Technology threatens to widen the STEM gender gap

By MJ Salier

March 8, 2021

woman in STEM standing at a tech perspex board
We simply must avoid bias in technological innovations. (Image: Adobe/metamorworks)

Women have long been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations and, while the arrival of technologies such as AI and 5G bring new opportunities and exciting possibilities, they can also present a danger that this may widen the gender gap.

It should not surprise us to learn that jobs in STEM will grow rapidly in the coming decade. However, with women underrepresented in these occupations, they stand to potentially miss out on the new opportunities. In Australia, women made up just 27% of workers in STEM occupations in 2019, according to the government’s STEM Equity Monitor.

Gender stereotypes about what are ‘women’s jobs’ can start early and be reinforced at school and other areas of life. Normalising the atmosphere around women in STEM careers might help young women see it as a career choice open to every woman, and not an occupation that requires special qualities and talent.

Once in the workforce, institutional bias can lead to more women and people of colour leaving STEM occupations. This, in turn, can reduce diversity and further reinforce biases in new technology like AI and machine learning (ML). AI reflects the embedded values of its society as determined by its coders, so structural gender and racial inequalities unconsciously feed into the assumptions and algorithms used, producing results that reflect these biases.

If we do not have enough women entering STEM degrees and remaining in STEM occupations, how can we ensure that technologies account for women as the result will reflect the inputs. With 5G we see how it will transform health, transportation, and entertainment, to name just a few. Yet we cannot ignore the need to have accurate data as it relates to women to avoid bias in these new innovations.

“Initiatives have the best chance of success when they are fully embraced and supported by governments, educators and employers.”

There is still much work to do to figure out how we can repackage the STEM areas to appeal to women and then transparently encourage and foster their career and life choices. It is necessary to support women’s full participation for career progression and as a vital ingredient in reducing unconscious tech gender bias. Any initiatives have the best chance of success when they are fully embraced and supported by governments, educators and employers to make a difference.

Foundational legislation such as anti-discrimination laws, which exist at both a federal and state level in Australia, are the framework we already have for preventing discrimination against groups of people. While we have come to understand that some groups need to be protected, we still lack an instrument like a Bill of Rights or something similar to make a general statement about what we as women and human beings have the right to expect when living in a modern society. Given that technology is now fundamental to the way we live, matters of rights and equality must also be technology neutral in any formal frameworks.

And we cannot overlook the need to consider things globally. While technology allows us to be doing anything from anywhere over the internet, we see cross-border data flows and communications, security and sovereignty still matter, and always will. But there are benefits of harmonisation when it comes to cross-border regulation to support the benefits that technology can bring, a medium that knows no bounds.

In technology, as in other parts of the economy and society, regulation works best when it is evidence-based and finds the right balance. The goal is always to promote important protections such as environmental, public health and safety, rights, and equality, while fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. It can provide guard rails and certainty for investment that leads to new developments. Technology need not reinforce biases and discrimination, and regulation can signal where protections might be well targeted.

Jurisdictions have different controls, from communications to vaccine approvals, and many things had to be adjusted last year. As we come out of the pandemic, it will be interesting to see if everything reverts back. We have the opportunity to take some of these learnings and analyse them further, and potentially regulate, to support the changes brought in as a result of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many impacts on the economy and workforce and a much greater burden on families in terms of caring and teaching responsibilities. If we are not careful that could put women further behind as the tendency of these things being ‘women’s work’ means that less women are in the race as the uptake in new technologies accelerates. Yet at the same time, the experience of last year, where many of us worked from home, has broken down some of the formal structures of work, like the strict 9 to 5 in the office, that have worked against women and provided a clear line of sight to how women can time and place shift very successfully if left to create our own working environments.

 Technologies like 5G are an enabler of distributed ways of working that present us with an opportunity to reduce the barriers to entry for women in organisations. AI can automate repetitive, rule-based tasks, transforming many jobs. Of the many lessons of last year, effective remote work is one with huge potential for improving equality in workplaces. When it comes to women’s participation in STEM occupations, this is central in reducing unconscious gender bias in the technology underpinning all of our lives. Regulation could play a role in guiding rights, protections, and programs to support the goal of women’s equal participation.


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