Shadows of gleam

Beneath the shining surface of AI—believed to open up a world of opportunities—lurk the dark spots of inherent gender biases that may offset the gains made towards parity

Shadows of gleam

In today’s world of rapid and continuous technical advancements, digital technologies have become widespread in almost all facets of socio-political and economic life, including governance systems, communications, and production, which not only revolutionize workplaces, human interactions, and trade networks but also hold a promise for almost everything we can dream of. Artificial intelligence has recently improved due to digitalization, which broadly refers to the shift from conventional methods to the advancement of machine learning. This includes the Internet of Things, social media, mobile internet, cloud computing, robotics, the availability of large datasets, and improved computer capabilities.

The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ has generated employment and entrepreneurial prospects. On the other hand, it has also brought with it a new digital economy across developed and developing countries, rendering certain positions and tasks obsolete. It is also worth noting that not all individuals are reaping the same advantages from the prospects presented by the fourth industrial revolution. Since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the process of digitalization has experienced a rapid increase in speed. Additionally, there has been a significant advancement in women’s rights, economic empowerment, and technology during the past century. Nevertheless, a significant digital gender gap still exists, limiting the equitable realization of the benefits for women and girls and resulting in their underrepresentation in technical domains. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF, 2024), it would take another 134 years to achieve gender equality on a global scale. Every aspect of our daily lives, especially for women who make up over half of the world's population, will see an even greater impact from AI. However, women are falling behind, especially in the field of artificial intelligence. Digital technologies have the potential to generate opportunities for women to assume leadership roles, engage in, and benefit from technological advancements. However, the underrepresentation of women in AI research and development (R&D) exacerbates gender discrimination and restricts women's economic opportunities. Furthermore, due to the prevalence of harmful stereotypes and biases in algorithms and the absence of appropriate policy facilitators, digital technologies have the potential to strengthen gender stereotypes, which exacerbate economic and social marginalization. Unlike the largely repealed overt and legally sanctioned discrimination of the past, such as restrictions on women's rights to vote, attend university, or enter certain professions, second-generation gender biases shape today's era of artificial intelligence. Today's setting overlooks, hides, and frequently ingrains these modern stereotypes into social norms, rather than explicitly stating them in regulations. In modern artificial intelligence organizations, men primarily hold senior positions, while female voices primarily serve virtual personal assistants (VPAs) and advanced humanoid robots such as Alexa, Siri, Sophia, Ameca, Jia, and Nadine. The study conducted by UNESCO and EQUALS indicates that the design of voice assistants perpetuates the gender bias that exists in personal and professional contexts. This promotes conventional societal norms that assign women to nurturing roles and supportive positions.

In addition, developing generative AI technologies has the ability to produce digital avatars or images that frequently portray women in a very sexualized manner, which stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of males as being more focused on their professional and career-oriented pursuits. The ongoing progress of generative AI and robotics is gradually revealing their impact on women's economic and social equality.

It is crucial to evaluate whether contemporary artificial intelligence is effectively resolving the gender equality concerns that have bothered policymakers for decades. Technology is essential in the preservation of women's rights to education, employment, suffrage, public office, and protection against gender discrimination. Are policymakers taking the necessary steps to prevent the perpetuation of historical biases in the AI systems of today?

We must prioritize the gender perspective in our approach to digital transformation and AI. Without intentional decisions, AI will not automatically eliminate biases. We aim to overcome the past of undervaluing women and girls in comparison to men and boys at every stage, as reflected in much of the existing data that informs even the best algorithms. Technology often misuses women and girls, subjecting them to surveillance and trafficking, instead of empowering them with access to entrepreneurial opportunities, joint ventures, education, healthcare, and financial stability.

Artificial intelligence is poised to shape the future. Without equal input from women, it will continue to reflect a male-dominated world. Influencers who denigrate women and promote misogyny and toxic masculinity among millions of young men and boys exacerbate this issue.

The male-dominated control of new technologies is reversing decades of progress on women's rights. We must keep going despite patriarchal resistance for the benefit of women and girls and all communities and societies.

The writer is Director, School of Law, Fairfield Institute of Management & Technology. Views expressed are personal

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