It’s a male-dominated AI world: The gender gap we urgently need to discuss

It’s a male-dominated AI world: The gender gap we urgently need to discuss

You’ve probably heard the dire warnings about how artificial intelligence is going to take our jobs in the future, alongside the more doomsday suggestions that robots could ultimately destroy the world.

The latter warning is a common one from Elon Musk, among other high-profile, male tech entrepreneurs citing scenarios about ‘The Singularity’: the point at which machines become more intelligent than humans. The former has come out in a number of studies, including one from McKinsey Australia recently that found automation could take up to 46 per cent of Australian jobs by 2030, and result in a 2.5 per cent unemployment spike.

On Women’s Agenda, we’re currently more preoccupied by something much more pressing: the lack of women involved in the development and creation of artificial intelligence, which is affecting the algorithms being created right now, and could have dire consequences for global gender gaps in the future. We’re also concerned at research suggesting women are at a higher risk of losing jobs to automation than men.

That’s why we recently partnered with law firm Hall & Wilcox to run a series of conversations in Melbourne and Sydney about the issue. And it’s why we want to keep this issue firmly on the agenda.

Just 22 percent of the world’s AI professionals are female, according to research by the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn. But according to experts contacted by Women’s Agenda, the number of women in technical roles in the field could be much, much lower.

The WEF highlighted the lack of women in AI roles as a specific concern in its Global Gender Gap Report, suggesting that the gender gap could actually get harder to close if the problem isn’t addressed, especially as demand for AI skills expands across different industries.

Then there’s the problem of how a lack of diversity involved in the creation of AI can see it reinforcing and perpetuating biases that already exist in wider society – part of the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ issue – and there are plenty of easy-to-see examples on how this is the case.

Dr Catriona Wallace, the CEO of FlamingoAI, likes to share one example that can be seen via a simple Google search on ‘unprofessional hairstyles’ – google it and you’ll see one race and one gender predominantly featured.

There are numerous other examples, including a recruitment tool Amazon spent years creating that analysed applications by observing patterns in the (mostly male) resumes that had been submitted to the company over the years. Can you guess what happened? The tool started preferencing male over female candidates, and even started penalising resumes that included words like ‘women’.

Catriona Wallace
Dr Catriona Wallace

Catriona Wallace was one of a number of experts involved in AI to recently join us to discuss this topic, alongside UTS’ Dr Fang Chen, Accenture’s Katherine Bailey, UniSuper’s head of Enterprise Data Transformation Francesca Meldrum, and Sarah Thams, who works in IT at Hall & Wilcox and is also the community manager for Women in AI.

Wallace spoke passionately about the benefits of AI, a field she came into through entrepreneurship. However, she still has her concerns about how the tech is being developed. “Not only are we seeing gender bias being coded into it, but the machines’ greatest impact when they get to full strength will be on women and girls,” she said, referring the fact many of the jobs that will disappear in the future are currently being done by women.

“That’s why events such as these discussions are so important, because there is an immediate need for strong leadership.

“We need to move into lobbying governments. We need to work better with consumers, and work with businesses who are making the tech and setting it up to ensure they are achieving good outcomes,” she said. “We need a diverse range of people involved.”

She also noted the numerous examples of AI being developed that are seriously improving people’s lives, particularly in the health and wellbeing space, and covering everything from assisting children with autism to aiding women escaping domestic violence.

All our experts shared the need to just get talking about, and exciting about, the topic of AI, whether you have direct expertise in the area or any desire to work in the field at all.

AI will increasingly affect all of us. We must commit to understanding some of its limitations, the desired barriers that should be put in place, and of course the ethical issues involved in its development.

“The absolute most important thing for the population as a whole is a better understanding on how this technology will work,” said Katherine Bailey, who has worked internationally on machine learning, data science and is currently the Natural Language Processing lead in Accenture’s AI and Automation Engineering Group.

And that means moving beyond the fears that commonly make the headlines.

“There is this fear that AI will replace all these people and all these roles,” said Bailey. “But that is not just AI. That’s the story of automation that’s been playing out forever, like how we don’t have telephone or lift operators anymore.

“The thing is with AI, you will always have human input. Humans are ultimately responsible.”

Katherine Bailey


Bailey is also concerned about the lack of diversity in how AI-related issues are discussed, particularly when the media continually goes to the same (often male entrepreneurs) over and over again.

“There are so many incredible women working in the field. There are also brilliant women presenting at tech and AI conference, but the general public just isn’t hearing from them.”

More women needed

While no one can fully predict just how AI will change our lives and jobs in the coming years, seeing more women enter the field can only lead to more positive outcomes.

It’s a challenge given women are already outnumbered in the tech-related fields that often lead to AI-related roles, like software development and engineering.

Dr Fang Chen is a thought leader in AI and data scientist who has worked on numerous AI innovations at multiple organisations. With 30 patents in eight countries, she was also the 2018 recipient of the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Excellence in Data Science.

Now a distinguished professor at the University of Technology Sydney, she’s been working in the AI space for a long time and has seen significant change over the years.

But unfortunately, little had changed on gender diversity during that time. She believes that consistent support, along with more focus on celebrating role models, are essential for ensuring women see what’s possible in the field – they’re out there, but they’re not always getting the airtime of some of their more vocal, male counterparts.

Dr Fang Chen

“Consistent support and mentoring is key to ensuring that women feel motivated to stay in the AI field and to overcome any challenges that come up,” she said. “Encouragement from other people in the field is what women need to feel as though their achievements, however small, are valid that these can grow into amazing things.”

Sarah Thams is a newcomer to the AI field. Experienced in software development, she made a deliberate decision to start learning how AI works and saw an urgent need to connect with, and inspire more women and girls into the field.

“AI is going to be affecting all of us and we’re not all middle aged, white males,” she said.

“We all come from different backgrounds. So the teams that are creating these tools need to reflect the society they are being built for. That’s not just about women. That’s about every culture.”

Thams believes that one of the reasons there are less women in the field is because on the technical side, it involves taking a step further than software development and standard engineering – which already has a leaky pipeline issue for women. In Thams’ case, she recalled her own experience being the first female hire at a software development company, something that could have quickly turned her off (but didn’t). A lack of women involved in IT in the first place can affect confidence levels and lead to feeling of ‘imposter syndrome.’

Still, she’s seeing change – particularly through her work with Women in AI which is pushing to help women work together to train as quickly as possible and get involved, while supporting and inspiring other women and girls to see opportunities in AI. It’s not just the interesting career paths on offer, adds Thams, it’s also the fact that there are huge salaries that can be achieved in this space.

Tech fields not the only pathway in

Francesca Meldum is a qualified architect and construction manager who then found her way into sales and marketing and later moved into an AI related role. She believes marketing and sales experience can be a great entry point into working in AI.

Her motivation for developing a career in AI stems from simply believing it’s where the most interesting jobs and growth opportunities are.

Making the shift, she said, has involved taking control of her own education, saying yes to opportunities and being willing to learn and adapt as she goes.

“To truly sell or market a product, you need to be able to understand and communicate its value proposition to decision makers,” she said. She adds you can also use such skills and experience to get yourself into a team or role that has a “technology bent”, and then iterate your skills and experience from there to make your way into AI. “Make it part of your ‘job’ to keep across the cutting edge of tech as it relates to your space or industry.

“You don’t need to know how to code, but you should aim to understand how coding and other core components of tech actually work.”

Meldrum also puts a positive, and more human spin on the role of AI in the future. She talks about being given tools to get better at our jobs and particularly in understanding client needs. She believes AI can make jobs more “human and exciting”, given they will rely more on creativity and empathy – functions AI simply can’t replace.

In summarising one of our conversations, Hall & Wilcox Partner Jacqui Barrett spoke about some of the positive outcomes from AI, but also shared some fears.

“It also has some terrifying potential impacts, and so much of that goes to questions of not having an ethical framework, of not having regulations to support what’s going on and worst of all, when women are not part of AI development,” she said.

“We all need to think about what our role is in encouraging younger women into AI is, and how we can create the circumstances for that to happen.”

This series of conversations is the latest in our ‘Disrupt the Status Quo’ series Women’s Agenda has been running in partnership with Hall & Wilcox. Check out our other conversations on how we can disrupt the lack of women quoted in the media, and how we can shift the status quo on cultural diversity in leadership.

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