Women in AI: addressing the impact of a worrying gender gap

Women in AI: addressing the impact of a worrying gender gap

Social 08 March 2023

A panel hosted by Esade’s Irene Unceta at 4YFN addressed the huge gender disparities in AI, both in academia and the tech industry. What is the impact of women’s underrepresentation? And what can be done about it?

Do Better Team

According to UNESCO, only 30% of academic researchers are women. The number drops to 11% when we look at senior positions. Nor is this vast gender gap exclusive to academia; figures from the World Economic Forum point to the same problem in tech jobs. Women account for less than 25% of AI specialists, only 14% of the cloud computing workforce, and 20% of engineers. The AI research staff at Facebook is only 15% women, while at Google this figure is just 10%.  

What happens when these huge disparities cut across a sector with such an impact on our lives? Why does it matter for the present and future shape of the world? And, most importantly, what should we do about it? A panel hosted by Esade’s Irene Unceta at the most recent edition of 4YFN addressed these questions with Emma Fernández, Atia Cortés and Paula Subías-Beltrán.  

Women account for less than 25% of AI specialists

The three panelists represented the perspectives of women from different generations in a sector mainly made up of middle-aged white men. According to Fernández, an independent member of the board at several companies who served as Senior Executive Vice President at Indra, gender representation “is a matter of the wealth of our society in the coming years, which will be increasingly related to the good use of technology.” 

For Cortés, a prominent researcher in the Social Link Analytics Unit at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and member of the Spanish Bioethics Committee, “Lately, we have seen many examples of technology designed without an inclusive perspective, which results in discrimination against certain collectives.”  

Equality is not only an ethical consideration; it also affects the quality of whatever you produce

Subías, who had the most junior profile of the three panelists, works as an advanced researcher and data scientist at Eurecat specializing in HealthTech projects while pursuing a PhD in bioethics. For her, equality “is not only an ethical consideration; it also affects the quality of whatever you produce. It contributes to avoiding bias in your products and services.”  

Start with the young 

According to Fernández, gender equality in tech starts with basic education. In Spain, for instance, only 20% of young people choose the technological track for their pre-university studies — of these, only 20% are girls. “At the end of the day, the stereotypes persist. Most girls think they need to work in something purpose-related,” she said.  

This is a recurring problem: tech is not regarded as a sector with purpose, a perspective that goes beyond gender considerations. Subías blames how we communicate what technology is and is used for. “It may be just a tool, but it’s a tool that enables you to achieve something; it definitely has a purpose,” she said. “But if it’s communicated with stereotypes,” she continued, “such as people working alone on their computers, we'll be showing a misleading reality." This deceiving way of presenting tech also applies to “the artificial separation of logical thinking from creativity.”  

Children never choose things that they do not know

For Cortés, initiatives encouraging young girls to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are key. “I was lucky enough to have women role models in my environment, so I would always look up to them,” she said. But she recognizes that not all girls have this, making it hard for them “to envision themselves achieving this kind of position.”  

Fernández summed up this problem succinctly: “Children never choose things that they do not know.” The race for equal representation thus starts at school, which requires upskilling teachers. Opening universities up to high schoolers with guided tours — a simple policy that is rarely implemented — would allow them to preview the wide range of available paths.  

When careers diverge  

Despite the glaring nature of the problem, finding solutions is far from easy. Quotas for corporate boards, which are often legally required to be at least 40% women, are one of the most widespread policies. In light of her long track record in senior positions, Fernández initially opposed this requirement, but today she has changed her mind and supports it. Nevertheless, she recalls that “boards are supervisory committees; the key lies in the executive positions.”  

According to Fernández, “Flexibility policies are a key factor, particularly for women,” in achieving these roles. Motherhood causes many women to fall behind in the long race to higher positions. As a senior academic and mother of two, Cortés is intimately familiar with this reality. “My productivity decreased in terms of being the lead author of papers. Motherhood is the point where men’s and women’s careers start to diverge,” she said. However, she was happy to see that universities have started to implement policies to address these circumstances. Transferring this approach to other professional areas would be highly desirable. 

It is not enough that women decide and talk about what to do

All in all, all three panelists agree that men need to be part of the conversation. “Sometimes, it is not enough that we, as women, decide and talk about what to do. We should work together to solve a social problem that affects everybody,” said Fernández. Though it is crucial to keep bringing up the topic, Subías worries that this kind of panel can result in backsliding on “emphasizing the challenge” for young women. “We have to normalize the role of women; we should be talking about the impact on our work,” she said. 

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