Sara Daqiq is a Developer at Okta, a world leader in access management platforms. In this article, Sara addresses the importance of supporting and empowering women in STEM, as well as overcoming data bias through diversity
In the UK, only 15 per cent of engineering graduates are female. This is not because women are inherently less interested in STEM or less able, but because they have traditionally not been given the same opportunities in STEM subjects and careers due to entry barriers. Alongside this, the stereotypical image of male dominance in the sector has negatively affected attitudes towards women in STEM. This has contributed to the lack of female candidates for businesses to recruit, inherently creating a male-centric industry.
It is paramount for the government, businesses, institutions and schools to implement and drive change from the ground-up and for them to encourage more women to enter the sector from an early age. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is by helping foster female talent within STEM, particularly through non-profit initiatives globally, nationally and locally, and continued active engagement.
Fighting bias through equality
Bringing more women into the sector is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. In particular, as technologies such as AI and ML begin to take off, the importance and capacity of data and its frameworks is growing, and women are key in its development. Data has always been considered an end product, which highlights business and customer insights. Now, data is being fed within technologies from the very start of its development, responsible for informing our systems and making decisions. This is where potential data bias can evolve.
Several research centres, such as the AI Now Institute, have reported that voice and speech recognition systems performed worse for women. Most recently, YouGov found that close to two-thirds of women say voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa have difficulties responding to their commands because they are built predominantly by men, and therefore are built to better recognize the male voice.
In addition, a recent HR recruitment tool taught itself to downgrade female candidates because men have historically held technological jobs and, following the patterns it saw, viewed males as more suitable. As a result, Amazon had to shut down a number of AI-driven programmes. Facial recognition systems have also been more error-bound with female faces and in fact, find them it harder to identify than faces from minorities. Photos used to train computer systems include more white males than from any other demographic.
“A balanced developer-base will be key to developing robust, neutral frameworks and anticipating future challenges, helping to create successful end-products which work equally well for both men and women.”Sara Daqiq
Exposure is the first and most important step
Exposure to STEM is made more likely through private education or being closely located to major tech hubs such as Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout. Finding opportunities within STEM can otherwise be difficult during early education. There are even greater challenges in developing or war-torn countries like Afghanistan, where there are limited opportunities for STEM graduates.
There should be more community-led programs, such as the computer programming insights course in my hometown, Kabul, which piqued my interest and ignited my passion for technology. Alongside my teammates, I went on to create Afghan Girls Built, a programme developed to help US students give back to students from Kabul in technology-related fields when they visited the US in Summer, by encouraging them to teach classes on their favourite subjects.
Since starting my career at Okta, I’ve worked with Girls Who Code, the non-profit organisation which aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science, and I find it encouraging to see the difference giving young women the opportunity to learn coding can make. The alumni of Girls Who Code who went on to major in computer science is 15 times the national average.
There are many initiatives for businesses to get involved in, including in developing countries. For example, Indian Girls Code, a free program in India led by robotics education company Robotix, is inspiring girls to become involved in computer science and technology. It focuses particularly on girls who come from underprivileged backgrounds.
It’s important to remember that these communities require more than just investment. Businesses and leaders in STEM can give back by sharing career advice, knowledge, inspiration, experiences and resources to help educate and empower young women to consider a path in STEM. People who have carved out a career in STEM should give thought to going back to their schools or universities and educating the next generation on what STEM has brought to them, and why they should consider it for themselves, or volunteering through an organization that focuses on diversifying STEM.
Engage the next generation in STEM
It’s important for businesses and voices within the STEM community to give back and engage the next generation, especially women who have been dissuaded from STEM in the past due to social stigma. It is the next wave of developers, scientists and programmers which are key to businesses future prosperity, so it’s in their best interests to open the next generations’ eyes.
Ideally, inspiring the next generation of women in technology and science fields must then lead to continued engagement, with access to a career ladder to climb. In developing countries, retained engagement, coupled with education in these subjects can open the door to job opportunities. A career in STEM has the ability to give women financial independence, an agent for changing lives for the better.
Social media and empowerment
With the rise of social media, it’s never been easier for leaders and mentors to reach out to aspiring members of the STEM community. Social media platforms have the benefit of cutting out the middle-man, giving people direct access to anyone and any community with a social media account. Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and online forums have become hot spots where young people in STEM can feel connected, discuss careers in STEM, hear from role models and help others by sharing experiences.
A recent movement on Instagram, where women in science use the hashtag #ScientistsWhoSelfie, reveals a community where women feel empowered by connecting and sharing their stories. This hashtag has become a powerful tool in encouraging young, diverse women to come into the sector, breaking down the stereotype of what scientists have historically looked like. Businesses can give back via social media by using their own social networks to promote diversity, as well as hosting programmes, forums and blogs where young people can come for advice and inspiration.
There’s never been a better or more crucial time to give back to our communities in STEM. The lack of representation is already creating repercussions when it comes to general product design, and bias within AI. To ensure female talent avoids slipping through the net, it will take a full-fledged drive from the ground-up, giving back to the community and offering a lending hand to our future workforce.