A UNESCO publication produced in collaboration with Germany and the EQUALS Skills Coalition, I’d Blush if I Could, features recommendations on actions to overcome global gender gaps in digital skills, with a special examination of the impact of gender prejudice coded into some of the most prevalent artificial intelligence (AI) applications such as digital voice assistants.
The publication locates this prejudice in the gender imbalance of technical teams leading the development of frontier technologies and identifies policy solutions to help women and girls cultivate strong digital skills.
The recommendations about the gendering of AI are urgent in light of the explosive growth of voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa technology. Almost all of the assistants are given female names and voices and express a ‘personality’ that is engineered to be uniformly subservient.
The title of the publication borrows its name from the response that Siri, the Apple voice assistant used by hundreds of millions of people, gave for several years when users insulted ‘her’.
The gendered submissiveness and servility expressed by so many other ‘female’ digital assistants illustrate the gender biases coded into AI products. As the publication explains, these biases are rooted in stark gender-imbalances in skills education and in the technology sector.
The new publication advises companies and governments to:
1. end the practice of making digital assistants female by default;
2. explore the feasibility of developing a neutral ‘machine gender’ for voice assistants that is neither male nor female;
3. programme digital assistants to discourage gender-based insults and abusive language;
4. encourage interoperability so that users can change digital assistants, as desired;
5. require that operators of AI-powered voice assistants announce the technology as non-human at the outset of interactions with human users; and, most vitally,
6. develop the advanced technical skills of women and girls so they can steer the creation of new technologies alongside men.
According to Saniye Gülser Corat, Director of Gender Equality at UNESCO, “Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices. Their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves. To change course, we need to pay much closer attention to how, when and whether AI technologies are gendered and, crucially, who is gendering them.”
Although many leading digital assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Assistant are less than five years old, they now rank among the most recognized ‘women’ globally. Giving a female veneer to technology is affecting perceptions of gender in digital and analogue environments alike.
The publication explains that to address gender bias in AI, teams developing this technology must be more gender-balanced. Today 12% of AI researchers are women. Women represent only 6% of software developers and are 13 times less likely to file ICT (information and communication technology) patents than men.
Bridging these gender gaps requires gender-responsive digital skills education. The publication features numerous recommendations on how to make technology studies more inclusive of women and girls and describes examples of good practice from around the world.
Finally, I’d Blush if I Could brings to light an unexpected finding: Countries that are closer to achieving gender equality overall, such as those in Europe, have the fewest women pursuing the advanced skills needed for careers in the technology sector. Conversely, countries with low levels of gender equality, such as those in the Arab region, have the largest percentage of women pursuing advanced technology degrees. For example, in Belgium only 6% of ICT graduates are women, while in the United Arab Emirates this figure is 58%. This paradox underscores the need for measures to encourage women’s inclusion in digital skills education in all countries.
The new publication was produced through a collaboration between UNESCO and EQUALS, a global partnership of governments and organizations dedicated to promoting gender balance in the technology sector by championing equality of access, skills and leadership for women and men alike. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development supported the publication financially and provided substantive input on the content.