Artificial intelligence needn’t be a barrier to gender parity – if we use it smartly | Dr. Lamya Fawwaz - GulfToday

Artificial intelligence needn’t be a barrier to gender parity – if we use it smartly

Dr. Lamya Fawwaz

@LamyaFawwaz

Executive Director, Brand & Strategic Initiatives, Masdar and WiSER Program Director

Executive Director, Brand & Strategic Initiatives, Masdar and WiSER Program Director

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The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

2020 marks the start of a critical decade in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As the Fourth Industrial Revolution continues to transform just about every industry sector, and revolutionize the way we live and work, it is only natural that we look to leverage its benefits to drive greater sustainability.

The role of artificial intelligence in achieving renewable energy and sustainable targets was highlighted in a recent report; using AI for environmental applications could add USD 5.2 trillion to the global economy, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 4 per cent, according to PwC.

The benefits of AI in sustainability are manifold: it can support the deployment of self-driving vehicles to transform transportation systems, or better manage food purchasing to reduce wastage. Smart grid technology aligns energy production, distribution and usage more effectively, while water wastage can be tackled at source.

However, while AI and other emerging technologies will undoubtedly prove vital in addressing sustainability challenges, we need to be careful about how they are applied if we don’t want to waste an even more vital resource – women.

AI’s gender bias issues have also come under the spotlight recently – from claims that Amazon had to abandon an experimental hiring tool because it discriminated against female applicants, to concerns about the (over) use of women’s names for virtual assistants – think Siri, and Alexa.

The benefits of AI in sustainability are manifold: it can support the deployment of self-driving vehicles to transform transportation systems, or better manage food purchasing to reduce wastage.

Possible reasons for this perceived gender bias are not hard to determine. While women make up half the global workforce, they only represent 30 per cent of tech industry employees, and less than 10 per cent of clean-tech start-ups are women-owned. In cutting-edge disciplines like AI, the imbalance is even worse: only 12 per cent of AI researchers, and just 6% of software developers, are female.

Given that SDG 5 – achieving gender equality and empowering females – is central to reaching all the other SDGs, clearly there is still much work to be done in the tech sector.

And the potential is there. In the workplace, technology can help us break down some of the barriers to female inclusion, such as inadequate training, limited access to financing, inflexible work environments, and lack of engagement with decision makers.

Nor is it necessarily true that women don’t want to work in tech-related fields. Here in the UAE, women make up 56 per cent of graduates in STEM disciplines. Further, women make up around a third of tech entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

The UAE is also actively promoting opportunities for women in its emerging high-tech sector, and the investment is paying off. Around 40 per cent of the team working on the UAE’s Mars Mission are female, while 90 per cent of the scientists at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre are women.

The UAE’s commitment to parity between men and women has seen the country climb 23 positions in the UNDP Gender Equality Index in the past year, rising to 26th place and becoming the highest ranked Arab country in the world.

But this commitment to gender equality hasn’t come at the expense of technology expertise – the UAE also leads the region in technology adoption, and we are also one of the most advanced nations in the world in the application of AI. The UAE was the first country to appoint a minister of state for AI, while Masdar City is set to host the Mohamed Bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence – the world’s first graduate-level AI research institution.

The role AI and digitalization can play in sustainability and gender parity will be discussed in-depth at Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energy (WiSER) Forum, convening on January 14th at this year’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

The UAE’s progress in both gender equality and in driving technology adoption is a clear demonstration that – applied correctly – technology can be a vital tool in empowering women. By giving women and girls equal opportunities, we can maximize our collective potential. Just ask Siri.