International Women’s Day is upon us. It arrives amid a period of not just political but technological disruption. There is a digital tsunami charging toward us that will change the way we live and work.
But there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the new technologies set to dramatically alter our lives will widen the existing inequality gap even further. And that includes gender inequality.
Just last year, a tech giant was forced to scrap an artificial intelligence employment recruitment tool because it appeared to dislike female job candidates.
Why? Amazon’s computer models were trained to select ideal applicants by observing résumés submitted over a decade. Most of those résumés came from men, reflecting the male-dominated tech industry. As a result, the unique attributes of female candidates were woefully undervalued by the AI job recruiter. AI, in this instance, was simply perpetuating the same gender discrimination and inherent biases of the past, but without a social objective to do better.
AI certainly has the potential to become a great societal equalizer. But that’s only if the technology is designed by all of us. If there’s a lack of diversity among those who program AI, then there could be a lack of diversity in the outcome of what that technology provides us. And so it’s never been more critical to ensure women have a seat at the table as AI is developed to ensure that biases built into the data are laid bare, identified and dealt with.
Rather than perpetuating past biases, we must issue a call on this International Women’s Day to demand that as many women as men are intricately involved in the development of AI and other revolutionary technologies.
Why is this so important? Because in the latest Global Gender Gap report, the World Economic Forum reported that only 22 per cent of AI professionals globally are female, compared with 78 per cent who are male. That’s a serious and dangerous gender gap.
Tech companies and industry leaders must do all they can to reverse that trend. A good start is ensuring more women and girls are encouraged to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – not just in Canada, but around the world. A second opportunity is to bring technology acumen to the industries that women dominate – health care, education and finance.
Here’s an inspiring but cautionary tale of the challenges girls face on this front. The Afghan Dreamers, an all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan, were awarded the Rookie Inspiration Award at the FIRST Robotics World Championship in Detroit last spring. The Afghan girls triumphed despite skeptical and unsupportive family members, limited STEM educational resources and discrimination from their local scientific community.
These attitudes are not unique to Afghanistan. Some of us have experienced similar attitudes right here in Canada. We may have been discouraged by our male science teachers, by guidance counsellors, in university course selection sessions or by our bosses.
But it’s a proven fact that having women in corporate boardrooms enhances a company’s bottom line. And so, too, will their involvement in developing AI and other game-changing technologies. The presence of women will undoubtedly lead to the identification of new problems to solve and innovative ways to solve them.
There must be a public and political will to do better and be better when it comes to gender equality in tech – and fast. The tsunami approaches, and women and girls must be ready to ride the wave to a more equitable society.
Cathy Cobey is the EY Global Trusted AI Advisory Leader.