Technology perspectives: why it’s time for female voices

With Artificial Intelligence set to displace jobs typically performed by women at a faster rate than men’s, a group of women were invited to discuss the growing digital gender divide. We asked three Australians how they might step into the male-dominated world of tech and develop their technical literacy to ensure that their future is both secure, and more gender neutral.

Professional woman analysing computer data

“Growing up, I never once considered a career in the tech world. Sure, I use technology daily, but I felt this area was reserved for boys” – Leigh, 28

Speaking with women recently, it is clear the world of ‘tech’ can feel a little out of reach. Social norms established since the first industrial revolution mean that young boys are pushed in the direction of classes like science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM), and girls into art and humanities subjects, and this has led to a very male-dominated tech industry.

It is imperative now that this disproportionate divide be bridged. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that women, more than men, are particularly vulnerable to technological driven job displacement, projecting that 11 per cent of jobs currently held by women are at risk. Furthermore, a recent McKinsey report asserts that between 3.5 – 6.5 million full-time jobs will be displaced by automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) by the year 2030. As it is specific tasks, rather than the entire role, that are set to be replaced with technology, it’s more vital than ever that women develop the skills and tools required to work alongside these technologies if they are to future-proof their careers.

“We can’t shape our world if we’re not in the room” – Georgia, 28

And it is not just the users of tech that deserve our attention. If we are to truly rectify the gender divide it is imperative we look at the people making the tech, as technology is a reflection of its makers and therefore builds in humanity’s perspectives, prejudices and biases. Unfortunately for women, most of the people populating the ‘design rooms’, are male, and this is contributing to what is termed a ‘female shaped absent presence’ in our world, which occurs when the perspectives or presence of a group of people or minority, are missing.  For women, it can be dangerous – crash test dummies have historically been designed based on the ‘average’ male body, and until recent decades, most medical research used male only data.

AI, the cornerstone of the current industrial revolution, is set expedite the growth of this absent presence. Whilst Hollywood would have you believe that AI is part of a distant future and looks a lot like a mechanised Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to take over our world, far from the truth, AI already permeates present day society, with virtual assistants like Google Home, self-driving cars and significant innovations in healthcare and medical imaging.

Simply put, while AI may not look like Arnie, it certainly is male. Already, AI facial recognition systems are found to report far higher errors rates when attempting to recognise female faces, particularly those with darker skin tones, and Amazon very publicly discontinued an AI recruiting software only two years ago which showed bias against women. In 2016, a system which had been trained using Google News articles, revealed signs of gender stereotypes – when asked “man is to computer programmer as woman is to x”, it completed the sentence with “x = homemaker”.

Women working at a computer together

“Learning about the gender digital divide has been a true awakening... for too long I’ve lived in blissful ignorance… and I was OK with that, until recently” – Georgia, 28

Speaking at a UNESCO Gender Biases in AI and Emerging Technologies webinar recently, Saniye Gülser Corat, Director of the Division for Gender Equality at UNESCO reported that only 22 per cent of AI professionals worldwide are female, with women accounting for only 12 per cent of AI researchers. Additionally, recruiters for technology companies in Silicon Valley estimate that the applicant pool for technical jobs in AI and data science is often less than 1 per cent female.

Corat suggests that “since technology developed by a homogenous group of individuals is more likely to contain bias, the lack of women in the industry is one of the main factors explaining the presence of harmful gender biases in today’s new AI technologies.”

Joelle Pineau, who leads Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research lab (FAIR), echoes the need for greater diversity in the field, and notes, “we have more of a scientific responsibility to act than other fields because we’re developing technology that affects a large proportion of the population." Amongst those familiar with the recent forecasts of female futures, a sentiment is emerging that now is the time.

“Knowing what I know now, I think all women should be supported learn more about the world of tech – we’re at a critical point in history” – Lydia, 28

Fortunately, these technologies are still in their nascent phase, and there is opportunity to correct the emerging gender gap. The UNESCO webinar uncovered a number of possible ways to move the needle, such as introducing and encouraging young girls to enter into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) learning in early life stages, inspiring girls and women to consider technology pathways via STEM role models, and by educating and upskilling women that are already in the workforce.

Artificial Intelligence is set to change the fabric of our world, and with women in a particularly vulnerable position, it is critical that we stem the growth of the ‘female shaped absent presence’ through upskilling and training, and start to bridge the digital gender divide.

If you want to bridge the gender digital divide and future-proof your world, our Future of Women at Work series which consists of the  Artificial Intelligence and Women Microcredential and Artificial Intelligence Policies will arm you with a fundamental understanding of AI and other emerging technologies, providing you with the digital skills and interpersonal approaches necessary to establish gender equity in our future workplaces.

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