Closing the gender gap is still a pressing concern in the ICT industry. Many are of the belief that more needs to be done to help women thrive in the ICT workforce, and that it is not just a moral obligation to do so, but it should be viewed as an opportunity for the growth of today’s digital economy. Closing the gender gap in the tech industry is no easy mission.
“Part of the answer lies in education and promoting girls’ increased engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) subjects,” said ITU Secretary General, Houlin Zhao. “There’s been some progress in these areas, but we must strive to do more.”
Hidden biases and a lack of representation within the tech sector are reinforcing the global gender gap. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report 2019 revealed that 68% of the global gender gap has been closed. It also found that it would take approximately 108 years for gender parity to be achieved and 202 years to reach full equality within the workplace.
“More needs to be done to address gender inequality. This is especially important at a time when our workplaces are on the cusp of changing dramatically due to technological advancement in areas such as AI and blockchain,” said Gillian Tans, president and CEO of Booking.com.
Indeed, digital advancements are transforming various industries; they still pose potential risks to gender equality.
“Through hidden biases and the growth of a function which today severely lack female representation, we risk impeding positive progress in gender equality across tech and AI-dependent industries,” said Tan.
World Economic Forum found that around 52% of women perceive the technology industry as dominantly male and around 32% believe that gender bias is still an issue in the recruitment process. In addition, a recent study by the International Monetary Fund showed that the majority of AI-threatened roles are held by women, estimating around 26 million jobs held by females across 30 countries are actually at risk of being made redundant. On a global scale, it has been estimated that 180 million women are at risk of losing their jobs due to AI tech.
Another issue which is particularly worrying is that there will then be a huge deficit in the knowledge of many women when it comes to machine learning skills as the tendency for men to outpace them lies at around 85%. This goes about to show the urgent need for the industry to upskill women to make AI a more welcoming prospect for them.
“Striving for equality internally is not a PR exercise, but comes from the need to harness innovation in all its forms to safeguard growth. Today, technology impacts everyone; therefore, support for equality must begin within the tech industry itself by eradicating historical gender imbalances through proactive policies. Moreover, closing the gender gap in the industry will have positive longer-term implications for the achievement of gender parity across society through the technology we develop and the example we set,” said Tan.
Indeed, in the age of automation, men and women are both facing rapid disruption to their working lives because while emerging technologies bring with them significant changes to industries by revolutionizing processes, it also means that many jobs will be made redundant due to automation.
Women account for more than 70% of the workforce in social assistance and healthcare, while less than 25% account for machine operators and craft workers.
McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) predicts that by the year 2030, as an impact from the automation of various jobs and industries, there will be over 300 million jobs added to the labor markets of 10 countries (which were analyzed for the report). However, this means that there will be an even greater need for workers to become more tech savvy and this is an area where women are not at an advantage.
Technology companies need to internally address and re-assess how their culture might be discouraging women from joining or negatively affecting female employees.
Digital Economy Commissioner of the European Commission, Mariya Gabriel, stated that the digital world is “largely a man’s world, where women are underrepresented and have a hard time finding their place.”
In a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was revealed that certain barriers such as education, skills and socio-cultural biases are behind the digital gender divide. This division, according to the study, is due to stereotypes around gender which are reconsolidated through various aspects of society and the lack of role models for girls in the tech industry.
A recent issue which has been brought to the media’s attention is the reinforcement of gender stereotypes through algorithms and AI-powered devices, especially through voice-powered devices.
It has been widely argued that female voice assistants reconsolidate damaging stereotypes. Most AI assistants have been gendered as young women who check the weather, answer questions, play music and set reminders for consumers.
A study by the UN titled ‘The rise of gendered AI and its troubling repercussions’, read: “Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are ... docile and eager-to-please helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like ‘hey’ or ‘OK’. The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it. It honors commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility.”
Moreover, the Ministry of Economy and Business in Spain recently released a White Paper on the tech gender divide. It read: “Some biases are caused by partial data samples, in most cases without us being aware of them. By determining what information we consume and what remains hidden, these algorithms perpetuate the problem.”
Many are concerned that while the world is going through its very own digital transformation, because women are not as involved in the transformation, a whole new world is being built without the input of women.
In an interview, group director of R&D for Physical Verification at Synopsys, Afsaneh Behdad, stated, “It’s not just that I’m a woman. I’m a Middle Eastern woman… When I first came to the US, I attended the University of Michigan in engineering school. The building where I was taking all my classes didn’t have a bathroom for women.”
She added, “There were many, many challenges for women back then and today, and there will be challenges continuing. Part of the solution is taking away the challenges.”
Indeed, there is still a lot to be done before achieving gender parity within a male-dominated industry but many organizations, governments and educational institutions have put measures in place to upskill and empower women.
The ITU, for instance, has been working towards becoming a model organization for gender equality. They have been encouraging young women to pursue degrees in STEM subjects in order to empower them both socially and economically. The ITU is among many organizations that have been trying to even out the tech gender divide.