprise Knowledge Graphs as well as leveraging them, in order to address challenges and provide solutions in data management and linking, semantic search, recommendation systems and question answering. She holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Vienna.
Interview Questions & Answers
Ioanna, you studied Electrical and Computer Engineering in Greece and completed a PhD in Computer Science in Austria. What motivated you to pursue a career in this field ?

I have wanted to work in technology since I was a little girl. I am originally from Greece and my teachers and mentors encouraged me to pursue a career in technology because I was a curious student. The thought of working in a lab appealed to me and led me to study Electrical and Computer Engineering. Because technology is such a diverse discipline, I can also look into fields like physics, maths, or biomedical engineering.  I like what I’m doing and would choose to study the same disciplines all over again if I could go back in time.

You have dedicated big parts of your life to research and work with semantic technologies. When did you first get in touch with concepts like the Semantic Web or taxonomies ?

My first experience with the Semantic Web was during my time as a researcher in Germany. I first started working with semantic technologies around 2016. Participating in European research initiatives, writing project proposals, working with students, and tutoring both Masters’ and Ph.D. students were all part of the process. I decided to join the Semantic Web Company because I am truly passionate about Semantic Web technologies and I wanted to stay in this field.

Speaking about passion, what is it that you like about semantic technologies ?
The thought of creating comprehensible systems to organize knowledge fascinates me. Semantic technologies essentially blend artificial intelligence and human knowledge. Our semantic solutions are being used and implemented by an increasing number of businesses today, including big, international corporations like Google, to help them address their problems. Naturally, this motivates me greatly to keep working in my profession, and even more so because it’s a continuous learning process.
What are the biggest trends you see in technology ?

Technology, in my opinion, is one of the main forces behind change in the world, but machine learning and artificial intelligence are definitely central topics of interest. Computer vision, machine learning, and natural language processing, which convert data in a wholesome way, benefit almost all industries by helping them make better decisions. Also, conferences that I attend usually focus on these main trends and discuss machine learning techniques in research papers to solve problems and ignite a discussion that goes way beyond the Semantic Web realm.

What do you think it is, that fascinates people about the concept of artificial intelligence ?

I think they like the idea of having intelligence that comes from non-human sources. The idea of machines that are able to think or talk has always fascinated humankind and because it also helps to make our lives easier. In the health domain, people profit a lot from it, also it provides automation at work or in the office, or at home, you have a robot to clean your house.

Artificial intelligence is also telling your dishwasher how to clean your dishes it was designed and programmed to make decisions for you that you would normally not even think about, like for example how much water and soap you need for a load of dishes.

What impact has technology had on your life ?

As a Greek citizen, the first thing that comes to mind is the Greek root of the word “technology.” It derives from the word ‘τεχνoλογία’ which is a synthetic form ‘techne’ (τέχνη) + ‘logos’ (λόγος). Techne means art, skill, or craft. Logos means word, the utterance by which inward thought is expressed.

Technology affects our lives in so many ways and on a daily basis. Starting in our homes, where robots clean our floors, make our coffee, or do our laundry or dishes. In the office, technology is intertwined with nearly every task we perform. Technology provides an opportunity to improve our daily lives.

For two years now we have been facing these unprecedented circumstances due to the global pandemic. How do you think Covid has affected the way we perceive technology?

I think the short and potential long-term disruptions from COVID vary. In general, people connect and collaborate more and have moved significant parts of their lives into online spheres. Be it to order groceries online, chat with your friends, or watch Netflix after work. I like the concept of remote work because now it is possible to work from anywhere in the world, and our efficiency or productivity is not affected by this new reality.

There is, however, another side to the coin. The pandemic has disrupted our labor market greatly, and lots of people have lost their jobs. The pandemic impacted women the hardest, especially those working in low-paying service occupations with high levels of stress. Parenting obviously plays a role here too. Women are oftentimes still the main caretakers of children and have to leave the workforce to look after their children, provide homeschooling, etc.

So, do you think that the pandemic has also added to the gender pension gap ?
I’ve read a lot of articles about this subject. It is a fact that women typically work part-time jobs and are paid less in order to meet societal expectations for moms and women in general. Part-time jobs aren’t paid that well and might negatively impact the future careers of women. I know that in my profession and in the tech field in general, it is not common to find a part-time job.

As a result, women must find other jobs that allow them to balance their personal and professional lives. Of course, society puts pressure on you to take care of the children and tells you that you are a bad person if you work too much. What many people still forget is that women not only work and raise their children but also shoulder most of the housework by themselves. Unpaid, of course. The gender pension gap is a result of this reality and causes women to financially co-depend on men.

What do you wish would change in this regard ?
To approach people from a place of empathy and understanding and to provide more possibilities for daycare. People need motivation and appreciation to work more and longer hours. I think that paternity leave was a step in the right direction. But raising children should be a democratic team effort that includes and benefits both parents.
Do you see a lack of women in technology ?

I see a big lack of women in tech, especially in Germany and Austria, and this can also be seen at universities or grad schools, where most students are male. When I was teaching an international program at the University of Aachen, we had lots of women from all over the world but very few from Central Europe.

Ioanna, how do you explain this hesitancy of Austrian or German women to pursue a career in technology ?

That’s a good question, and I obviously don’t have an answer for that, but I assume that maybe girls in Austria and Germany have been raised with this stubborn stereotype that girls are not good at math or science in general. If they think that their skills are inborn, it only makes sense that they are less likely to put in energy and hard work. This idea then translates to them only pursuing certain “approved” studies such as literature or history, whereas men have been encouraged to go into science, technology, or engineering.

How do you find balance ?
I find balance by structuring my days. I share the workload of raising our children with my husband. We both work 35 hours a week, raise our children together, and take turns picking them up from school or kindergarten. In the afternoon or in the morning, it’s more difficult to have meetings, and when the children are sick, someone has to take care of them, so organization of the day is the key.

My husband and I are also very privileged to live in Vienna, where we have tremendous support from the kindergartens my children go to. I wouldn’t be able to work more, though.

Thank you for your time and insights, Ioanna.
Thank you. I had fun.
Interested in more stories of inspiring women in tech? Hop over to my exclusive interview with Lulit Tesfaye from Enterprise Knowledge.
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