– By Jhanvi Gudka
“Technology is the evolution of human biology. If its future lies with a single gender, what does that mean for our species?” – Ray Kurzweil, Futurist
The picture for women in tech in 2017 is as shocking as it is bleak. Here is a snapshot of the current situation:
• Women hold only 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley
• Only 17% of tech startups have a female founder
• 11.2% of software developers are female
• On average, women under the age of 25 earn 29% less than their male counterparts
These stats are well known and have repeatedly hit the headlines in recent years, yet the majority of the tech world still remains in the hands of men. What is perhaps more concerning though is that despite the proven socio-economic benefits of mixed teams, there has been a sharp rise in those advocating men’s rights in Silicon Valley. These groups believe that ‘the women-in-tech movement has gone too far’.
As technology continues to make us more productive and our lives more comfortable, the glaring gender inequality within the industry got me thinking about a bigger question. If women aren’t involved in the creation of the technologies that we use every day and it’s only men’s values feeding into their development, what does that mean for the future of the human race?
First let’s take an app most people will be familiar with: Tinder. Tinder has an all-male design development team, a majority male exec team and all male investors. The renowned advertising consultant, Cindy Gallop, argues that this is a huge problem. She says: “We have a dating app that operates at huge scale with a male-centric worldview. It’s built on the idea that there is only one key criteria of ‘dateability’ that is utterly superficial – looks.”
Admittedly, I’m not completely comfortable with the link Cindy has drawn because I believe that online dating has leveled the playing field for women to an extent. However there is definitely an underlying truth, namely, that the way we behave offline is mirrored online. If we continue to have companies that favour one gender and it’s only single-sex teams contributing to the development of new technologies, can we really ensure gender parity in the digital world?
Let’s take one of the technologies that tech experts believe could transform our world: artificial intelligence (AI). AI essentially relies on machine learning, which allows machines to respond autonomously after absorbing information and identifying trends from huge amounts of historical data. So, what do AI systems look like in practice? The recruitment process makes for a good example.
If a company has a history of hiring mainly white men from middle-class backgrounds then it is these traits that an AI system will look for when reviewing prospective CVs. Similarly, if the system learns to associate certain roles with a specific gender (e.g. programmers and men) then women might not even be put forward for some positions. If these patterns are relentlessly adhered to over the coming years then the future of our workforce in 2040 will not be one of equal opportunities.
AI-powered robots are another way in which societal sexism could become commonplace if women aren’t involved in their development. We are already seeing automation becoming gendered with the proliferation in female robot receptionists for example. It has never been more important for these gender choices to be questioned by a diverse team at every stage of the design process. The alternative as creative director at Tribal Worldwide London accurately summarises is that we “…put a load of men in a room to brainstorm a robot and [end up] with certain type of robot.”
Human bias is virtually impossible to stamp out completely but we cannot ignore that technology has the power to perpetuate these biases and deepen gender inequality. Women are needed not just during the design phase of new technologies, but also when it comes to the innovation and implementation stages. If we manage to achieve this then we can start creating technologies that reflect the values of the whole of society and really begin to shift gender dynamics.
With women making up around half of the global population and 45% of the world’s fastest growing companies expected to employ more smart machines than humans by 2018, things in the tech world need to change. As it stands, only 25.8% of Microsoft’s workforce is female, behind both Amazon and Twitter who are at 39% and 37% respectively. On a positive note though, we are seeing some of the big companies leading by example with Accenture committed to a 50-50-workforce gender split by 2020 and Google firing one of its top scientists after he argued that “the low number of women in technical positions was a result of biological differences instead of discrimination.”
Nevertheless, there’s still a lot more that can be done. We know that the perfect conditions for innovation are when new ideas, different perspectives and unique experiences coalesce. For that to happen though, we need to give our girls and women the same opportunities as their male counterparts, along with the confidence to question, critique and co-create the technologies of the future.