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MPW 2023: Women’s representation in tech still lags even as newer technologies pose fresh challenges

MPW 2023: Women’s representation in tech still lags even as newer technologies pose fresh challenges

The gender gap is nothing new for women in tech, but emerging technologies are posing new challenges, like algorithmic biases and cybersecurity attacks aided by artificial intelligence. This calls for urgent action

The gender gap is nothing new for women in tech, but emerging technologies are posing new challenges, like algorithmic biases and cybersecurity attacks aided by artificial intelligence. This calls for urgent action The gender gap is nothing new for women in tech, but emerging technologies are posing new challenges, like algorithmic biases and cybersecurity attacks aided by artificial intelligence. This calls for urgent action

In the ever-evolving landscape of today’s tech industry, the under-representation of women in the workforce is a debilitating reality. The gender gap is not only an issue of equity or equality, but also stands as an obstacle in the path of innovation. Hence, closing this divide isn’t just an exercise in brushing up the industry’s credentials, rather it’s a strategic imperative, necessary for the industry’s and society’s holistic growth.

Starting from the low representation of women in the tech workforce to the minuscule number of women-founded start-ups and the problems they face in raising funding, this gender gap manifests itself in other more concerning aspects, like the effects of algorithmic biases on women’s lives, and the weaponisation of AI-based tools to perpetrate cybercrimes against women. These varied concerns necessitate a re-evaluation of the tech industry’s attitude towards diversity, inclusivity and security.

While women make up 36 per cent of India’s tech workforce, per data from Nasscom, their share in the workforce drops drastically as one starts looking up the corporate hierarchy. For instance, only 7 per cent women held executive-level positions, according to Skillsoft’s 2022 Women in Tech Report India Region, while only 13 per cent were working in director-level roles, and 17 per cent held mid-level managerial positions.

Srividya Kannan, Founder and Director of Bengaluru-based digital solutions firm Avaali Solutions, cites the highly competitive and demanding nature of tech-sector jobs, topped up with a culture and work environment that makes it difficult for women to balance work and family life, as some of the reasons behind the drop in women’s participation in senior management roles. That apart, “One of the critical challenges is the pervasive gender bias and discrimination that still exists in the workplace, especially in the tech sector,” she says.

Token Measures

While tech firms have taken some steps to improve the diversity of their workforce in a bid to improve women’s representation, Madhushree Dutta, Head of HR at cloud services firm Pure Storage India, explains that token representation will not make much of a difference. “The changes have to be systemic. Token representation just to show diversity and inclusivity on paper will not make a difference,” she says, adding that women employees need to be nurtured from early on in their careers. “They need to be shown how their growth can play out in a company.”

Another challenging aspect of the gender gap is the drop in the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-focussed roles compared to the number of women graduating from STEM-focussed courses. Data from World Bank shows that women make up nearly 43 per cent of the total STEM graduates in India, but account for only 14 per cent of all scientists, engineers and technologists.

Dutta says that corporates and policymakers need to deploy robust measures to ensure that women in STEM roles are supported and retained from the early stages of their careers. “The drop from colleges to corporate shows that there is a need to improve retention of women in the industry. We need to narrow down the problem, why are women dropping off?” she asks. “If it’s about a lack of opportunities, then we need to give them a clearly defined career path. If it’s because of work-life balance, we need to support them as they address the issue. Support from the company is critical to bring any positive changes.”

But the gender gap is not just restricted to big tech firms. Even the new-age start-up ecosystem is grappling with the dismal participation of women. Avaali’s Kannan says one reason for this concerning trend is the lack of funding available to women-founded start-ups. She says, “Limited access to funding and resources for female-led start-ups and businesses continues to contribute to the under-representation of women in leadership positions”.

Kavita Gupta, Founder and Managing Partner of Delta Blockchain Fund, concurs. Citing the example of her current fund that supports 50-odd companies, she says that less than 10 per cent of those have female founders. She explains that while on the one hand, not many women-led start-ups receive the required funding, on the other, there are only a handful of funds being run by female investors. “The ratios are extremely skewed. This is because limited partners, be it family offices, endowment funds, institutional investors, sovereign wealth funds, etc., are not confident enough to let women lead VC funds. This mindset has to change as this would bring about a change in the whole ecosystem.”

According to a report from Harvard Business Review, start-ups founded solely by women receive less than 3 per cent of all venture capital investments, while less than 15 per cent of the cheque-writers in VC investing are women. While funding for women-led start-ups and the minuscule number of women VC investors are structural issues that need to be dealt with on a much larger scale, there’s another aspect of how biases against women creep into the development of emerging technologies and impact the lives of women. It’s visible in the increasing usage of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that have been found to be discriminating against women. An example is the usage of AI algorithms by Amazon earlier to sort through resumes for its tech recruiting process. Over time, the company found that the algorithm preferred male sounding names over female sounding names, which showcased a clear bias.

Jaspreet Bindra, Founder and MD of tech advisory Tech Whisperer, says the reason AI algorithms give such results is because of the data they are trained on. “The AI had learnt from data of Amazon’s past recruits, who were mostly white, and certainly male. The AI system looked at this data, learnt from it, and therefore, became predisposed towards selecting white males.” The use of the AI algorithm was discontinued by Amazon after the issue came to light.

Troubled by Tech

Delta’s Gupta, who invests in companies building emerging tech-based products and services, says that this bias needs to be identified and corrected in the development stages as the use of AI-based products and services becomes more ubiquitous. “As AI becomes more pervasive, this issue might grow manifold. You will see more instances of biases against women as more tasks get automated via AI. Hence, there is a need for transparency around the data on which AI models are trained to ensure that the users are aware of the biases and their impact,” she says.

In that backdrop, Sray Agarwal, Principal Consultant-AI at Fractal Analytics, says that these biases can be identified and addressed by first ensuring that the data is clean. He says, “Data sets should be free of gender-specific information or any proxies that indirectly reflect gender.” This involves meticulous data-curation to eliminate biases. “Secondly, implementing rigorous tests throughout the data science and product development lifecycle is essential.” These tests, based on statistical analyses, help identify and rectify the biases at different stages of the process, ensuring that a system remains unbiased. He adds that seeking the approval of, or validation from, an Ethics Committee or Governance Council is also crucial. “This ensures an independent review of the AI system’s fairness and adherence to ethical standards, which works as a crucial layer of oversight and accountability.”

Apart from algorithmic biases, women are also likely to be disproportionately impacted by AI as automation takes over the workforce. Tech Whisperer’s Bindra reasons that since a lot of women tend to be in lower ranking positions in the tech industry, they stand to suffer more from the impact of new technologies like AI and automation. “Contact/call centre employees are usually women. Across the world, the ratio of women doing these jobs is high, and AI and generative AI could replace or reduce some of these jobs. And again, women would suffer disproportionately.”

Avaali’s Kannan says that upskilling can dampen the impact of the irrelevance of skills due to the increased usage of automation and AI, irrespective of gender. She adds that policymakers and corporate houses together need to ensure that people’s livelihoods are not disrupted by AI.

Another area where the development of these technologies is impacting women more than men, is in how these technologies are being used by people. Recent examples show that deepfakes are being used to target women of prominence. With no control over who can use them, and no norms over what uses these technologies can be put to, deepfakes have become the latest tool being used to target women on online platforms. “Deepfakes are created to target women more than men. Over 90 per cent of the deepfakes around the world are created from a pornographic standpoint. But not for consumers of pornography. They are used to embarrass, demean and destroy the dignity of women in public spaces and society,” says Bindra.

Per research from Amsterdam-based cybersecurity firm Sensity (earlier called Deeptrace), over 97 per cent of the pornographic content made using deepfake tech were videos of women. Danielle Citron, a law professor at University of Virginia School of Law and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, says, “Deepfake technology is being weaponised against women by inserting their faces into porn. It is terrifying, embarrassing, demeaning and silencing. Deepfake videos say to individuals that their bodies are not their own and can make it difficult to stay online, get or keep a job, and feel safe.”

With the recent instances of viral deepfake videos, the Indian government has also swung into action. India’s IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had recently said that the government is working on a law to regulate the issue. But Fractal’s Agarwal says that not only the government, but even tech and social media firms need to play their part in curbing the menace.

While in the larger scheme of things, technology is proving to be a great leveller of the various inequalities in our society, recent trends in the domain of technology development and deployment show that the path to equitable representation in tech demands concerted efforts from both industry leaders and policymakers. From combating algorithmic biases to addressing funding disparities, the journey towards gender inclusivity is multifaceted. Hence, as we navigate the complex intersection of technology and diversity, a collective commitment to gender inclusivity is paramount to ensure a future where innovation thrives through the confluence of diverse voices. 


Published on: Dec 11, 2023, 1:34 PM IST
Posted by: Priya Raghuvanshi, Dec 11, 2023, 1:07 PM IST