By Leila Toplic, Head of Emerging Technologies Initiative at NetHope
Adoption of AI is accelerating, and the potential is significant. Today, AI is being integrated into nearly every industry, from healthcare and finance to education and manufacturing. It’s being used to decide everything from who gets hired, to who is offered credit and how much, to who gets access to healthcare first. What this means is, AI systems are critical to women’s participation in all sectors of society. The ability to access, use, and shape AI is essential for the future of women's human rights.
While AI has the potential to help us tackle some of the toughest problems and transform how we live and work - AI could also further exacerbate inequity and digital divides. We already have an alarming digital gender divide. According to UN Women, women make up more than two-thirds of the world's 796 million illiterate people. Of the estimated 2.9 billion unconnected, the majority are women and girls. Women are 25% less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic uses. Women and girls lack access to, and participation in, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. They are 4 times less likely to know how to program computers. With such a significant gap in education, it’s no surprise that women are underrepresented in technology fields in the workforce. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report, only 32% of those in data and AI roles are women.
The results of this digital gender gap are two-fold. First, barriers to the access and use of digital technologies (including AI) prevent women and girls from accessing the opportunities in education, economy, and society. Second, underrepresentation of women and girls in the technology industry, including in the development of AI systems, only reinforces and amplifies existing gender biases and stereotypes in our society because AI does not reflect their needs, contexts, experiences, and ideas.
So, it’s no surprise that women and girls are disproportionately affected by AI. There are numerous cases of AI systems discriminating based on gender. For example, facial analysis software reported higher error rates for recognizing women, specifically those with darker skin tones (1-in-3 failure rate with identifying darker-skinned females). There’s an infamous case of a large tech company using a hiring tool that was discriminating against women. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have been found to entrench harmful gender biases. A recent study into how an algorithm delivered ads promoting STEM jobs showed that women were less likely to be shown the job ad due to the cost-effectiveness. Word embedding, which is one of the most important concepts in natural language processing (NLP) and widely used by commercial companies, reinforces gender stereotypes by offering words that reflect the same old biased perception of women that is not based on facts or centered on equity. It’s important to note that these are mostly Global North examples and we lack evidence from the Global South.
In summary, without an intentional focus on gender equity, AI may be deployed as a tool of discrimination, oppression, and control.
Gender equity — it’s a term that dominates many of our conversations about AI. But what does gender equitable AI look like in practice and how do we get there?
Last month, I had the opportunity to host a discussion about gender equitable AI at the Global Digital Development Forum 2022. The topic is more important than ever, and I felt that the conversation with Neema Iyer (Pollicy), Shachee Doshi (USAID), and Bo Percival (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) brought clarity and ideas around how to center gender equity in the development and use of AI, and emphasized that the decisions and choices we make now will determine what kind of world we live in.
We started the conversation by talking about what gender equitable AI is, what it’s not, and key challenges to achieving gender equitable AI. In summary:
We all agreed that we are at an opportune turning point. Marginal, incremental changes won’t address systemic challenges. We not only need to de-risk AI from harming half of the world’s population, but we can design and use AI in ways that can help us close the digital gender gap.
In the session, we discussed several technological and non-technological approaches that put dignity, respect, and empowerment of women and girls at the core of how AI is designed, deployed, and used.
The actions proposed here are not exhaustive in nature, but they present a starting point for establishing AI that advances equity, inclusion, and empowerment of women and girls.
Gender equity matters more than ever. We cannot afford to wait another 136 years to achieve equity for half of the world's population. The time is now to close the global gender gap and ensure responsible, humane, and beneficial deployment of AI for all.
Global Digital Development Forum session on gender equitable AI:
 AI could enable the accomplishment of 134 targets — out of 169 — across all U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, the AI market is projected to be 190 billion by 2025 and by 2030, AI could contribute $15.7 trillion to the global gross domestic product (GDP).