There is a growing debate about whether emerging technologies like artificial intelligence are going to be the force for good they are intended to be. While many of the potential pitfalls of these technologies, such as automation leading to job losses, are well known, another less explored aspect of this argument is who designs them. Key to this part of the debate is the startling lack of female representation in the tech workforce and what this means in the way tech is designed.
According to recent research by Nesta, only 13.83% of research papers on AI are authored by women: no better than in the 1990s. This isn’t just a problem in universities or laboratories. The research environment is often worse than the biggest tech companies: only 11.3% of Google and 11.95% of Microsoft employees who have published AI papers are female.
The danger of this goes beyond concern over gender representation in its own right, as there is increasing evidence of technology being constructed in a way that is inherently biased against women. For example, AI systems are already demonstrably less accessible for women and the Amazon Alexa finds understanding high-pitched voices more difficult than lower-pitched ones.
When stories of this nature are put in the context of a workforce that contains only 20% women, it is unsurprising that some develop a negative image of the technology industry and are discouraged from engaging with it. Not only is this incredibly damaging to female aspirations in the sector, but it also is in turn making technology less useful than it could be by limiting the cohort of people designing it.
We need to resolve the issues that prevent women working in AI and improve the overall image of tech so that it is seen as an accessible career for all.
Education has a huge role to play in addressing this. From a young age, we see that girls can be easily discouraged from studying subjects such as maths and computer science - the gateway to a career in AI and other emerging technologies. We know that confidence is an important factor too; despite achieving better results than boys, girls are around half as likely to consider maths as their best subject (33% of girls compared to 60% of boys). This trend continues into adulthood, with recent findings from the charity National Numeracy revealing that only 64% of women feel confident dealing with numbers and maths, compared to 84% of men.
In addition, traditional stereotypes can be off-putting and the so-called “brogrammer” culture can often be a barrier for girls who see that developers tend to be men, meaning they are reluctant to become part of that world, with concerns that either they won’t fit in or won’t progress as quickly as their male counterparts.
To address these, we need to start framing technology careers in a more positive light: focusing on their social impact and problem-solving nature, rather than specific technical elements. Instead of encouraging girls to become coders as an end in itself, we must show them how coding will help tackle society’s greatest challenges: climate change, education and healthcare.
We also have to start early. Schools must offer an integrated and holistic approach to education. We need schools to ensure the right training and support is available to build girls’ confidence and skills. This isn’t just about attracting more women into the tech sector, but also ensuring they can thrive when they get there.
Creating the right environment for girls to study STEM subjects and work in technology is fundamental to encourage greater female representation and thereby produce more role models. According to SheCanCode, a group which aims to empower women in the tech industry, the concept of “seeing is believing” works across the board: for example, female students are more likely to choose a major in STEM when they have a female professor. And in the workplace, women are inspired and can imagine themselves doing a job when they see other women in those roles.
Finally, we should aim to shift negative perceptions through the media and popular culture. We need to avoid male clichés of the genius computer programmer or tech entrepreneur. We need to amplify success stories of women who are using AI as a force for good and ensure they are reaching girls of all ages to show them what they can achieve.
While there have been welcome policy interventions to improve the situation, such as the government's £18.5 million investment to boost diversity in AI roles through conversion courses at university, the reality is that we need a strong and sustained commitment from the public sector, the private sector, schools, parents and the media to encourage a far greater number of girls to consider a career in the tech industry. Nesta is already doing work in this area through the Longitude Explorer Prize, which is helping to attract young people from all backgrounds into thinking about AI at a young age, but a problem of this significance won't be solved alone.
We are in the midst of sweeping technological changes that are redefining how we live our lives and what it means to be human. Half of the world’s population can’t be left behind as we go on this journey. It is essential that the female population is actively involved in the design and development of new technologies like AI, or the negative image of technology will only continue to grow.