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Q&A: How companies can address gender bias in AI

In the second of our two-part Q&A on AI and gender bias, Katie Frame, an engager at EOS at Federated Hermes, talks to Saniye Gülser Corat, director for gender equality at UNESCO, about ways for the private sector to reverse the digital gender gap and address concerns about gendered AI technologies.

In part one of this Q&A we looked at why we should be concerned by the lack of diversity in the tech sector. There is evidence to suggest that the underrepresentation of women in the technical and developer workforce reinforces gender inequality, as biases are unintentionally built into AI algorithms. UNESCO’s Division for Gender Equality highlighted this in its publication “I’d Blush if I Could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education”.

Katie Frame, EOS: Partnerships are important so that companies can play a role in developing a talent pipeline for the future. How can the private sector create meaningful partnerships to address the gender digital divide?

Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO: When creating a partnership, companies should seek to involve members of the target group - local women - in designing interventions. They should also aim to empower local female community leaders to become advocates for digital skills and trainers, to help maintain the momentum after the programme ends. They should act in an inclusive manner so as not to alienate the male population, overlook other disadvantaged groups or exacerbate a backlash.

Partnerships should aim to:

  • Expose young girls to technology early on - programming experience for girls as early as age six has been shown to have a significant influence on technology self-efficacy and motivation.
  • Provide role models for women and girls - research shows that the negative effect of socio-cultural stereotypes on girls can be mitigated by influential role models.
  • Teach digital skills to women and girls in developing countries – the gender gap in digital skills is more severe for women who are older, less educated, poor, or living in rural areas and developing countries.
  • Educate women and girls about their digital rights to protect their privacy and ensure their safety both online and offline.
  • Provide scholarships to support women specialising in information and communication technologies (ICT) fields at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Katie Frame, EOS: As we work our way up the talent pipeline, how might companies begin to eliminate gender bias in recruitment and promotion practices? 

Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO: As a first step, companies can ensure that recruiting and promotion processes do not favour male candidates over equally or more qualified women. For example, one technology company’s AI recruiting software was found to downgrade résumés that contained the word ‘women’s’. There are a number of new platforms that can help to remove bias from HR procedures.

As well as gendered language, companies should limit the number of requirements that are most important for the job whilst emphasising the organisation’s commitment to diversity, flexibility and quality of life. Hiring targets or quotas can also help ensure that the gender balance of staff, management and boards improves over time. 

Katie Frame, EOS: And what can companies do to improve their internal cultures around inclusion and diversity?

Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO: Firstly, companies can rethink policies to support working mothers and dual-career couples. As suggested by research from Berkeley Haas’s Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership, this may include enabling flexible work options, enhancing paid parental and carer leave, training managers and senior leaders, and developing employee resource groups. They can also re-evaluate what a successful, ambitious career path looks like and develop flexible career development tracks. Additionally, I would encourage companies to engage men on the issue of gender equality.

Katie Frame, EOS: Beyond the workforce, how might companies be able to leverage their technologies to promote gender equality?

Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO: Technology may be able to facilitate, accelerate and automate the large-scale collection of data on gender and digital skills. This is important because sex-disaggregated data about digital skills acquisition is thin in developed countries and non-existent in many developing countries.

Additionally, companies can ensure that the content they create is appealing and relevant to women and girls. Many women cite a lack of relevant content – particularly content in local languages – as a reason for not making more extensive use of internet-connected technology.

Katie Frame, EOS: And finally, what is next for UNESCO on this topic and how can the private sector stay involved?

Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO: At its 40th session in November 2019, UNESCO’s General Conference commissioned the organisation to prepare an international standard-setting instrument, in the form of a recommendation, on the ethics of AI. International normative instruments are usually the preserve of governments. Due to the nature of AI, the UNESCO Recommendation will be relevant for a broad set of stakeholders, including private enterprise and civil society.

With gender equality at the heart of its mandate, UNESCO is keen to adopt a gender lens whilst drafting this Recommendation. We are therefore currently consulting a wide range of stakeholders from the private and public sectors, as well as academia and civil society, on how to best integrate gender equality considerations within this international instrument.

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. UNESCO believes that all forms of discrimination based on gender are violations of human rights, as well as a significant barrier to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. UNESCO has therefore identified gender equality as a global priority for the Organization.

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