5 ways to get more women working in AI

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum & Beena Ammanath, Executive Director, Deloitte AI Institute and Trustworthy and Ethical Technology, Deloitte

  • Research suggests women account for only 26% of data and AI positions in the workforce;
  • Increasing representation and diversity in AI development is crucial to producing better products of value to more people and avoiding biases;
  • From supporting STEM education to addressing mentorship opportunities and gender pay gaps in AI, more women can be brought into the AI sector.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become embedded in everyday life around the world, touching how we work, play, purchase and communicate. The power of AI lies in its potential to improve lives, but this potential can only be realized if AI represents the entire population. Increasing diversity in AI development is crucial to delivering equitable outcomes.

Bias in AI is a real concern and it’s generating more attention. Gartner predicts that in 2022, 85% of AI projects will deliver erroneous outcomes owing to bias in data, algorithms or the teams responsible for managing them. One of the more effective ways to address bias in AI is to engage diverse teams throughout the process. Diversity means including a variety of perspectives from different ethnicities, genders, ages, skills and experiences in the teams developing AI. Such diversity can enable AI teams to develop more products that can have a positive impact on a wider audience of users.

Women are very much underrepresented in AI and in the tech industry more broadly. A 2020 World Economic Forum report on gender parity suggests women account for only 26% of data and AI positions in the workforce. We need to get more women into AI.

Figure 1: Share of male and female workers across professional clusters
Share of male and female workers across professional clusters Image: World Economic Forum

Increasing gender diversity

To help promote gender diversity, there are some basic steps companies and the larger community can take:

1. Support STEM education

One of the reasons there are not more women in AI has its roots in childhood, long before young women enter the workforce. Social and cultural influences – like the false stereotype that girls are not as in tune with maths and science as boys – have often discouraged girls from pursuing STEM-related paths in the past. By the time they reach college, they’ve selected other options and it becomes difficult to switch gears. The few women in STEM classes generally receive limited resources about the different options available to them in AI.

In order to engage girls early, Girl Scouts across the nation have been participating in extracurricular STEM education programmes aimed at increasing interest, confidence and competence in STEM. The organization has pledged to add 2.5 million young women to the STEM workforce by 2025 and has collaborated with a number of industry leader to help prepare these women to be future STEM leaders.

2. Showcase female AI trailblazers

Having visible female scientists and AI leaders in business and society is an effective way to highlight opportunities for women in AI and counter negative cultural stereotypes about females not belonging in STEM. Every time we talk about AI – whether it’s in panel discussions, at events or on social media – it’s important to have an equal number of women participating. A new generation of female scientists can be inspired and talented women will be attracted to a workforce that exhibits gender inclusivity.

3. Mentor women for leadership roles

Mentorship is critical for those women who do eventually make it to a career in AI. In the past, mentorship has not come from organization-led programmes, but from other places like associations or academia. These women and men have helped their mentees set expectations, identify opportunities and overcome barriers.

Where mentorship programmes do exist in companies they’re often only available to leadership, but that’s starting to change. Now AI-supported apps are being used to connect entry and mid-level workers with mentors no matter their location. After using one such app, one company’s mentees indicated they had 218% more clarity toward their career path and felt 178% more equipped to achieve their goals within the company after just six months.

4. Create equal opportunities

Implicit biases in many companies’ recruiting processes pose another barrier to women from entering and advancing in AI. These biases take the forms of gendered language in job titles and descriptions and a lack of diversity in the hiring process. In addition, there is a lack of clarity and direction about the range of roles and industries in which women can work in AI. For example, a degree in AI isn’t always needed.

The time has come to hire and promote women to at least 50% of the high-growth AI positions and to help position them for success. Breaking down the barriers women face in the workplace can help companies achieve a more inclusive culture. Without them, AI algorithms won’t function as well out of the gate.

The number of female students awarded a STEM degree or certificate in the US has steadily risen over the most recent eight-year period
The number of female students awarded a STEM degree or certificate in the US has risen over the most recent period Image: Statista

5. Ensure a gender-equal reward system

Equal pay for equal work is fair and helps not just to recruit women, but to retain them. Unfortunately, many women who have been in tech roles for nearly a decade have considered leaving because of inadequate compensation and an inability to advance professionally. Organizations should be accountable and transparent in disclosing gender gaps within their AI workforce as well as how they plan to address those gaps. Such plans should be data-based to provide an accurate gauge of progress.

Eliminating pay gaps in AI roles can make the field more viable in retaining women. Nearly 60 years after the US Equal Pay Act passed, men still earn about 20% more than women. Fortunately the tide is slowly turning. Several high-profile US companies, including technology giants and national hospitality leaders, have reached full parity in pay for women and minorities.

A bright future for women in AI

Many organizations and workforces are just beginning their AI journeys and are realizing the value gender diversity can offer in AI. Organizations that place more women in their AI teams not only help increase gender equality in the industry; they can deliver more value to their own business and customers. While there is still much work to be done, change is on the horizon and the future is bright for women in AI.

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