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'A society that doesn’t represent us’: Why AI needs more women

Women in AI.
Women in AI. Copyright Canva.
Copyright Canva.
By Angela Skujins
Published on Updated
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The World Economic Forum’s most recent gender pay gap report shows female representation in artificial intelligence (AI) engineering has doubled since 2016 – but remains woefully low (0.20%) compared to men. This is why more women need to hack into the AI mainframe.


Six months ago, roughly 15,000 kilometres away in Melbourne, Australia, a female politician had her breasts enlarged and top cropped by a generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool embedded in Adobe Photoshop.

"Note the enlarged boobs and outfit to be made more revealing. Can't imagine this happening to a male MP," Georgie Purcell wrote on the social media platform X.

Although this incident occurred on the other side of the world, movers and shakers in Europe appear similarly anxious about the newest technological craze stealing headlines and disrupting workplaces: generative AI. These are the ChatGPT and MidJourney computer systems that learn on the fly and perform human-like capabilities. In May, the European Commission stated its concern about the "increasing spread of deep fake sexual content featuring women" – one type of generative AI – and listed a range of legislative actions the institutions have enacted to protect citizens.

But World Economic Forum (WEF) economist Silja Baller believes that if more women become AI engineers – nutting out the technology's best and most equitable design uses and functions in the lab – the pernicious news stories and studies about "women are negatively affected by AI" would not exist.

"There should be equal opportunity to contribute on an equal footing to designing our future," the agency’s head of diversity, equity and inclusion told Euronews. "It's important that all kinds of people contribute to these transformations," Baller said.

Women underrepresented in science and technology roles

The most recent WEF report into the gender pay gap found women's representation in AI engineering had doubled from 2016 to 0.09% to 0.20%. But "significant underrepresentation" in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields such as AI remain, the report states.

A trillion-dollar industry - the generative AI revolution is expected to be big bucks – a Bloomberg Intelligence report estimates the market will be worth a whopping 1.21 trillion euros in the next 10 years. Numerous studies show that it will also disproportionately impact women. This stretches from the technology exhibiting gender bias to potentially putting women out of work.

Another WEF report, focusing on the top 10 emerging technologies, places AI for scientific discovery at the top. "Advances in deep learning, generative AI and foundational models are revolutionising the scientific discovery process," the report states.

Baller believes women should be trained and transitioned into jobs that are "growing" – but the numbers don’t add up. "If you look at the transition between STEM degrees and entering the workforce, there’s a drop-off," she said. "There's already a gap between acquiring a degree and entering the workforce. Then we also have the further drops as we progress into leadership roles," Baller added.

According to the WEF gender parity report, women only make up a tenth of STEM executive leaders, which is a double-whammy disadvantage for technological and workforce transitions. This is because, as the document states, women "occupy the lower-growth, lower-paying jobs that are likely to be negatively affected in the short term."

AI proponent and business owner Caroline Lair told Euronews that fewer women occupy top jobs because there are so few women working in AI altogether. "The overall lower number of women entering and remaining in STEM fields creates a smaller pool of potential female leaders," she said, adding this "pipeline problem" exacerbates underrepresentation at senior leadership.

Lair heads up Women in AI – a Paris-based not-for-profit organisation aiming to get more women into data science and machine learning. The NGO boasts 16,000 members in more than 100 countries, offering events, mentorship opportunities and support for aspirant AI engineers. This is how the NGO aims to unblock the pipeline.

The corporate world has a role to play

But the onus of offering these opportunities should not land squarely on the shoulders of associations and governments. It’s up to companies to do the heavy lifting. "Companies should foster women-friendly and mother-friendly environments, provide mentorship, and support women's career development," she explained. Otherwise, they run the risk of being "unwelcoming", "hostile" and "male-dominated". Lair said more women being employed in AI starts at school. According to Eurostat, only 32% of total STEM graduates identified as female, with the largest share of women recorded in Romania, Poland, Greece and Italy. Countries with high STEM attrition rates for girls need targeted support, she said.

Baller, from WEF, echoed this sentiment. But she said before women even get into the workplace, bridges need to be created so that after university they are hired for entry-level positions. The European Commission adopted this mindset when it funded the Girls Go Circular program, which aims to give 50,000 schoolgirls digital and leadership skills. Generative AI is such a hot topic that the scheme’s 2024 conference is based on it.

To Lair, the risk is too great if more women aren’t employed in the sector – but AI could become an ally.

"If women are absent – meaning if they are not involved in data collection, verification of data, and identifying societal biases hidden within, or in the creation and development of algorithms where creators' biases may also be hidden – this can potentially reflect a society that does not represent us," she said.

"However, if women take hold of this technology to make their voices heard, much like the right to vote or salary parity, it is an enormous and truly unique opportunity."

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