Closing the Gender Gap: Insights and Advice from Women in AI

By Sarah Mason, Staff Writer
March 5, 2021 • 6 minute read

To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, members of Amelia’s Women in AI program offer their thoughts on this year’s event theme: Choose to Challenge.

International Women’s Day (IWD) has been held and celebrated for over a century, with the first IWD commencing in 1911. In the 110 years since, IWD has grown into a global event centered around the achievements of women as well as calls to action for achieving equality.

Also within the past 110 years, technology and the way we communicate in our personal and professional lives has dramatically changed. Thirty years ago, more than 99% of households in the United States had no internet, whereas today nearly 86% of American households have internet access. Technology in general has become more central to everyone’s everyday lives, globally.

Despite the advancements in gender equality, and in technology, STEM industries continue to be male-dominated on a global scale. How can we be sure that technology is being made for everyone, if everyone is not represented in the creation of the technology? Considering the omnipresence of technology today, it needs to be made for everyone, by everyone.

One year ago, on International Women’s Day 2020, Amelia launched our initiative, Women in AI, to highlight the incredible work being done by industry leaders to adopt and promote AI within their organizations. During the past year, Amelia collected more than 50 stories from women all over the world. Collectively, they provide invaluable insight into the lived experiences of women in STEM fields, who today make up only a small percent of the industry.

On this year’s International Women’s Day, we are encouraged by this year’s event theme to Choose to Challenge: Challenge the stereotypes, challenge those around us who overlook women’s contributions, and challenge ourselves to make a difference. To help guide us in this challenge, several women in Amelia’s Women in AI program offered us their thoughts on this year’s event, pulling back the curtain on the gender gaps that still exist in the tech industry, and sharing their wisdom on how each of us can encourage more women and girls to take on STEM careers.

The Gender Gap in Tech Still Exists Today

The gap between the number of men compared to women in the technology industry is staggering. Kerry Sheehan, Chartered Public Relation’s AI Practitioner, cites the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report, which revealed that only 26% of professionals in AI are women. “A challenge can be being one of the few women worldwide working in AI and communication,” Sheehan says.

There are several factors contributing to the large gender gap in the technology industry. Many women are not supported in their decision to go into a STEM field. Natasha Kiroska, Cognitive Technical Lead at Amelia, says that when she was choosing what to study, people would comment that her fields of interest were “hard work for women” and encouraged her to “not take that road.” Kiroska challenged these comments and chose instead to follow her passion.

Once women enter the STEM field, they face a different set of challenges. Women are often judged differently than their male colleagues, both in terms of their interpersonal and practical abilities. Dr. Angela L. Walker Franklin, President and CEO of Des Moines University, calls attention to the double standard women in leadership face, saying that many find themselves “judged differently than men in the same situation because of stereotypical thinking.” In the AI industry, Raagini Chadha, Lead Conversational AI Designer at Acronotics, reflects on how her skills in linguistics, research, experience design and strategy formulation were often “pitted as ‘soft skills’,” despite their significance to the successful creation of intelligent automation.

Why We Must Choose to Challenge

Technology, specifically AI, is woven into our lives in ways we often can’t even see. Technology shapes what we listen to, the content we read, the things we buy, the way we interact and often the way we feel. As Rema Algunaibet, AI Implementor at Saudi Aramco, points out, “people who are learning and harnessing their skills and expertise to be part of [the wave of Digital Transformation via Robotics, Artificial Intelligence] will define our future of digital disruption.”

It’s problematic that those in positions of influence do not represent the diversity of the populations being influenced by the technology. For example, Priscilla Lotman, Founder and Director of Ava2 Digital Asset Management, says that “board level executives make decisions which affect our everyday lives,” and “having this discrepancy of representation, on this level, has a deep systemic impact.” AI doesn’t come up with prejudices and biases on its own. AI is influenced by those who create it. For this reason, diverse AI teams are crucial for avoiding biased AI.

Encouraging more women to participate in AI development also presents more opportunities for innovation. “You need a whole spectrum of strengths for every individual to innovate. "Diversity drives innovation,” says Ozge Tarim, Senior Business Account Manager at GlobalDWS. Furthermore, as the demand for AI professionals continues to increase, companies are faced with the shortage of AI talent. Virginie Mathivet, Chief R&D Officer at TeamWork, and Sheehan both argue that encouraging more diversity in STEM could help to address this increased demand. “Knowing that the data and Artificial Intelligence professions are under pressure, it is problematic to be limited to 50% of the population (mainly men),” says Mathivet.

However, as Dr. Andree Bates, Founder and CEO of Eularis, points out, compared to men, women currently appear to be much less interested in AI. As such, many women in AI are choosing to challenge themselves to make a difference and close this gap.

Encouraging More Women and Girls to Engage in STEM Fields

Women in AI are taking action to encourage more women and girls to join STEM careers. Some are taking action by educating their colleagues or their communities about AI and its benefits. Others are creating and contributing to diversity initiatives within their organizations. The following includes a brief look into their work.

AI Education for Women and Girls

Andrea Mandelbaum, Founder of Mc Luhan Consulting, is encouraging those within her organization to engage in STEM fields. She shares how her company leads “an internal training program for people who come from other academic specialties to improve our AI solutions.”

Dr. Bates wants to “help women-led businesses use AI to reclaim their time and scale their businesses faster.” In order to achieve this goal, she is launching AI-cademy, which will educate female entrepreneurs on using AI.

Mathivet said TeamWork engages with young women in secondary school to encourage them to study AI. She said TeamWork connects with local associations to help the students “discover the digital (and data) professions” through “discussions with women experts or with discovery workshops.”

Nadia C. Rojas Ramirez, Product Owner of Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Assistants at BBVA, is a part of the core team of women in AI in Mexico. She also is creating an AI academy to “give people the opportunity to learn about AI.”

Diversity Initiatives

As Partner and Head of XR at Evenness, Gaby Slezák, along with Eve Logunova, creates “3D experiences for remote teamwork & virtual events which foster a culture of respect and belonging.”

Shikha Khetrapal, Senior Vice President and Head of Strategy at Marsh & McLennan, shares how her organization is focused on fostering a diverse workforce. “We are taking concrete steps to elevate our colleague experience by committing to a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce through education, communication and engagement,” she says.

Stacey Tomasoni, Managing Director at Datacom in Australia, describes how Datacom has taken a strategic approach to reaching their goals. Datacom is “investing at a strategic level in a ‘Better Together’ – Diversity and Inclusion program.” The goal of the program is to ensure that “everyone who interacts with Datacom feels a sense of belonging and connectedness,” she says.

At Acronotics, Chadha describes how women are coming together to support one another: “We’re doing a mentor-mentee program right now, with women in the organization sharing their strong suits with other women, in an attempt to pull each other up.”

Words of Wisdom from Women in AI

On Confidence

  • “I believe the magic that makes Silicon Valley tick comes down to the 3 Cs – Confidence, Curiosity and Competency. I’d encourage women everywhere to embrace this state of mind – and swagger – in advancing our leadership roles.” – Ann Sung Ruckstuhl, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Unisys
  • “Focus on your strengths and don’t be afraid to speak up.” – Ozge Tarim
  • “As a woman in IT, confidence can be a challenge, which I have not been immune to, and I have personally found it really helpful to have someone external to act as a sounding board and constant check in point to remind me that, ‘I am good enough'… Throw yourself into the arena. Women are more likely to hold off from volunteering for a role where they don’t tick off all the boxes.” – Stacey Tomasoni

On Support Systems

  • “I believe that everyone needs a professional support system, and especially women when it comes to an industry like IT which is filled with stereotypes and silos.” - Ekaterina Stoianova, Cognitive Project Lead at Amelia
  • “The most important learning for me has been that what we women have to build is networks to make an impact.” – Gaby Slezák
  • “If each woman in AI convinced one young woman to come in this field, there will be no more gender bias subject in the near future, so my challenge is to convince at least one woman.” – Virginie Mathivet
  • “The inequality of opportunities between men and women is a problem of the society as a whole. Therefore, it is not enough that only women continue in the struggle, it is mandatory that men also get involved in this fight.” – Liliana Mantilla, Cognitive Delivery Manager at Amelia

On Resilience

  • “If you follow your natural talents then nothing is hard.” – Natasha Kiroska
  • “Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and or possessing toughness…Accomplishing tasks and staying focused on achieving our goals requires determination and persistence.” – Debra Sherrill, Director of Consulting at CGI
  • “Never give up…. No one can have a career or even a life without any setback or defeat. Those who succeeded are not the lucky ones. They have also met failure many times. But they always pick themselves up and push forward.” – Ren Zhang, Enterprise Chief Data Scientist at BMO Financial Group

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