Impactful Learning Starts with Purpose and Passion
About This Episode
Learning is a winding road full of opportunities, challenges, and successes. And when one’s upskilling journey is driven by a sense of purpose and passion, the learning experience takes on a whole new meaning. We explore this topic deeper in this episode of The Edge where Antonia Forster, a Senior XR Technical Specialist at Unity, joins our host and Skillsoft’s CMO, Michelle Boockoff-Bajdek.
Together, they chat about her learning journey and how she uses technology in unique and meaningful ways to assist in her greatest passion: her advocacy work for women in tech and the LGBTQ+ community.
Interested in learning more?
- Listen to Antonia's TED Talk, LGBTQ+ and Polyamory in Animals: Yes, It's Natural
Michelle BB 00:00:07 The views expressed by guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Skillsoft. Welcome to the edge, the Skillsoft podcast, where we share stories of truly transformative learning that helps people and their organizations grow together. We are now in season three and it has been an amazing two years since we started on this journey together. And what drove us to tell so many stories then, and what drives us at our core today is commitment to purpose, to unleash human potential through learning. And when we live this purpose every day around the world and across industries, all of that unleashed potential starts to add up because it's not just about learning. It's about the impact that learning has on our people, on our businesses and on society. And on today's podcast, we are going to lean into a critical lever of that employee value proposition.
Michelle BB 00:01:07 One that benefits both people and their organizations, one that drives engagement shores, a retention, and ensures a competitive workforce. It's what we all want. Employees crave personal growth in their skills, in their careers, and ultimately in their fulfillment at work at the same time, employers crave business growth, and that's not only financial but growth that prepares the organization to be ready to meet new challenges head on. So let's talk about employee growth. There is a path we all follow when we learn something new, we're first aware. We become literate, we become competent, we become proficient, and then we master new skills. But the beauty is when we can couple the desire to learn and master new skills for ourselves and our companies with purpose and passion. And it's why I am so excited to speak with today's guest, someone who went from learning a new set of skills and mastering them, and then doing something radically new and completely innovative with what she's learned today will go beyond just skill attainment to discover how we can use our knowledge to inspire, to create and to transform.
Michelle BB 00:02:26 And Antonia Forrester is a senior XR technical specialist at unity, a development platform for high quality 3d and 2d games deployed across mobile desktop VR, AR consoles, and the web. And Tony is also a biologist who began work in zoos, planetariums, and then went on to emerging technology. She's a self-taught coder with specific expertise in immersive technology. She's the co-chair of the VR AR association, women's committee, a TEDx speaker and mentor, and a passionate advocate for women. The LGBTQ plus community and other important voices in tech. Antonia was shortlisted for nature's 2018 John Maddox prize and the women in it, 2022 advocate of the year award for her efforts in LGBTQ plus advocacy, including her work as director and producer of the award finalist world's first LGBTQ plus VR museum, Antonia. Welcome. Thank you for joining me on the edge.
Antonia 00:03:30 Thank you for having me really delighted to be here.
Michelle BB 00:03:34 I, I am so excited about our conversation today, and I think probably because I'm so interested in people's journeys, like how they went from here to here, and I know that your career hasn't necessarily followed a typical linear path. I don't even know if there was such a thing as a typical linear path, but you have had a fascinating journey. And by the way, I think you are the only zoologist I've ever had on the edge. And so my question to you is have you always had a passion for nature for the natural world, or did this love of biology of animals come from schooling and before maybe you answer, I think everybody, um, out there you need to go and take a moment and listen to Antonia's Ted talk when we're done here and state to the end, cuz there's a special surprise. So maybe you can kind of wrap some of this up Antonia in terms of, you know, your Ted talk was so inspiring and, and I just could, could see your passion for and love of the natural world in it.
Antonia 00:04:37 Thank you. Um, yeah, so I'd say really, I guess the enthusiasm for the natural world has always been there. Um, but in particular, BBC documentaries and natural history, television and media really got me into it. So obviously David Attenborough, but also Charlotte Lenbrook, who is a zoological presenter. Um, I kind of grew up consuming that sort of media reading a lot about kind of tropical environments and got really, really interested, particularly in animal behavior and also very interested in psychology and decision making. So looking at groups of animals and colonies of animals, particularly insects and how they make decisions as a hive mind was particularly interesting to me. So, uh, when I went to university, I studied zoology and I stayed on to do a master's degree specifically in ant colony decision making. I started out in a lab working, uh, with colonies of ants and trying to tease out the algorithms that they were using to make decisions.
Antonia 00:05:31 Uh, then I moved on to a lab that studied apiculture and beekeeping and, and their decision making. So that was my journey initially. Um, after a while I realized that research wasn't the best fit for me because it's so isolated. You spend a lot of time reading and writing, and while I'm interested in those things, I'm really passionate about connecting with other people and getting them excited about the information. So I moved into science communication and I worked in zoos as an educator. I worked with loads of different animals, um, from primates to penguins, to Limas, to butterflies. And I taught everyone from kids to adults, to PhD students about conservation and about animals. And I started talking at science festivals and doing tours and one topic that I really wanted to cover. So I created a talk about it was LGBTQ plus behavior in the animal kingdom.
Antonia 00:06:22 And that's what my Ted talk is on. If anyone who wants to go see it, if you go search for my name Antonia Forster, or if you search LGBTQ plus in the animal kingdom, Ted X, you'll probably find it or TEDx Bristol. Uh, so I delivered that talk initially at science festivals and science centers. And then I was invited by TEDx to give a talk there. And that was really important to me because I'm an LGBTQ plus person as well as a biologist. So I felt really uniquely positioned to address this misunderstanding people have when they say that sometimes you hear that LGBTQ plus is quote unnatural and that really isn't the case at all. First of all, that wouldn't mean it's bad. Lots of things that are unnatural are good, like medicine in some, in some ways, um, some medicine occurs naturally some doesn't, but it being natural or unnatural, doesn't make it good or bad in the first place. But also in the real sense, it is natural because we do see queer behavior in the natural world anyway. So I felt well positioned to address that. And that's what my TEDx talk is about.
Michelle BB 00:07:24 Yeah, no, I, I, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I, I learned a lot about sort of what we take for granted in terms of, or what we think is natural or normal really isn't and even your just basic example, like it's not natural to wear clothes or drive a car. And yet those are things that are normal and we we've, you know, we've normalized them as part of our lives. And so it was just a really great opportunity, I think, to just sort of take a step back, reflect and, and, and learn. So thank you so much for that. I, I really enjoyed it. Um, but what's interesting is, you know, when I did your introduction and we talked a, I talked a little bit about, um, your background, the reality is, is that right now you are not a zoologist or you are not, you are no longer, um, working in that space, what I'm interested in sort of this career move that you've made, why you made it an end, you know, what, what excites you about what you're doing now?
Antonia 00:08:28 Absolutely. Yeah. So, um, so, so I'm gonna sort of do a two part answer here because first of all, I wanna touch on what you just said about our assumptions before I move away from the, the topic of zoology. So yes, it's absolutely true. So, um, another thing that I touched on on that talk is that, you know, we use these terms like male and female, which are, are useful and normalized, but are simplified and don't reflect this kind of complex reality. And I think a lot of problems come from mistaking, the labels, which are simplified with the actual reality. So labels should always be descriptive and not prescriptive. Um, and, and particularly that's true when we look at the animal kingdom. So our assumptions might be, uh, you know, one example is that we'll always have both males and females in a species, but that's also not the case.
Antonia 00:09:09 So there are species where there are only females like the desert grass and Whiptail lizard. And there's, um, some species where most of the ones you see are female. So aunt and B colonies particularly interest me because the ones you'll see normally are all females and the males are only born in order to, to reproduce and and die. So, yes, I completely agree that, um, you know, we have to examine this world and, and kind of question our assumptions, um, in terms of my career switch, uh, really that was pivoted around the TEDx talk actually. So when I was invited to do that talk, I realized it would have enormous reach. And as a result, if I wanted to disclose my identity as a queer person in the talk, which I thought was important, given the nature of the talk, I'd have to come out to my family.
Antonia 00:09:54 And I hadn't done that yet at the time. And I didn't really know how they were gonna react. So before I gave the talk, I quietly came out to my family and it really didn't go well at all. Um, I was threatened, I was blackmailed. Um, I was insulted, I was bribed and I was essentially told that I'd be emotionally, uh, supported and financially supported only if I canceled that talk and I stayed in the closet and I didn't disclose my queer identity to anybody. So I had a really difficult choice to make, because it wasn't just about courage and standing up for what's right, but also finding a practical strategy where I'd be able to support myself and live independently because unfortunately working as an educator in zoos and science centers is not very lucrative. It's very, very difficult to kind of be independent in, in that sort of role.
Antonia 00:10:45 And I've found out since that this is not an uncommon situation. So I read a study, uh, done in 2020, which found that 35% of LGBT people felt they could rely on family and friends before coming out and only 20% felt they could afterwards. So it's very difficult. Um, and it's a problem faced by a lot of people in my situation. So I decided I would go ahead with the talk. I thought it was really important. Um, I'm really glad I did. It's received so much positive feedback and I get messages from queer people all over the world all the time saying that they've seen it and it's helped them, which it means the world to me and it's worth any kind of price I had to pay. Uh, but as a result of that, I had some practical, uh, limitations and challenges to overcome.
Antonia 00:11:28 So I decided to teach myself to code. And at the, the other reason for that is I was working in a science center with the planetarium. It's the UK's only 3d planetarium. So it's a 12 meter dome with two projectors showing 3d content. And I reasoned that I was, first of all, I started as a speaker in the planetarium, and then I became a producer of content. And I reasoned that if I could produce this 3d 360 content for a dome, then VR was probably similar. So virtual reality where you put on a headset and you're in a virtual world is kind of a 3d sphere of content. It's just that the sphere is virtual and around you as an individual. So I had that logic. It turns out not really to be true, but, um, it helped me anyway. Um, so yeah, I taught myself a program called unity, uh, which is a 3d development environment, essentially a sandbox to create anything you want and C shop, which is a programming language to interact with that program.
Antonia 00:12:26 So for example, you could place objects using unity and you could make them move around using C shop as a script. Uh, I used YouTube and, uh, some courses online, uh, mostly free. I think I paid no more than about, I can't remember very, a very low amount in the tens of, uh, of pounds rather than the hundreds for my, my entire education in technology. And didn't have any experience prior to that. And, uh, about six months later, ended up becoming a professional software developer. And a year after that, I ended up working at unity, which is a company that makes the software that I was teaching myself to use. And that's where I've been for the last two years.
Michelle BB 00:13:04 So Antonia, thank you so much for sharing your experience and, you know, we appreciate you being so open and vulnerable here. Um, I think it's incredibly impressive that you taught yourself to code and, um, it's such an amazing skill or set of skills I should say to have. And, and so, um, not only did you become a coder, but you did it yourself, it's so impressive. And I, I think that there are two parts to what you're able to do. So, so first is learning those very sort of task oriented skills of learning unity and learning C right. I mean, those are very task oriented, but you also drew on these things that we call power skills to stay the course. So motivation, perseverance, agility, problem solving. And so as you sort of think back on your own learning journey, how, how did you approach shifting course starting to code and maybe more importantly, what was it that, or what is it that keeps you going when you, um, are doing something so vastly new and different?
Antonia 00:14:20 That's a great question. Um, I just wanna say, I really love that you call them power skills, cuz I've heard them call soft skills. Um, and I find adding the word soft makes people take it less seriously. Um, agreed. So Margaret Hamilton who led the team, the program to the Apollo guidance computer that took Apollo 11 to the moon and landed met on the moon for the first time, she helped to coin the term software engineer to describe what she did. She was one of the first software engineers ever. And at the time the term wasn't taken seriously because software was seen as soft. It wasn't seen as a serious hard discipline like hardware engineering or um, physical manufacturer or, um, you know, even engineering structures or, or civil engineering. So I, I really find it ironic that we now see software as this prestigious and challenging thing, but we still see soft skills as something that's somehow less than, less than technical skills or an opposition to technical skills. And I disagree, I think both are absolutely necessary for a role, a role like mine, for example. So really enjoy the term power skills and I'll be using that from now on, I call them core skills, but yeah, really like power
Michelle BB 00:15:25 Skills.
Antonia 00:15:26 Um, so I don't think of myself as technical. My title is senior XRS XR means mixed reality. It means virtual reality, augmented reality and the space in between. So anything blending the real world and the digital world mm-hmm <affirmative> or, or creating new worlds. Um, but even though I'm a senior XR technical specialist, I don't think of myself as highly technical at all. Um, I'm very curious and I like to learn more and, and keep learning throughout my life. And that's really important for this technology because it's always changing. Um, sometimes I hear people say, all you need is determination and that's not the whole truth. You also need a computer and you need time. Mm. Learning coding is like learning any other language because it is a language. Um, and you just need time to do that. But the good thing is that all the resources you need are online and, you know, available, you don't need to go to a specific building or have access to a specific person or, uh, a physical material.
Antonia 00:16:22 It's, it's all virtual. So it's, uh, it's really accessible in that regard. If you do have time to do it. Um, for me, courses worked well because they were structured and they started from absolutely no knowledge, which is where I was. So the first step I learned was how to install the software, uh, and I really needed to start at that level. Whereas if you go in unstructured and use YouTube, now I'm able to do that because I have a bit of base knowledge mm-hmm <affirmative>. But at that point that wasn't working for me because I didn't understand how to get started. Um, and other pieces of advice I hear sometimes is, um, you know, try to code, break it, put it back together and see how it works, but that doesn't work for me that produces a lot of anxiety. Um, and I was trying to do that and I was very, very hard on myself.
Antonia 00:17:06 So I ended up choosing smaller challenges and, and seeking out lots of validation. That was something I really needed to keep going. Um, in terms of motivation, you can probably guess for my personal circumstances, I was pretty motivated <laugh> so that wasn't really a problem. Um, but the emotional resilience was actually the hardest part. It was very difficult to keep attacking these problems that looked very, you know, like a, like learning any foreign language. It was just gibberish to me at first. And so I had a lot of imposter syndrome around that. Uh, and, and that was overcoming. That was the most difficult part.
Michelle BB 00:17:42 Okay. So I wanna lean into this one because every, so many people that I speak with suffer from imposter syndrome, and we actually believe as many as 80% of people experience some level of this, although it does seem to be more prevalent in women than men. Um, I had a, I had a guest on jazz AMPA far. Who's also a TEDx speaker. Um, and she describes herself as this world class reframer and resilience ninja. And she describes imposter syndrome as a vulnerability vulture who sinks its clause into you. And I'll tell you, like, I got it bad at times, how, you know, and look, I've, I've sort of managed to figure out how to lean into my own strengths, which is really what I do when I am feeling that vulnerability vulture take over. How, how do you, how do you address it? How do you overcome it?
Antonia 00:18:36 Yeah, that's, <laugh>, that's a great question. Um, it's something I'm still doing. It's very common in software engineers, because I like to say engineers, aren't paid to know things we're just paid to find out. Um, we are very good at Googling stuff and that's basically my main skill is I can take a big problem. I can break a very large problem into small chunks and then solve each of the small chunks. Um, mostly by searching on the internet for answers. And it turns out it's not that hard. Um, you just have to take it piece by piece. So if the piece is too large, I don't understand. I have to address an even smaller piece and keep doing that until, um, there's a term in software engineering called rubber ducking, where you explain your problems to Anani object like a rubber duck. And what that really does is it forces you to understand the problem clearly in your head.
Antonia 00:19:23 I want this part of the machine to talk to this part and I want it to achieve this. And then that gives you the tools to, to search and find the answers. So, um, what I did at the beginning was when I followed a tutorial or I I'm very visual. So I use a lot of YouTube tutorials and things like that rather than, um, <affirmative> tutorials. Uh mm-hmm <affirmative> if I followed one and it didn't work, I had this negative feeling that, oh, I must not be good enough. I must be wrong. I failed to do this, but now I understand that. First of all, a lot of that content is community created. And while that's fantastic, mm-hmm <affirmative> and really one of the best things about unity is huge community. Not all of the teachers that are, you know, community driven will be a hundred percent accurate or the best teachers in the world.
Antonia 00:20:05 The information might be wrong. The video might be out of date. That's very common in this world that the video, if it's six months old, it might be completely out of date, or it might be the wrong level for you. If it's something very advanced and you're very new. So I made a rule to try 10 tutorials for any one problem before I gave up and tried to solve a different problem. And, uh, just <laugh>, it sounds ridiculous, but that brute force really helped because yeah, just if I ever solved before I got to 10, I'd say, great, fantastic. I'm brilliant. And if I didn't, I'd say, okay, well maybe this just needs a different approach. It's not me. It's just that maybe this problem I'm asking the wrong question. Um, I also have ADHD, so I have a very poor memory. And so one thing I do is I keep a document of the problem that I'm at and every fix I've tried so that I don't go in circles trying the same one. And what that means is by the end of a process, once I built a program, I have a document explaining exactly what I did because I write down every single step. So the next time I do it, I just follow my own document. I watch my own tutorials <laugh> cause I don't remember how I do anything.
Michelle BB 00:21:05 It's really strange. I, I love that. And I, I love how you sort of, you identified a problem. You went and figured out how to solve it. But you also in doing that, you gave yourself grace, which I think is phenomenal. Cause I don't think we do that enough. I think sometimes we're so hard on ourselves that, that, that does in fact put up, um, that barrier, that wall that we just can't climb over or get over because it's, we see it as too large, too big. And you've identified a way in which you can overcome challenges and yet it feels so simple. And I just wonder why it's something that, you know, I've never tried before and that's I'm I'm this is fabulous because now I have a new way of approaching problem solving.
Antonia 00:21:58 Oh, obvious. I happy if that absolutely. Also, I mean, something that, um, helped me was learning to lean into whatever worked for me. So I mentioned already coding is a bit like a language. So one of the things I did was print out code snippets and paste them into a book, physically glue them in. And then right underneath I underlined each part of the code and I said, this is kind of a word that means that. And this is sort of a word so equals means is, and just cuz you see an equal sign doesn't mean it's an equation. You're just telling the computer. This thing is this thing. So name equals Antonia. My name is Antonia. It doesn't mean it's an equation. You're not solving maths. So that really helped me to understand, especially at the beginning, I also draw cartoons. I write songs, whatever works for me because it might not be the same as what works for our other people. So, uh, like you said, I give myself grace and, and lean into whatever techniques work for me, no matter how unorthodox they are.
Michelle BB 00:22:51 Well, and so what you've just done and I think this is, this is fascinating because probably like so many people, by the way, my mother, um, my mother was a mathematician and then she went into computer science. So I have always equated coding and math, like, like they are the same thing and the way that you're describing it is more like coding is a language. And I don't think that assumption that to be good at coding. You have to Excel in math is therefore true. But again, in, in my mind, because that's the path that my mother took. You, you must be good at math, but you've, you know, you've dispelled that. Yes.
Antonia 00:23:30 Yeah. I would definitely say so. Um, I I'm reasonable at maths, but I think that's irrelevant to a lot of coding. And also it's worth saying that you can create digital content without coding, so you can create virtual reality and augmented reality content without needing to code at all. But I do think it's powerful to be able to code because you can, you know, you really have a lot of freedom to create something from nothing, which is amazing. Um, so it is a language completely true. It's uh, that's why we call it programming. There are many languages, you know, Python, C sharp, different programming languages. And the, again, I think people see the symbols, they see the brackets and the equal signs and the semicolons and equate that with maths, which makes sense. But it's not like that. It's, it's the most widely used language in the world, given the sheer number of devices.
Antonia 00:24:13 So being able to speak that language and create things, using a computer by speaking to it essentially makes you incredibly hireable. But instead of having verbs or nouns or adjectives, we have things like variables, which is kind of like a noun is a word or a method, which is kind of like a verb. It's a, it's a doing thing. It's an action thing. The only real difference is that it's a very precise language because computers are stupid. So you can't put the full stop in the wrong place. If you are speaking Italian or French and you get a word wrong, people will still understand you roughly, uh, computers don't like that. They can't fill in the gaps. They're not intelligent in that way. Uh, so you, you have to be more precise. Um, so I think of coding as a bit like a language. And when I'm coding something complex with lots of different scripts talking to each other, I envision it like little agents or people who communicate with each other.
Antonia 00:25:01 So you can think of, uh, one coding script as being a chef and one being, uh, a server and good coding and good, uh, software design would be something called, uh, encapsulation. So each agent should only know the things relevant to it. So the chef needs to know the ingredients, but the server doesn't need to know. The server just needs to know which dish came outta the kitchen and when, and who it's going to the chef, doesn't need to know who it's going to. So you need to think about what each agent needs, what information they need and which information they need to pass down the line to each other agent. That's the way I envision coding <laugh>. So that's why drawing cartoons helps me to understand who's doing what, what information do they need? And what's the most efficient way to pass that along.
Michelle BB 00:25:41 I, I wanna see some of these cartoons. It is. I, I just, um, no, but I, you know, I love your point that coding is the most ubiquitous language in the world. Um, and so, so let's talk a little bit about who can speak it and who is speaking it because I think you've talked, um, previously about a gender gap in technology and what I see. And I think what, what perhaps is a concern is that with an imbalance in industry where you have a prevalence of one gender of another, we see bias implicit or unconscious, you know, I worked, um, I worked at IBM and worked on AI technology and we, you know, we understood that when you train AI and when you've got these massive training sets, there's bias inherent in the training data, particularly when you think about applying for and receiving a loan and you wanna make sure that the software that does that is, um, treating everybody equally and fairly. But if you're looking at 30 years of mortgage lending history in those 30 years who was buying a house 30 years ago, largely men. And so I think that this is something that is in fact, a challenge that we have to surface and continually surface because I, I still think that that gap exists. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that, Antonia.
Antonia 00:27:57 So there's actually a digital divide globally. Men are 25% more likely than women all over the world to have basic computing skills. So manipulating data in a spreadsheet as an example, and then the higher up the skills expertise level you go, the wider the gap is. So when you look at technology patents, 88% of tech patents are filed by all male teams. And only 2% are filed by all female teams with about 10% being mixed gender teams. Wow. So it's really disparate, as you mentioned in, um, AI is a, is a great example of how that data and, uh, how buyers and data sets can be replicated by algorithms. So another example is recruitment software. Uh, Amazon used to use some recruitment software to look at who they should hire and to understand what a successful hire would look like. They based it on previously successful hires.
Antonia 00:28:48 But as I mentioned, mm-hmm, <affirmative>, uh, most software engineers in the us and the UK. And unfortunately, most countries are male. So their software started actively penalizing against resumes or CVS that had the word female or women's or girls like, uh, all girls school or women's chess club or women's math club. So it's really dangerous that these things happen. And it's also important to understand for organizations that are hiring, if they look for something like a computer science degree, which might seem meritocratic, you're going to select for a subset of people because, uh, currently only about 15% of computer science graduates are female. And as many reasons for that, it's not because girls or women are less competent by any means. Uh, I work with the youth group in Bristol, in the UK. And I talk to girls who are about to take a levels.
Antonia 00:29:36 Uh, some of them are about to go off to university and a lot of them say they'd like to do computer, but don't for a number of reasons that are completely valid. Uh, one of them said she experiences sexual harassment in school, and the same harasses are taking that degree. And there are a lot of them in that room and she doesn't wanna be the only girl in that room. Another one said she goes to an all girls school. They don't actually offer computer sciences. Of course, even though she's coding in her own time already. So it's a huge skill gap globally, but there's not equal access to opportunity. And there's many other reasons for that. If you have less money, you are less likely to have access to virtual reality and augmented reality devices. If you are in a marginalized group, whether that's based on your age or ethnicity or your gender, you are less likely to have the confidence required and the resilience required just because you might more easily feel that you don't belong.
Antonia 00:30:26 Even though that's incorrect, there's something called stereotype threat. Um, I dunno if you've come across it before, but it's the phenomenon whereby if you are in a minority, your performance is worse because you feel you're conforming to a negative stereotype about your group. So if you measure a girl taking a math test, which is a great example, because math is very, uh, objective in terms of its results. If you put one girl in a room full of boys and give her a math test, she will perform worse than if she's in a room with multiple girls and the fewer girls in the room, the worse her results will be. And you can also exaggerate that effect by saying, you expect to see a difference between genders, even if you don't say which bias, which around you expect it to be. And also certain visual cues like video game posters, science fiction, comic books, even stacks of soda cans have been shown to have a negative impact because there's the stereotype that women are not as good at maths or science or technology as boys, even though the reality is that's not the case. Girls actually slightly outperform boys, uh, until they get to a situation where that stereotype thread itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy
Michelle BB 00:31:33 Antonia, interestingly enough, um, we do this annual report Skillsoft's women in tech, and it underscores exactly what you were saying. So globally women today represent about 27% of the tech workforce, which is actually a huge improvement from where we started 50 years ago when my mother started coding and women were only 7% of the tech workforce. And we know that that women and, and we spoke to a number of them for this report seek growth. So 86% ranked professional development and training as very or extremely important. We also know to your point that it takes a lot longer for women to climb the corporate ladder and they cite all of these as ongoing challenges, right? So salary equity, growth, potential faith in their abilities. Going back to our discussion on imposter syndrome. Now I have to ask you work on a predominantly male team and you are the only woman on a, on this team in a technical role. So, you know, how do these findings we've seen in this report compare to your experience?
Antonia 00:32:43 In my last organization, I was actually the only woman in the organization that actively coded as part of my role, uh that's with 300 people. Um, and so there were, were women there who were technical, who used to code, but I was the only one currently using code. So you can see how that increases the pressure massively to kind of know everything. And, uh, in my current organization, as you said, I'm the only woman who is coding in my role with a, with a quote's technical role. Uh, we have women on the team who are project managers, which is technical in its own way and extremely challenging and not something I'd be well suited to doing at all. So not to belittle that role to be clear, but in terms of a coding role, I'm the only woman on my team who does that. Um, so unfortunately in a lot of these spaces, male engineers are perceived as the default.
Antonia 00:33:29 So I'm sometimes referred to as a female engineer, a female coder. And, uh, there's a great Twitter account. I like called man who has it all. And they sell t-shirts that say engineer and male engineer. And I really enjoy that. I wanna buy that from my team because there's no reason why, you know, female engineers should not be seen as the default, but unfortunately, being the minority, there is a pressure to be an ambassador. Uh, I'm also very out as a queer person, particularly after what happened with my Ted talk. I'm very passionate about queer activism. Uh, I'm also neuro divergent, as I mentioned. So there's this percept, uh, this pressure to be an ambassador, but particularly because of my gender, because if there are many male engineers in the room and one of them fails to do something, people think, oh, he specifically has trouble with it.
Antonia 00:34:14 But if I'm the only female engineer in the room and I can't do something, people might think, well, all women are bad at that. And that stereotype threat really increases my anxiety and makes me feel a lot of pressure, which itself can negatively impact my performance because I'm less likely to take risks because I don't wanna put myself out there and kind of perpetuate any kind of negative stereotype. So I do agree with that. One thing I really enjoy because of this is virtual reality, where you can have an avatar, which you embody in any way. So I really enjoy having virtual reality avatars that don't have gender. Um, one of my favorites is a stick of butter because, uh, it's meaningless and nonsensical to ask a stick of butter, what gender it is. And it means that people can interact with me without perceiving my gender and without perceiving me as different to the people around me.
Antonia 00:35:05 And I really enjoy that because I do think people treat me differently until I speak at which point, you know, there are certain perceptions based on the pitch of my voice and so on, but I can occupy space and I can be spatially around people and I can portray myself. However I want, I could be humanoid, non humanoid. I could just be in abstract shape. And I think that affects how people interact with me. And in the same way, I guess in my last role, I used to go by the name, Tony, because I thought people who haven't met me might perceive me as male. And fairly recently, I've been nominated for, for an honorary professorship. And so if I have the title, professor foster and I'm a senior technical specialist, I would hazard a guess that people might mistake me for being male. And that might make my life easier. I dunno, but I do find it interesting that, uh, yeah, people do treat you differently based on how you look and, you know, your age and your gender. Unfortunately, these things just bring up certain stereotypes of people. So I try and navigate those as best I can.
Michelle BB 00:36:10 I think it's with interesting and disturbing that putting a woman in front of a profession diminishes the perception of her role, um, or makes that woman seem like an extraordinary exception to the rule, because that should not be the case now. And today, it's just, it's so hard for me to internalize that even today, these are the things that we still deal with.
Antonia 00:36:40 Yeah. I definitely agree. It's it's a bit like saying, oh, you've managed to be an engineer despite the terrible disadvantage of being a woman. How do you manage that? And I'm like, well, how do you manage it? You know, being your gender. Like, it's a crazy question, but my male colleagues really don't ever get asked, you know, how do they balance work in life and how do they, you know, thank goodness I'm not a, a mother because there's a huge penalty to women who are mothers, as well as being in male dominated careers. Uh, but you're absolutely right. There's no reason that this shouldn't be normal. And I think it's really important to present it as normalized. So when I was still doing science communication and working in a planetarium, uh, I developed a talk that I taught with a number of schools and theaters and, and different organizations called the secret stars of the space race.
Antonia 00:37:24 And I dunno if you've seen hidden figures, but it's a great movie about the women of color who helped with the Apollo missions and with, um, different, you know, NASA missions. And it's kind of around that. I, I focus specifically on Apollo 11 and uh, female engineers and mathematicians, but at no point did I say we're going to be looking at women who were really important. I just said, we're going to be looking at mathematicians and engineers who were really important because when I did science in school, we had many lessons where we learned only about men, but it wasn't made exceptional. It was no one said to me, we're going to be learning about male scientists and boy astronauts, because that sounds insane, but that's really what we doing. And that's that, that Twitter, I mentioned men who has it all, all he does is gender swap things that we say about girls and women, uh, to be about boys and men.
Antonia 00:38:08 And it's just fantastically funny and slightly horrific. Um, so, so we need to, to normalize these things. And so that's what I did with that talk is I only mentioned just by chance, those are the ones who I wanted to feature female mathematicians. And by the end, I showed a picture of all of the female so-called computers before electronic computers were a machine. It was a, a job title, a AIAN, the people who compute were computers and, uh, at, uh, Jackson and NASA, most of them were women. So I showed her an image of all the female programmers, and I think people eventually conned on to what I was doing. Um, but it's also true that, you know, you mentioned these power skills and people who are marginalized, whether that's women or, um, you know, people who are black or indigenous people of color, people of any, uh, ethnic minority, um, also people who are queer or a different age, or have a different educational background.
Antonia 00:39:00 Anyone at all, who is either marginalized or just underrepresented in that space is going to bring something different and fresh and innovative to the table by nature of the fact that they are underrepresented, having diverse teams and diverse leadership has been shown to lead, to increased revenue and profits for companies because they're more able to innovate because they can see a problem from different perspectives. So it's worth, rather than thinking, will this employee assimilate into our existing culture? Do they have, what's called like a culture fit instead it's worth thinking about, will they bring something new? Do they have a fresh perspective? Will they help us innovate by thinking differently to our established culture? And that's really valuable as well, marginalized people, as you said, often have these power skills because of things we've had to overcome. So things like resilience, being tenacious, being determined at being patient and giving ourselves and others, grace. And, uh, that's not necessarily something you would put on your resume or CV, but it's something that marginalized people tend to embody.
Michelle BB 00:39:59 You know, I, I appreciate that. And I, I couldn't agree more with your point. This whole gender swapping notion is a very, I, I gotta go find the Twitter handle. That's great. I, I am really interested and I've been waiting until, you know, we got to this point, but you have to tell us about your museum. I think everybody here wants to know what is it? And, and how did, how did that sort of idea germinate? What, what got you thinking about a museum?
Antonia 00:40:26 Yeah. So I actually wanted to visit a physical museum that centers and celebrates queer stories and I'm based in the UK and I looked it up and, and it didn't exist. There wasn't a physical museum that specifically centered queer stories. I was really shocked by that and I don't have the privilege and the resources, the access, the money, the connections to build a physical museum. That's not something that's, I think I have access to do, but I know because of virtual reality, I can create any kind of space that I want. So I decided to build a virtual museum, which was the vision that I had. So I started building it just by myself, um, in my evenings. And eventually I started working with another developer who's based in Denmark, Thomas to kilts, uh, who's Danish. Uh, and now we've taken on someone who's helping us with production, uh, Albert Mills.
Antonia 00:41:15 And I, we created this, uh, museum, which is a virtual reality space. It's this really bright, beautiful space, which has 3d scans of objects, which are real life objects that belong to L G B T people. We've got everything from, uh, an African headdress to a Teddy bear, to a book, to a pair of wedding shoes. And we 3d scanned these objects and put them inside the museum. We also have digital artworks from queer creators all over the world. And each object is on a plinth, uh, along with the audio story to go with it. So each person described why that object was significant to them and what it means. We premiered first at open city documentary festival in London in September, 2021. Then we went to Queensland, uh, in Australia where we were fines for two awards at the Queensland XR festival. And now we are creating a new version of the museum, which also has biometric input.
Antonia 00:42:12 So we can detect the user's emotions. And that's premiering at Tribeca film festival in New York from June the fourth to the 20th. So that idea really came from a need. I just really wanted to create this. I wanted to go to a space that didn't exist. So I felt that I had to create, I was honestly really shocked that this is the first one of its kind, but it is it's the, the world's first virtual reality, LGBTQ plus museum and building, it has taught me a lot, uh, not just the technical side and also leading a team and producing something so large, but also it helped me to recognize my own biases because I assumed that when people submitted stories, they'd be about similar to mine. I guess we all assumed that our experience representative, I thought people would talk about trauma or challenges. Um, but that wasn't the case at all.
Antonia 00:43:01 Some people talked about their relationships or their friendships. One person talked about plants. Um, another person talked about O C D and neuro divergence. Um, it, they really varied massively. So I thought that was interesting that I even, I came in with this stereotype about, oh, being queer is everyone's gone through trauma. That's not the case for me, it's been traumatic, but certainly not the case for everybody. And also just because people are queer, it doesn't mean it's the most central thing about themselves. So again, one of my favorite stories, someone says, um, I'm a black queer polyamorous woman, I'm gender nonconforming. Um, I'm also a footballer and activist and a part mum. And I really enjoyed that because of all the things they really wanted to kind of talk about, you know, their plants and like what that means to them. I thought that was really interesting that yeah, being queer is one facet, but we're all we have things in common.
Antonia 00:43:50 We also have lots of other facets to who we are. Um, and so, yeah, I, I think that's really important. It's a bit like normalizing, as I said, female engineers, I think media that talks about being queer often focuses on that journey, which is important and that representation's important, but it's also really important to normalize it and to have queer people on TV and queer characters in books and shows, but not in any way that makes that the central part of their story. They just happen to be queer because that's how we are in life.
Michelle BB 00:44:21 <laugh> Antonia. Thank you so much. I, I have been enjoying this session so much and I recognize that we are close to time, and I think there's so much that we could talk about, but I do have to ask a favor. I do a three part question that I have asked since the beginning of this. And by the way, this podcast is, um, it was born out of a love for storytelling and an interest in other people's stories. So I think we kind of have that in common. Um, but this is a, this is a variation on what I have been asking my guests since we started two years ago at the beginning of the pandemic. And so it's a three parter. Um, first part, what are you learning right now? Or, or what have you learned recently? That's had an impact the second. How are you applying what you've learned, whether it's work, passion projects, life and third, what advice would you give people? So what have you learned? How are you applying it? And what advice would you give others?
Antonia 00:45:22 Great question. So I'm learning a lot of things right now. Uh, not least of all, how to produce a major exhibition for a film festival, but in terms of the broader life skills or power skills that I'm learning, I'd say I'm learning to embrace an abundance mindset rather than a scarcity mindset. Um, how to juggle lots of work without taking on too much and having burnout, because I've in becoming a software engineer, I went from, I can't do this to, I can do this. And I'm now trying to transition from, I can do this to, I don't have to do everything. I have nothing to prove. So I'm gonna be very selective about which opportunities I do take and which I don't, uh, the way I apply that is with a question. So there's this phrase, if you really want it, you'll find a way.
Antonia 00:46:04 And if you don't, you'll find an excuse and broadly, I think that phrase ignores things like privilege and access. It sounds very bootstrappy, but I U apply it to myself because I think am I trying to find a way to get this done? And if so, that probably means I really want to do this, or am I trying to find an excuse? And if so, maybe I don't really want this and maybe I should move away from it. So my advice is to do the things that make your heart sing and learn the things that really interest you, whether that's the things that other people feel are prestigious or not learn, the things that interest you in the ways that work for you. And also don't be self limiting. I often hear women say that they're not technical, uh, far more than I hear men say it, but, and there's also this full dichotomy that technical and creative are different, but the word technical comes from the Greek word, technical or tech a, which means art or skill or craft. It's the same root as the word technique. So someone technical is someone who's skilled in their technique, whether that's knitting, painting or coding. So don't put yourself down, consider the things you really want. Don't limit yourself and just choose the things that make your heart sing. Cuz learning is a, a lifelong journey and it is absolutely never too late.
Michelle BB 00:47:20 Antonia, I can't thank you enough for joining us today and sharing your story, bringing awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ plus community through technology and to you, our listeners, thank you so much for tuning into this. And every episode as we unleash our edge together, my takeaway from today and Tony has showed us just how transformative learning can be, especially when it's combined with purpose and passion and how to use your skills and knowledge to develop new solutions that no one has thought of before. And in her case, an interactive museum built on a solid foundation of inclusion to our listeners. I'd invite you to learn more about Antonia and her work by visiting her website, antoniaforster.com. That's A N T O N I A F O R S T E R.com or watching her Ted Talk on ted.com. Thanks again, I'm Michelle BB. This is the edge. And until next time, keep learning, keep growing be well.
About Our Guest
Antonia is a Senior XR Technical Specialist at Unity, with a decade of experience in public speaking. Taking a non-traditional career path (from zoos, to planetariums, to tech) Antonia is a self-taught coder with expertise in immersive technology (VR, AR, MR/XR, and hand-tracking); Co-Chair of the VR/AR Association Women's Committee; a TEDx speaker and mentor; and an award-winning advocate for women, LGBTQ+ people, and marginalized voices in tech. Antonia has been shortlisted for Nature's John Maddox Prize, the Women in IT "Advocate of the Year" award, and won the YTKO Breaking Barriers award for her efforts in LGBTQ+ advocacy, including her work as Director and Producer of the world's first LGBTQ+ VR museum.
About Our Host
As Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle leads a global marketing organization, focused on transforming today’s workforce for tomorrow’s economy. Since joining the company, she has been responsible for Skillsoft’s global marketing strategy, which includes generating awareness, driving preference, and building affinity for Skillsoft. Additionally – and perhaps most importantly – Michelle serves as the company's brand evangelist, helping to build a vibrant community of passionate learners.
With more than 25 years of marketing, branding, and strategy experience, Michelle has made it her personal mission to support the advancement of women in business. Prior to Skillsoft, she served as Chief Marketing Officer of IBM Watson, where she was instrumental in developing the first “Women Leaders in AI” program, which honors women who put AI to work across industries and around the globe. She also served as the global head of marketing for The Weather Company, an IBM Business, helping companies understand how to anticipate, plan for, and ultimately make better decisions – with greater confidence – in the face of weather.
Michelle is a prolific speaker on a range of topics, including the war for talent, digital transformation, and marketing in a post-pandemic world. She covers these topics and more as the host of Skillsoft's podcast, The Edge, now in its second season. She has authored countless papers covering a range of business and marketing topics, was at the center of Skillsoft’s leadership role in DEI through free “Leadercamps,” and has taught two Percipio courses on the Pink Pandemic and Public Speaking.
Michelle is also a founding member of CMO Huddles, a group dedicated to bringing together and empowering highly effective B2B CMOs to share, care, and dare each other to greatness. Michelle holds a Master’s degree from Simmons University and sits on the pro side of the Oxford comma debate.