Women in Tech: Completing the Algorithm

When tens of thousands of women took part in parades celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage across the UK recently, it was gratifying to see how far we have come.

As these women progressed through the streets wearing the suffrage colours of white, purple and green, the great and the good, including Dr Helen Pankhurst, Baroness Williams, Sheila Hancock CBE and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, sat and discussed with Kirstie Young on the BBC how they felt about women’s rights and achievements.

And while it was acknowledged that much progress has been made, sometimes it seems as if we still have quite a way to go – especially for women in tech industries – and the rapid advancement of technology doesn’t necessarily mean we are moving in the right direction.

The digitisation of our world means that most people’s lives, at home and at work, have been altered beyond recognition in just a few short years. On watching The IT Crowd, only a decade or so old, it feels so outdated it’s almost like watching Dad’s Army.

The comedy however, remains universal because it is, after all, about the foibles of being human. And, as in The IT Crowd, it is where humans and Artificial Intelligence intersect that give us pause for thought.

Algorithms

At Individualise we talk a lot about algorithms, those elusive digital processes that, if kept happy, means your website is liked by Google and placed near the top of its search engine results.

But algorithms are ubiquitous. They operate not just for Google’s search engine but are in every technological device available. They monitor and map everything from your sleep patterns and exercise levels to viewing preferences and shopping habits – and they make assumptions based on what they “read”.

So the question is: Who sets the algorithms and who is in charge of these data-driven technologies?

A recent article by Ivana Bartoletti suggested that we need to “start querying the outcomes of decisions made by algorithms and demand transparency in the process that leads to them”.

For example, a Twitter debate not so long ago raged that Googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” yielded images of black women with natural looking hair, while searching for “professional” ones offered pictures of white women, often with not entirely dissimilar hairstyles.

So if a non-diverse, male-dominated workforce is creating the algorithms (which it currently is), is it possible they are constructed with an unexamined, often unconscious bias about race, gender and class?

Governance

In order to tackle this we need better governance of Artificial Intelligence. This has already started with last month’s introduction of the General Data Protection Regulations that broaden the definition of profiling activities.

In addition to the new GDPR act, the UK government has set up a £9 million Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. This new body is tasked with advising on the measures needed to enable safe and ethical uses of data-driven technologies.

Women in Tech

But women need to be at the heart of these new initiatives. As women working in the male-dominated tech industry this is something we feel strongly about.

Perhaps this is an obvious observation from us. We are in the minority and there’s only so many industry podcasts that we can listen to that use a Star Wars analogy as the intro, after all. Women can work in tech as well as men can, but we might just bring a different perspective.

Girls need to be encouraged to take up STEM subjects at school. These female budding scientists might then develop the skills and have the opportunities to go on and become the creators of the algorithms, the captains of industry, the shapers of our society.

The digital world these days isn’t just a reflection of the “real” world, the two have reached a point where they are in a state of symbiosis with each influencing the other. If women – as well as men – play their part in this, it becomes a true reflection of the world in which we live, digital or otherwise.

Better Together

One of the media commentators at the centenary parades the other weekend pertinently said that women doing well doesn’t mean that men do badly. Women’s success does not diminish the achievements of men and does not come at their expense.

Women doing well  – in science, in tech, in life – means that everyone does that much better. Together.

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