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IWD 2024: Why female representation is key to unlocking AI’s full potential
Fri, 8th Mar 2024

For years, data and AI has been largely dominated by men. Despite women making up half of the UK population, only 22% of AI and data professionals are women. While there has been a positive shift in more women joining the field in recent years, bringing with them diverse perspectives and untapped potential, we cannot ignore the barriers and biases that still persist.

Increasing female representation in AI is not just the right thing to do, but it’s the intelligent thing to do. Excluding women from this crucial field risks overlooking a vast pool of untapped talent for the industry. Research shows that more diverse and inclusive companies are 35% more likely to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. Without an inclusive workforce, diversity of thought is hindered, which not only limits women’s advancements but also prevents AI from reaching its full potential.

Falling short of industry talent

While the number of women studying STEM is rising globally, women still only represent a small number of graduates in the AI talent pipeline. It’s estimated that only a third of those who study STEM subjects go on to careers in the area. In fact, the number of positions held by women in entry-level STEM positions dropped from a shocking 35% to 11% this year alone. The leak in the talent pipeline not only prevents women from pursuing careers in tech but also hinders the industry of its talent and diverse perspectives.

Mind the gap

But beyond mere statistics, women in AI still encounter covert and overt biases as well as general microaggressions that can cause significant damage to their confidence and sense of belonging in the field. Microaggressions can come in many forms, some of which include being talked over in meetings, having your ideas and opinions discredited or being made to feel less technologically inclined compared to your male counterparts. Whether it be conscious or unconscious, microaggressions not only undermine the value and credibility of women in tech but risk perpetuating harmful biases in the industry.

By sharing their own stories and experiences, women can help raise the visibility of gender disparities in the industry. This is so important to foster an inclusive environment that supports and mentors other women. Take our Women in Data and AI initiative, for example, our online group of nearly 2,000 members. The in-person events provide safe spaces for women and gender-diverse people to network, share experiences, and learn from each other. Alongside mentorship programmes, these types of initiatives can play a crucial role in helping to steer women’s career paths and build a network of support.

Challenging the norm is another way that can be a fundamental push for change. For too long, tech sector panels have predominantly featured all white men, but this no longer should be accepted as the default, and it must be challenged. Prioritising inclusivity and taking some responsibility for creating positive change to champion the voices of more inspiring women in the sector is vital.

Encouraging a flexible working culture

The Covid pandemic has inadvertently highlighted the significance of flexible work arrangements, especially for women whose careers were initially impacted by heightened domestic responsibilities. As some women found themselves juggling work alongside caring and household duties, it shed light on the need for flexible working patterns that would accommodate domestic responsibilities without compromising professional growth.

In the years since lockdown lifted, many employers have demanded a return to the workplace. However, research by Gartner shows that rigid return-to-office policies risk losing women from the workforce altogether.

To encourage more women to stay in the sector, embracing flexible work options is essential when looking to retain top talent. Flexonomics, a report from Flex Appeal and Sir Robert McAlpine, found that if more organisations embraced flexible working, the UK economy could unlock a further £55bn in benefits. If lots of organisations are demonstrating the success of a flexible working balance that suits the needs of both employer and employee, why can’t others? Encouraging working options that appeal to a broad range of talent is a no-brainer.

Seeing is believing

While roadblocks still stand in our way, there is hope for our industry. More networking events and mentoring opportunities will create more inclusive environments for women working in data and AI. But more people must also recognise the value that flexible working brings to encourage and retain more women in the sector.

Achieving true gender equality in AI is not just a tick-in-the-box. It's about unlocking the full potential of the field that benefits us all. By fostering inclusivity, dismantling biases, and creating supportive structures, we can pave the way for a future where women not only have a seat at the table but also play a leading role in shaping the future of AI.

But it’s a case of needing to see it to be it. Being visible is key to changing this status quo for the future.