AI Integration poses serious challenge to women in workforce

Dr. Gyan Pathak
Rapid integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into both workplace and domestic settings poses serious challenges to women’s opportunities for work, their position, status and treatment in the workplace.
A joint team comprising the Inter-American Development (IDB), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), has warned in their recent report titled “The effect of AI on the Working Lives of Women” that in harnessing AI, governments, institutions and companies must narrow gender gap rather than perpetuate or exacerbate them. Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, University of Cambridge has also contributed in the research.
Globally, studies show, that women in the labour force are paid less than men, spend more time undertaking unpaid child- and elder-care jobs, hold fewer senior positions and participate less in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and tend to hold more precarious jobs overall. A 2019 UNESCO report found that women represent only 29 per cent of science R&D positions globally and are already 25 per cent less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic uses.
Access, connectivity, and digital skills remains the major challenge for women workforce. Women lack connectivity to the internet and digital skills. Some of this comes from lack of education for women, or cultural and social norms that lead to women’s exclusion from the digital world. Women and girls might struggle to access public ICT facilities due to unsafe roads or limits on their freedom of movement, or because the facilities are considered by some as unsuitable for women, or because women lack the financial independence to purchase digital technology or pay for internet connectivity.
However, weight of these issues differs internationally. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that women’s and men’s access to the internet differs around the world with women in Africa having the lowest proportion in internet access (20.2 per cent) compared to men (37.1 per cent). The highest proportions are in Europe, where 80.1 per cent of women and 85.1 per cent of men have access to the internet. In Asia and the Pacific, 41.3 per cent of women have internet access compared to 48.3 per cent men.
Lack of digital skills also impedes people from accessing the internet. In India, lack of skills and lack of perceived need for the internet were the primary limiting factors. The gender divide in connectivity and digital skills lessens women’s ability to search and apply for jobs, secure a job, and thrive in an existing job, not to mention the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills in operation for possible employment.
Women are less likely to have access to job platform sites. They are found 25 per cent less likely than men to use the internet to search for a job, and also 25 per cent less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic uses, such as using arithmetic formulas in a spreadsheet, and four times less likely to have computer programming skills. The report therefore calls for closing the digital gender divide.
It is in this backdrop AI is being deployed rapidly. Presently, too few women participate in AI-related jobs globally. This is a challenge for the future trajectory and development of AI systems, the report has warned. “If systems are not developed by diverse teams, they will be less likely to cater to the needs of diverse users or align to human rights – for example, online gaming is often questioned for its gender bias and other discriminatory features. Increasing the number and rate of women in AI-related entrepreneurship and innovation will be key to making AI development inclusive, the report emphasized.
At the current pace, women will not be involved in half of inventions patented with the five largest IP offices until 2080. Greater diversity of inventors is needed, especially to see emerging AI technologies consider the needs and rights of women and disadvantaged groups, the report said. The gender gap must be bridged, the report emphasized, so that more women can participate in the AI workforce, including in terms of leadership in the design and development of AI.
This challenge is at the cutting-edge of AI development. Dr. Susan Leavy of University College Dublin argues that over representation of men in the design of AI technologies could quietly undo decades of progress in gender equality.
She develops the argument stating that machine intelligence learns primarily from observing data that it is presented with. This data is laden with stereotypical concepts of gender, and thus the resulting application of the technology will perpetuate this bias. Women have a stake in building the digital economy to ensure that what the World Economic Forum brands as the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not perpetuate gender bias.
There is an urgent need to increase the rate of women on AI, data science and software engineering teams and to educate men in the technology sector on gender bias so that they can assess through a gender lens the data, design choices and social context in which algorithmic decision making is used. To do this, the report recommends reskilling and upskilling of women workforce, since the increased use of AI changes skill requirements within the workplace.
Another challenge is that AI system can reinforce gender stereotypes and would present greater challenges for the working lives of women. This includes AI systems used in the workplace, government, and rental spaces etc or at home. In domestic settings, AI Systems might rely on certain gendered stereotypes around care and assistance, and create an unequal and unconstructive model of flexible working, which reinforces the narrative of women primarily doing care and domestic work.
Further, the lack of transparency in AI systems’ functionality and output poses a challenge to understanding algorithmic biases and embedded discrimination. Societies and economies, therefore must prepare for the future of work by considering the influence of AI on the structure of labour market and its impact on gender equality. The report calls for working together of governments, industry, academia, and civil society to achieve the goal. (IPA)