As much as we all love technology and our gadgets, one thing becomes strikingly clear when you dig a little deeper into who are designing our future world… there are hardly any women on the team! The great majority of “females” you will find in the world of robotics and artificial intelligence are not the engineers, but the objects of their creation: the robots and AI programs. From Robot Sophia to Siri or the voice on our GPS, most of us have a female version - the factory default. My Siri is a man and I found out that even among women, that is an exception. Find out why this matters.
In her book, “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley”, Emily Chang spoke about the original sin – the usage of a playboy centerfold image as the main image to test algorithms to convert images into jpeg files, and how it contributed to pushing women out of STEM fields.
Unlike anything you may assume, computer science used to be viewed as a female occupation much like a secretary. In 1840 Ada Lovelace wrote code before the computer was even invented.
We tend to view the lack of female participation in STEM related fields as a given and yet it was not always so. In 1984 40% of computer science graduates in the US were female; in 2018 this number was down to 22%. Out of all computing related jobs in the US, women hold only 25% in 2018 compared to 36% in 1991.
If we look at the big companies that influence our lives in many ways, like Google and Facebook, women in technical roles make up only about 20% of the total. For women of color the statistics are even worse: 3% for African American women and 1% for Latin American women. When we look at women-owned enterprises, the statistics are still worse: in 2016 only 2% of US venture funding went to women’s majority-owned enterprises.
Although these particular numbers concern the US, they also give us some insight into what may happen here in Africa if we do not undertake conscious efforts to address the gender disparity in STEM – be it in employment or in entrepreneurship.
Efforts such as Ms Geek Africa are not a luxury or a form of favoring women, but a lifeline. Ms Geek Africa and similar initiatives are so important to attract and retain female talent in ICT specifically and in STEM related fields in general.
“Getting to fifty-fifty is incredibly complex and nuanced, requiring many detailed solutions that will take decades to fully play out. To accelerate the process, change needs to start at the top. […] CEOs need to make hiring and retaining women an explicit priority.”
“So what?”, you may think. If we all get to reap the benefits, what is the problem?
The problem with innovations that were not designed for and tested on women (and children) is that they can be outright dangerous for them.
An example of this is the story of the first airbags.
Initially, women and children disproportionally got injured or died as airbags were deployed. The reason for this is that they had been designed and tested with an average male as the default (that women could be passengers and/or drivers had simply been overlooked by the all-male team).
Have you ever wondered why those new smart phones rarely fit in the female hand palm or why the office temperature is always a couple degrees too low for women (admittedly more of a problem in colder climates)? In a world where conceptual design, development, testing and decision-making is dominated by men and where the trend is pointing in the wrong direction, we should not be surprised if robotics, AI and VR are increasingly oriented towards the needs and context of men. Women-centered design can counter this, but is still rather niche. It is simply very hard for women to survive in STEM occupations long enough and in big enough numbers to have an impact.
Yet the potential market is enormous. Women control about 80% of consumer spending worldwide and all women combined control $36 trillion in total wealth which represents more than the GDP of India and China combined. Women collectively represent the second largest economy in the world.  Yet, this enormous economic potential is hardly glanced at when it comes to new innovations, product development and venture capital funding. Worse, the share of VC funding going to female owned businesses is decreasing.
Not only is there an urgency to address this issue from a social justice perspective, it makes complete business sense.
“Since the majority of our everyday products and systems are designed by and for men — to the exclusion of women’s unique needs, biology, and wants –our reality is in fact male-centric.”
Sophia The Robot and Her Peers
So why do we hear of Alexa, Siri, Amy and, of course, as anyone attending the Transform Africa Summit 2019 knows, Sophia The Robot?
Men are designing these programs and these robots and they create human-like AI programs or robots with a female look and feel.
On the one hand, there is the real danger of further objectification of women, and on the other hand there is the perceived caring and soft aspect of women. Could it be that male engineers rather have a female robot or AI program around them than a male one that is potentially in competition with its human owner?
For me, humanoid programs or machines should not solely take on a female form. Men can be caring and serviceable and women can be competitive and aggressive. The burden of objectification and judgement should not be on women only.
The Career Women’s Network Kigali launched an interesting poll on Twitter this weekend: Should Sophia the Robot be considered as a career woman and thus eligible for a CWNK membership or should she be excluded as a robot and the object of men-centered design? Twitter has spoken.
Find out what the people on Twitter voted for. We will hear if we need to hold out on her membership for a while or not. In the meantime, let’s try out some male voices on our GPS, Siri and other apps and robots… they don’t bite, as far as I know…
“If robots are going to run the world, or at the very least play a hugely critical role in our future, men shouldn’t be programming them alone.”
In ‘Brotopia,’ Silicon Valley Disrupts Everything but the Boys’ Club, Jennifer Szalai (2018)
Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, Emily Chang (2018)
The Silent Rise of the Female Driven Economy, Danielle Kayembe (2017)
Why Products Designed By Women Are The Next Big Thing (Interview with Danielle Kayembe), Liz Long (2017)
Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: email@example.com and +250783719431