Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

We have to fight for a fairer tech industry for women

A woman plays a video game with the Oculus Rift VR in Paris, France, December 2016.

Through hidden biases and a lack of female representation, we risk confirming – not closing – the global gender gap. Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Gillian Tans
Chairwoman, Booking.com BV
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2019 reveals that we have closed 68% of the gender gap worldwide. The survey predicts that it will take 108 years to achieve overall gender parity and 202 years to achieve full equality in the workplace. Despite the progress being made, however, we simply cannot accept these results as fact. More needs to be done to address gender inequality. This is especially important at a time when our workplaces are on the cusp of changing dramatically due to technological advancement in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain.

It is shortsighted to presume that all technological advancements are automatically helpful. While immensely transformational in many ways, the development of automation and machine learning still poses potential threats and risks to gender equality. Through hidden biases and the growth of a function which today severely lacks female representation, we risk impeding positive progress in gender equality across tech and AI-dependent industries.

There remains a perception among 52% of women that technology is a male industry, while almost a third (32%) believe gender bias is still a major hurdle in the recruitment process. This demonstrates the urgent need to change perceptions around tech, and the need to do more to support and inspire women to enter the tech industry. Without such efforts, we risk closing off a key area of growth from female talent and cementing the gender gap that currently exists.

Women's jobs stand to be disproportionately impacted by AI globally.
Women's jobs stand to be disproportionately impacted by AI globally. Image: Reuters
The rise of AI

AI is currently revolutionising processes and rates of productivity across multiple industries. While this is largely positive development, many of the routine roles on which organisations once depended are becoming obsolete as a result. Recent research by the IMF revealed that women are employed in the majority of AI-threatened roles. Given the current rates of tech evolution, the IMF report estimates that 26 million female jobs across 30 countries (including 28 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) are at risk of disappearing. It also predicts that 180 million women’s jobs globally are at risk of displacement. More worrying still is the fact that there is a deficit in knowledge of essential machine learning skills among women, with men outpacing them by 85%. This demonstrates the urgent need to upskill women in this area and make AI a more welcoming environment for women. Without such efforts, it will be an uphill struggle to reach gender parity in this area.

Biased technology

Issues within the industry have been highlighted by recent studies, which point to the inadvertent replication of gender bias and stereotypes in AI developed by male-dominated teams. The Forum’s gender gap report findings also indicate that women represent just 22% of the AI workforce. Problems have been uncovered in the recruitment of some technology firms, where algorithms used in the HR process exhibit a bias towards selecting the CVs of men – and more specifically for roles in AI development. Eradication of this insidious effect can be achieved by supporting and encouraging more women into team and leadership roles across the industry.

 Numbers of male v female applicants to AI-related jobs in the US, 2017.
Numbers of male v female applicants to AI-related jobs in the US, 2017. Image: AI Index Report 2018

It is important we grow the number of women in AI, because striking gender balance in areas such as this brings with it greater collaboration, innovation and creativity. Tech companies like mine, whose cultures are underpinned by proactive measures to drive gender parity and equal opportunity, are benefiting from the talent and creativity that women bring. Striving for equality internally is not a PR exercise, but comes from the need to harness innovation in all its forms to safeguard growth. Today, technology impacts everyone; therefore, support for equality must begin within the tech industry itself by eradicating historical gender imbalances through proactive policies. Moreover, closing the gender gap in the industry will have positive longer-term implications for the achievement of gender parity across society through the technology we develop and the example we set.

Leading by example

There is a need for more technology companies to internally address how their culture might be adversely affecting female employees. Women often find themselves stunted by male bias at many levels, and their contributions and ideas have little wider impact on the technology produced. The gender gap impacting the development of AI must be addressed in recruitment processes and policies to give women the clear message that they are valued for roles at all levels.

There is an essential need for female leadership to help achieve a truly balanced workforce across the technology industry. As we know, more female leaders and women on boards helps lead to greater creativity and less groupthink, and provides a broader view when making key decisions. But most importantly, more female leaders mean more role models for young women and girls, which is simply critical if we want to achieve parity.

The visibility of female role models across a business is important, and this belief is reflected in my own company’s internal programmes, and wider initiatives that focus on female mentorship and celebrating women who are disrupting the world of tech. I encourage all companies to make similar efforts to help create these role models and show that there is a place for women in tech and AI.

Have you read?
A collaborative future

I am very proud of the culture and initiatives my company has developed to achieve gender parity across our teams, and I see other companies making similar efforts. Our most recent research indicates that women globally are inspired by the technology industry and see it as an innovative and creative force – therefore we need to ensure these women feel confident to enter the industry and make an impact. This is a responsibility for both industry and governments.

It is also crucial that the tech industry has the support of government and policy-makers at a national and global level, and that efforts are made to collaborate in supporting and encouraging more women into tech and AI roles and careers. From encouraging girls to study STEM subjects, to creating a more open and welcoming environment for women entering the tech workplace, we can all contribute to closing the gender gap in this space.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and Skills
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