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Will artificial intelligence bring gender equality forward or backwards?

Gemma Lloyd, co-founder of Work180, an Australia-based international jobs network for women, is proud of her engineering team in which women outnumber men and wishes there were more female engineers generally. She said that “if there aren’t enough women in the mix, the products won’t be what society wants — because women are 50 per cent of society.”

The lack of female technologists — only 22 per cent of artificial intelligence professionals globally are female – makes gend­er equality advocates worry that the digital future will be made by men for men. They call for more innovations that cater to under-served female needs, such as women’s health apps — so-called femtech.    

Similarly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts much higher job losses among women due to the high number doing jobs such as clerical work that are particularly vulnerable to automation. 

The flipside is that economists expect that technology will create some well-paying roles that require skills traditionally more associated with women, such as emotional intelligence, leading to new jobs for which many women might be well suited. However, as highlighted in the IMF study, it is the smaller number of women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem subjects) that keep women from the top jobs. The share of computer science degrees awarded to women in the U.S. has fallen since 2000. In the UK, 3 per cent of female students surveyed by PwC in 2017 said technology was their top career choice, compared with 15 per cent of male counterparts.

To encourage women into tech, recruiters are looking at how they hire. Tracy Young, co-founder and chief executive of PlanGrid, a software company for the construction industry, counters perceptions that certain jobs are a “man’s job”, by speaking at women’s networking events and industry forums. 

Changes in emp­loyee benefits, matter too. For example, offering good parental leave shows how much a com­pany cares about recruiting women. 

Broadening the hiring criteria can also help to increase the number of women in an organization. For example, Michelle Senecal de Fonseca, vice-president in software business Citrix, says tech companies sometimes require engineering experience for jobs that non-engineers could ably perform.

Tech organisations are not only recruiting fewer women than men, but they are also losing them at a faster rate. Globally, women make up 25 per cent of STEM workers, according to Boston Consulting Group (BGC), but only 9 per cent become leaders in those fields. 

The tech industry can help narrow the gender gap by offering to build tech skills for women returning from career breaks, says Judith Wallenstein, a senior partner in BCG’s Munich office. She also added that women must step up. If they continue to be hesitant to offers of reskilling, “women are putting themselves at a structural disadvantage.” 

To increase the number of women in technology industries, Work180 co-ordinates SuperDaughter Day in collaboration with tech businesses. Research shows that “gender stereo­typing starts at around five years old.” So, they bring primary school girls and their parents into workplaces to learn about coding, robotics and Stem.

According to Kim Nilsson, co-founder of Pivigo, a data science business, “We need diversity for creativity and also to question: ‘By doing this are we harming anyone?’”