UNESCO convenes a global dialogue to break through bias in AI on International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day (8 March), UNESCO and the World Economic Forum joined forces to host an online panel on gender equality and women’s leadership in Artificial Intelligence. This timely round-table brought together a range of leading female voices in tech from around the world to confront the deep-rooted gender imbalances skewing the development of artificial intelligence. More than 60,000 viewers participated in the digital event. The event was moderated by Natashya Gutierrez, Editor-in-Chief of VICE Asia.

“How do we stop bias? By making sure that women are not only consumers, but producers of AI: We need more female intelligence in artificial intelligence – in the data, in algorithms, and in the sector”, Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO.

In her opening remarks Ms. Ramos emphasized the collective responsibility needed to make sure that the gender gap in the analogue, as well as digital world, does not continue to widen. With the event UNESCO draws attention to the gender digital divide and to gender biased AI systems. With the Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, which is currently in development, UNESCO will further contribute to promoting gender equality in the entire AI lifecycle through policy recommendations and programmatic support.

In her keynote, Kay Firth-Butterfield, head of AI and machine learning and member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum, addressed the need for diverse teams creating AI products. Today, women comprise half the global population, but less than a quarter of the individuals creating algorithms. “Today we let women around the world know that you exist”, Ms Firth-Butterfield stated. She underlined the need to promote female role models and offer mentoring to women and girls, so they can build the confidence to enter the world of technology and AI.

The panel addressed two main topics:

The female training and recruitment crisis in AI

Women’s voices are not feeding into the blueprint for our future., According to World Economic Forum data, only 22% of AI professionals globally are women. Companies hiring experts for AI and data science jobs estimate fewer than 1% of the applications they receive come from women. Women and girls are 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers, and 13 times less likely to file for technology patents. They are also less likely to occupy leadership positions in tech companies. In February this year, UNESCO’s To Be Smart, the Digital Revolution will need to be inclusive warned women are at risk of being left behind in the race for jobs in AI. What can we do to attract more women to jobs in AI?

Nanjira Sambuli, member of the UNSG’s High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation, raised the question of how to equip talented people in Africa with digital skills so that they own the transformation of the continent and can build their own future. She drew attention to unequal access to education of girls and boys, resonating in a limited female talent pool in the technology sector. Ashwini Asokan, CEO and Co-Founder of tech enterprise Mad Street Den stressed that for AI to be applied meaningfully, diverse teams behind the technology are a must. In her company she fosters a 50-50 gender policy. Ms Asokan does not shy away from hiring female candidates and looks beyond their formal qualifications. She invests in capacity building, acknowledging the added value of gender equal tech teams. Latifa Mohammed Al-AbdulKarim, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at King Saud University stressed out the importance of giving women a chance to participate and prove themselves and underlined the key role initiatives established by the Saudi government played to overcome challenges of access and employment for women in tech.

The problem of algorithmic bias against women

Leading research company, Gartner predicts that in 2022, 85% of AI projects will deliver erroneous outcomes due to bias in data, algorithms or the teams responsible for managing them. UNESCO’s seminal report ‘I’d Blush if I Could’, showed that AI-powered voice assistants like Alexa and Siri perpetuate harmful stereotypes of women as submissive and subservient. Is the gendering of AI part of the problem?

“AI is a magnifying mirror of our society a representation… Creating this new world without half of humanity is producing bias at inception”, Anne Bioulac, Advisory Board Member in charge of AI development, Women in Africa initiative. Jutta Williams, leading the work of responsible machine learning at Twitter, showcased how the tech company is making transparent to its users why they see the content they are seeing. She understands this as Twitter’s contribution to a better collective understanding of how algorithms influence behaviour online. Meredith Broussard, a software developer and associate professor of data journalism at New York University, called for more accountability in the digital space and demanded action of governments to ensure technology is compliant with human rights law. Adriana Bora, an AI Ethics researcher presented her work using AI systems to reduce modern day slavery which disproportionally affects women and girls. Stating that “bias is not only present in data but in the whole process from design, development to evaluation”, Ms Bora stressed out the need for a domain expertise therefore including survivors and women in the process of designing any AI systems. Panelist Wanda Munoz, a humanitarian disarmament expert, underlined the dangers which AI systems can represent specifically through autonomous weapons such as killer robots. Functioning on biased algorithms, these technologies represent a great danger for minorities and women especially in the global south.

The panelists included female change-makers in AI. From C-suite professionals taking decisions which affect us all, to women innovating new AI tools and policies to help vulnerable groups, to those courageously exposing injustice and algorithmic biases.

  1. Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General of Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO, leading the development of UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Ethics of AI, the first global standard-setting instrument in the field;
  2. Kay Firth-Butterfield, Keynote speaker. Kay was the world’s first chief AI Ethics Officer. As Head of AI & Machine Learning, and a Member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum, Kay develops new alliances to promote awareness of gender bias in AI;
  3. Ashwini Asokan, CEO of Chennai-based AI company, Mad Street Den. She explores how Artificial Intelligence can be applied meaningfully and made accessible to billions across the globe;
  4. Adriana Bora a researcher using machine learning to boost compliance with the UK and Australian Modern Slavery Acts, and to combat modern slavery, including the trafficking of women;
  5. Anne Bioulac, a member of the Women in Africa Initiative, developing AI-enabled online learning to empower African women to use AI in digital entrepreneurship;
  6. Meredith Broussard, a software developer and associate professor of data journalism at New York University, whose research focuses on AI in investigative reporting, with a particular interest in using data analysis for social good;
  7. Latifa Mohammed Al-AbdulKarim, named by Forbes magazine as one of 100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics, and as one of the women defining AI in the 21st century;
  8. Wanda Munoz, of the Latin American Human Security Network. One of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s 2020 peacebuilders, she raises aware-ness around gender-based violence and autonomous weapons;
  9. Nanjira Sambuli, a Member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation and Advisor for the A+ Alliance for Inclusive Algorithms;
  10. Jutta Williams, Product Manager at Twitter, analyzing how Twitter can improve its models to reduce bias.

Ideas developed during the panel will further inform the international cooperation UNESCO is facilitating to ensure multi-stakeholder input into the development of an artificial intelligence technology and sector as diverse and inclusive as the societies the Organization is committed to creating.

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