For women in artificial intelligence research, gender bias is a major barrier to success. Silicon Valley’s gender problem isn’t just a social justice issue however. Should the top positions in tech continue to go to men only, the tech world could be stifling its own capacity for innovation and threatening the future of AI research. The world’s top female researchers are redefining the field and enacting a sea-change in the way the AI industry think about gender.
The Tech World’s Gender Problem
Gender bias in the tech industry dates back to its inception. The historically male-dominated industry has long possessed an almost cult-like meritocracy, where employees are often encouraged to devote their entire lives to the success of the product. This creates an environment where discriminatory practices remain pervasive under the guise of a reward system; employees outside the standard masculine mold are often denied the same pay or promotion pathways as male employees, even when they meet or exceed job expectations.
In 2015, tech investor Trae Vassallo and several colleagues co-authored a survey titled “The Elephant in the Valley.” The survey investigated the experiences of female leaders and innovators in the tech industry, and the results were bleak; 84 percent of interviewees were told they were “too aggressive,” 66 percent experienced exclusionary practices, and a shocking 60 percent experienced sexual harassment. Just 18 percent of undergraduates in computer science in 2011 were women, down from 37 percent in 1985.
Gender Bias in Artificial Intelligence
Like the rest of the tech industry, AI’s gender bias is similarly pervasive. The artificial intelligence sector is expected to grow from $21 billion to $190 billion between 2018 and 2025, and the employment demographic is overwhelmingly male. The field has had a difficult time developing its female workforce, potentially due to the nature of AI research itself.
“Research has become very narrowly focused on solving technical problems and not on the big questions,” says Marie desJardins, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland. Also, desJardins notes the distance between the work being done in AI and the betterment of society in general.
"The field has had a difficult time developing its female workforce, potentially due to the nature of AI research itself." Photo Courtesy of The National
That gap could be turning women away from the field, since women tend to value their work’s contribution to their community higher than men.
AI’s diversity issues affect women as well as other gender minorities like transgender and non-binary individuals, and these diversity issues also continue beyond gender. “Cultural diversity is big too,” says Heather Knight, founder of Marilyn Monrobot Labs in New York City. Racial underrepresentation in the tech world compounds issues for women from minority ethnic groups. Gender and racial bias in AI are significant enough to have an effect on the way the algorithms themselves are developed, which could have lasting consequences for society if the problem isn’t met head-on.
AI Algorithms Reflect Gender Bias
If researchers use biased datasets to train AIs, gender bias may become embedded in the technology itself. A study conducted on image-recognition software in 2016 found patterns that reinforced gender stereotypes. When asked to associate images with either men or women, the algorithm consistently linked women to images of kitchens, reflecting or exaggerating the gender biases it perceived.
Since the 100,000 images used were collected broadly from the web, biases in media were reflected in the AI’s analysis. In a similar case, Microsoft’s conversational AI “Tay” took in data from Twitter conversations and began repeating racist and misogynist phrases in less than twenty-four hours.
AIs will need to be closely managed to avoid mirroring the gender biases present in today’s society.
Biases in Technology and Media
The link between gender discrimination and artificial intelligence doesn’t end in employment statistics. Gender bias is implicit in AI itself. “There’s a clear bias in the way women are depicted in science fiction,” says Alex Haslam, media relations specialist for HowtoWatch.com. “AIs are overwhelmingly female, and are often depicted as dangerous.”
Many critics have also found it problematic that almost every digital assistant uses a female name and voice. Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana, and Alexa all reinforce the stereotype of the female administrator. “It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass tells CNN. Whether psychological or cultural, the presence of female AIs helps these stereotypes persist.
Women Shaping the Future of AI
New efforts to close the gender gap in the sciences are charting a new course for those who have often been marginalized in the AI industry. Female professors, researchers, investors, and scientists are tackling gender bias in AI using innovative applications of technology, education, and more than a little common sense.
“The field of AI has traditionally been focused on computational intelligence, not on social or emotional intelligence,” explains Rana el Kaliouby, co-founder of the AI research firm Affectiva. Kaliouby and other AI experts are looking to develop a social conscience for the AI algorithms of tomorrow, embedding moral and ethical principles into the technology.
Other female leaders in the AI field are addressing enrollment issues by designing education programs specifically for young girls. Millions of individuals have enrolled in AI and machine learning courses through programs like Coursera, with disadvantaged or underrepresented groups reporting the most benefit.
Addressing Gender Bias Through AI Technology
The incredible capacity of artificial intelligence is also addressing gender bias in society directly. A new AI algorithm developed by Google and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media uses AI to detect male and female faces in popular films. The AI algorithm logs screen-time and speaking time for characters of different genders.
The AI algorithm logs screen-time and speaking time for characters of different genders. Photo Courtesy of Diorama
In the top films of the past three years, the algorithm found discouraging gaps; female characters received roughly half of the screen and speaking time of male characters. In the future, this data could assist filmmakers in avoiding techniques or casting selections that reinforce biases, encouraging stronger gender diversity in film.
The embedded nature of gender bias in today’s society makes progress towards equality difficult, but burgeoning fields like artificial intelligence have a higher potential for social progress. Top computer scientists and AI experts have turned their attention to addressing gender bias in AI. If artificial intelligence lives up to its expectations as a game-changing technology, a more socially responsible foundation today could have a big influence on our future.
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.