Less than a quarter of AI professionals are women

A report from the World Economic Forum has found there is a significant gender gap in artificial intelligence, and global gender parity will take 108 years to achieve

Only 22% of artificial intelligence (AI) professionals globally are women, according to research by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The study found a gender gap of 72% in AI, despite the growing need for AI skills as a result of technology adoption.

Not only does this gender gap exist in AI, but also across other industries, and the WEF estimated that it would take 108 years to close the global gender gap. Its estimated was even longer for areas such as the economic gender gap, which could take up to 202 years to close, and 107 years to resolve the gender gap in political empowerment.

Vinous Ali, head of policy at TechUK, said more should be done to make science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) seem like an interesting career for young women to pursue.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution presents enormous opportunities for our economy and society as a whole, but we must ensure that no one is left behind,” she said. “The innovators and creators must come from diverse pools. Today, only 22% of AI professionals are female and this is not good enough.”

There is also a disparity between the number of AI professionals assigned to particular industries – more than half of tech professionals with AI skills are in the software or IT services and education sectors.

Women make up just 7.4% of the AI talent pool in software and IT services, and 4.6% of the AI talent pool in the education sector.

Industries such as the charity sector and healthcare sector have the smallest gender gap for AI professionals, but these sectors also have fewer professionals with AI skills overall.

Sarah Kaiser, employee experience, diversity and inclusion lead at Fujitsu Emeia, said the WEF’s finding that the gender pay gap improved by only 0.1% over the past year indicates there is an “an ocean of gender inequality” still to tackle.

“There are many efforts that businesses can make to facilitate a diverse and inclusive work environment,” she said. “One major factor preventing gender equality is the pipeline problem. If organisations are to address the low number of women in more senior-level positions, the first step is to increase the pipeline of talent by driving recruitment of women at a graduate and apprentice level.”

Although encouraging more girls into the tech industry could help to close the gender gap, there are still issues surrounding fewer women in senior positions, which contributes towards the gender pay gap.

Read more about AI and skills

The WEF found machine learning and data structures to be the most popular AI-based skills among both men and women, but there are still more men than women with these particular skills. While 40% of female AI professionals claimed to have machine learning skills, 47% of male AI professionals said the same.

However, the report also found that women are more likely to have a wider range of AI skills than men, and are more likely to have roles such as data analysts, researchers or teaching positions, whereas men are more likely to be software engineers or hold management positions in engineering or IT – roles that are more likely to be higher paid.

The gender pay gap, which looks at the average pay of men and women at all levels of an organisation in all roles, is so large in the technology industry because there are more likely to be men in higher-paid positions such as head of IT or head of engineering.

Some believe that publicising these gaps can help to accelerate the pace of change, but Linda Aiello, senior vice-president, international employee success at Salesforce, said the gender pay gap and the gender gap in particular industries is not something that can be solved overnight.

For example, Salesforce has spent the past three years assessing and addressing any unexplained pay disparities throughout its organisation globally, contributing about $9m towards pay equality.

“The gender gap is an issue that’s felt across all organisations and sectors,” said Aiello. “Creating a more diverse business brings with it countless benefits. To achieve real change across the world, more organisations need to be driving the gender equality agenda internally, every day.”

AI a key marker

The WEF report said that it is normal to have shifting roles as new technologies are introduced, and that AI will serve as a “key marker” for innovation across industries because of its disruptive nature.

But it also said machine learning and automation are changing which jobs are performed by humans as opposed to machines, and the increasing number of automated systems has led experts to worry about unbiased teams creating products not fit for everyone.

Ben Lorica, chief data scientist at O’Reilly Media, said: “Given that we know AI and automation technologies are continuing to grow, it is important that the people who build them reflect the broader population. Currently, many AI products and applications are not fully autonomous and still involve humans.

“This means it is vital that developers are aware of the issues that are relevant to the diverse set of users we can expect to interact with these systems.

“If we want to create AI technologies that work for everyone, they need to be representative of all races and genders.”

Without diverse teams developing AI, there is a concern that parts of the population will continue to be left out by advances in technology, much like when seatbelts were invented – initially, seatbelts killed women and young children because they were only tested using crash test dummies with male dimensions.

But it can be difficult to encourage women into more technical AI roles because of industry stereotypes, something many believe can be resolved by making it clear what different roles in AI can involve.

Read more on Diversity in IT

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