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Artificial intelligence – the greatest opportunity for women?

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Sarah Burnett, Vice President at Everest Group, Computer Weekly top 30 influential women in IT, chair of BCS Women and founder of WISE members, BCSWomen AI Accelerator

18 October 2017

In March this year, I launched the new Artificial Intelligence (AI) Accelerator for WISE members, BCSWomen to make AI more relevant to women and encourage more females into computing.

Just 17 per cent of IT workers are women – a depressingly low number, especially considering all the work that goes into improving the gender balance in the sector. And yet we have a significant skills shortage in the UK and real demand for people who understand and can train AI systems.

AI is starting to transform workplaces, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. What does this mean for women in the workplace, whose jobs may shortly be automated? How can they adapt and what are the opportunities to take advantage of, which will see them get ahead even in the so-called “age of the robot”?

How women can stay relevant with the rise of AI

In October last year, the University of Oxford published a study predicting 850,000 public sector jobs will be lost by 2030 due to automation, and many office and administrative roles that women have traditionally gone for (in all sectors) will disappear. So the question is, what will these women do in future?

It’s true that automation and AI will replace many of the jobs women are doing today – but that’s why it is crucial for women to get into this new field to make sure they can find new positions when their jobs get squeezed.

We need more bosses and managers who understand how AI is progressing and the implications for their businesses – both regarding opportunities to exploit and risks to minimise. There is no reason why women can’t be those leaders within their organisations.

Understanding how AI will be applied in the workplace (and it WILL impact on every sector) and how to train, test and supervise AI will be incredibly useful tools and a top strategy for avoiding irrelevance.

Why we need more women in tech to combat sexism

An unexpected challenge from AI is the emergence of bias in AI systems – often a bias against women that has been learned either from the programmers themselves or more likely, from source material on the internet.

There have been cases of systems that learned to associate photos of kitchens with women and research that suggests that systems designed to pre-select university applicants are sexist.

These are all early studies, but it’s easy to see how this bias could have a hugely negative impact on women “in the real world”. Facing a gender pay gap and general lack of representation in many sectors – are we now going to have to deal with sexist computers as well?!

This is why it is important to encourage women to go into STEM careers like AI development and support. We need female AI developers, designers and trainers to train new systems in real life perspectives and to avoid entrenching bad behaviour on what it has to do, be it in business or consumer markets.

I’m a great fan of tools that help girls visualise themselves in areas like tech where we don’t have enough representation yet. WISE offers the People like Me pack which is available publicly to anyone. It contains lots of really excellent ways to help girls understand more about modern STEM careers and picture themselves working in those areas, showing students how STEM careers aren’t just “jobs for the boys”.

AI presents us with new and sometimes unexpected issues. Solving some of these problems will not always be easy.

But these changes also provide new opportunities for doing good such as providing legal advice at low cost, if not free, or healthcare advice to people in remote parts of the world.

For those women who are willing to learn new skills and understand the impact of AI, there will be opportunities to thrive in the workplace, and they may even find themselves in demand.

And for women who are interested in working directly with AI, either in tech or another business as a developer, trainer or supervisor, there are considerable opportunities to make a real difference in a relatively new industry.

We can’t leave these huge changes, to the way we live and work, to men alone because of a misplaced idea that tech is “more a man’s thing” – a view that I sometimes hear. The rise of AI is going to impact women and we need to take advantage of the opportunities. Some women are already doing amazing things in tech and lead companies like YouTube and IBM. It certainly isn’t just a man’s game.

Nevertheless, I know it can be daunting taking that first step in understanding more about tech and AI, but good tools are the free BCSWomen AI masterclasses and BCSWomen events and talks. They cover some of the basics and are for everyone, you don’t have to be an expert. Part one of the first AI Accelerator masterclasses is HERE and part two, HERE.

BCSWomen is part of the British Chartered Institute for IT. It is a group that provides networking and training opportunities for women working in IT and other sectors around the world. The Group’s main objective is to provide support for women who are interested in IT and computing, as well as mentoring and encouraging girls/women to enter IT as a career.

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