Maria Dubovitskaya

Dr. Maria Dubovitskaya On Closing the Diversity Gap in STEM

Dr. Maria Dubovitskaya
Research Staff Member at IBM Research – Zurich

Dr. Maria Dubovitskaya is a Research Staff Member at IBM Research – Zurich working on designing cryptographic protocols for privacy protection and applying them in practice. She recently gave a TED@IBM talk on privacy-preserving authentication technologies. Maria holds a Ph.D. in cryptography and privacy from ETH Zurich and has been granted several patents in the security field. She is a co-founder of IBM Technical Excellence Council R/CIS and a recipient of the 2012 Anita Borg Change Agent Award for promoting science and tech for young girls.

1. What do you do and what is your background in STEM?

I have two Masters Degrees, the first in Cryptography & Computer Science, and the second in Economics & Business Management. After my graduation 10 years ago, I started working at IBM in Russia. I then wanted to do a PhD, so I transferred to IBM Research-Zurich. I completed this degree two years ago with ETH-Zurich and IBM as a joint programme. Finally, I did a Post Doctorate, and now I have a permanent position as a research staff member; I’m doing research in Cryptography and Privacy.

My work involves designing new cryptographic algorithms and writing theoretical papers, as well as implementing existing crypto algorithms and doing pilots and prototypes – basically bringing research into practice. I’m also involved in a number of programmes that support women in science – and IBM has quite a few of them.

2. Why do you believe in supporting diverse STEM talent?

Whether we are talking about male and female, or a person who grew up in Kenya versus Iceland– a mix of talent broadens ideas for innovation. For example, IBM has a team of scientists in California focused on pollution in streams. When a team in Kenya heard about their technology they applied it to finding potholes in the streets of Nairobi. Same idea, but different applications based on different cultures.

This is why we need diversity in the workplace; we each bring our own perspectives to solving a challenge whether it’s for cryptography, or treating cancer.

At primary school the interest in tech is about half and half – half male and half female. Then, after high school more women drop out of the technology subjects which means they won’t go on to study STEM subjects at university. We are losing women at every stage along the way. I think it’s important to show women that STEM can be a natural career path for them, if that’s what they’re interested in.

The different stereotypes that might exist shouldn’t influence the decision to enter STEM, either – we should just avoid those stereotypes. That’s why I support the programmes where we invite a whole class from a high school into our research facility so they can see the work we do and who’s doing it.

It’s also important to get different researchers talking about what they do and why they love it – both male and female. It then becomes natural for girls to see role models on this career path.

3. What is the biggest challenge in achieving STEM diversity?

We have a chicken and egg situation. Girls and young females don’t see enough senior women in technology and management, which blinds them to opportunities  in a technical career. On the other hand, if we don’t have enough women graduating from STEM subjects, they will never achieve senior positions or be seen by younger talent.

Many experts suggest artificial enforcement, which I do not think is a very good solution. For example, I don’t like it when there are only a handful of candidates from which a female must be chosen- this gives an unfair advantage. Women should be hired because they have the right skills to do the job, not just because of their gender. Artificially improving the hiring chances for women will lead to under-qualified people being hired, and women feeling as though they’ve only been offered the job because they are a woman.

4. What inclusive hiring strategies do you see as key for closing the STEM diversity gap?

Companies need to reach out to schools, high schools, and universities directly to encourage boys and girls into tech from a young age. Here at IBM, they offer the P-Tech programme which encourages high school pupils to prepare for a career in IT and STEM. It’s definitely an important programme that should be supported.

We also need the media to show women in technology in a more natural way. We need to be shown that there are a lot of successful female professionals in technology, who are well respected and who like what they do.

I think mentorship programmes can really help too. I have both female and male mentors and they help me a lot.

Also, when a woman comes in for an interview, I think it’s very important to have a female interviewer on the panel. I always like to participate in the interview process for female candidates – they can relate to me, they can see that I’m happy and that it’s a good working environment.

5. What is your advice to diverse talent looking to join or progress within the STEM sector?

First of all, you need to establish that you would actually like a job in STEM and that you would be good at it. There’s no point joining the industry just because you think there may be more advantages for women.

Second of all, you need to find a mentor – a person on the career path ahead of you, but not necessarily in your sector. In tech, for example, we have a project management path, a distinguished engineer path, a people management path, or a technical management path. If you have mentors on some of those paths, you can begin to understand what the challenges are, and which path might be best for you. Mentors can also help you move within a company or take on a position/ assignment that you’d like to try externally. I moved to research for my PhD inside the company partially because of the mentorship programme at IBM, and it was a great opportunity.

Read biography books about great women in STEM or take a look at some of the TED talks given by women in technology. They might inspire you and become your role models!


Phaidon International’s Inclusive Talent series brings together Hiring Managers and industry professionals to address industry pipeline challenges in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

If you are a woman working in STEM, or are a company looking to hire more female talent, join us at our next Inclusive Talent event in Zurich.


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