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.
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.