We need more women in AI & data science: How can we make it happen?

We need more women in AI and data science: How can we make it happen?

Without diversity in the teams behind AI, data science and automation, we risk embedding bias into the tech. So what can we do? We take a look, thanks to this piece supported by Charles Sturt University, which has a huge range of study options available for those interesting in exploring new careers and opportunities.

Artificial intelligence, data science, technology and mathematics have all been identified as growth sectors for career growth in the future. However, a massive discrepancy still remains in the balance between men and women, both in the workforce and in tertiary education.

While one in three university students who study in STEM degrees are female, the proportion of women working in the field is much lower. Just 22 per cent of the workforce in artificial intelligence, for example, are women, according to the Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum. A figure that drops even lower in Australia.

The underrepresentation of women in AI and data science is particularly concerning, especially given predictions on just how AI will transform the future of work. Just prior to COVID, McKinsey and Co predicted that between 400 and 800 million individuals globally could be “replaced” by automation by 2030 – but then other predictions note that jobs losses will be “broadly offset” by the creation of new roles, especially for those with skills in AI and machine learning, big data, data analytics, digital transformation and process automation.

As Women in AI Education Ambassador for Australia Angela Kim told Women’s Agenda: AI tech is evolving at the “speed of light”, while much about machine learning models can be automated, human must be included in its creation – which means the potential for human bias. “That’s why teams must comprise people with diverse and inclusive backgrounds,” she says. 

Women’s Agenda spoke to Charles Sturt University, Associate Professor in Computer Science, Lihong Zheng, who has lectured in mathematics and computer science since 2008. Despite the gender gap in STEM slowly improving, Lihong finds that she is often “the only woman in the room” amongst her male academic counterparts.

Lihong believes encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM begins in early primary school and continues throughout high school. By the time women get to university, usually their interests are set, she says. It’s a theory shared by Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Harvey-Smith, who says girls’ STEM education needs to start at a very young age.

“Confidence is one of the most important things in getting more women into science, technology and mathematics.”
Associate Professor in Computer Science, Lihong Zheng

Lihong says in China, STEM subjects have a much stronger focus all throughout primary and secondary school, compared to Australia. As a result, students graduate high school with high “STEM literacy”, which helps them in tertiary education. Good teachers, she says, also play a crucial role in encouraging students’ to be inquisitive and confident in their thinking.

“Maths should definitely be compulsory. In China it is, from about year 1 to year 10, and students get used to the ‘logical thinking’ that mathematics encompasses. This would also encourage more girls to get into mathematics and technology.”

Originally from China, Lihong completed her MSc degree on Automation of Industry at Taiyuan University. She then travelled to Australia, leaving her young family behind in China, to complete her PhD in Computing of Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Lihong started her career at a time when there were even fewer women working in STEM, particularly in Australia. She sacrificed a great deal for her profession, and leaving her young family behind in China was a very difficult decision “These are the things you used to have to do in order to have a career in STEM as a woman,” she explains. “It was not easy.”

Lihong says it is the strength, resilience and perseverance of women that make them ideal candidates for careers in STEM.

“Women are definitely more persistent than men. They also have more tolerance and cope with challenges better. They have the attitude: ‘it doesn’t matter how hard this is…I will work until it is completed,” she says. “That is needed in STEM.”

Great mentors and having more women leaders in technology and science make it more accessible for girls to pursue degrees in STEM.

“Confidence is one of the most important things in getting more women into science, technology and mathematics,” she said.

Angela Kim believes that when it comes to getting more women more specifically into AI – a number of different players need to work together to create the eco system that will make it possible.

She suggests that corporate explore the option of quotas for hiring women into tech roles – ensuring hiring managers have clear KPIs and meashing and tracking gender parity goals. She said flexible work and part time positions with real career opportunities must also be considered.

Kim also believes that women-led tech and AI communities can also play a part, especially in promoting coding and other related workshops to young girl and women to explore the opportunities in these fields.

Finally, she wants to see governments working with different players across the ecosystem to provide everything from solid policy outcomes to support women in their careers, to financial incenvies and other forms of support to make diversity happen.

If you’re rethinking your career and considering further study, you can check out Charles Sturt University’s post graduate options here.

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