Wrote this piece for Plan International (my employer) on the occasion of Girls in ICT Day 2018.
If Alexa or Siri could, they’d probably be saying “Me too”. But they haven’t been programmed that way. Instead, these personal assistant bots are more likely to be evasive or even respond positively when sexually harassed. While officially genderless, both Siri and Alexa have feminine names and default female voices; it’s hard not to see their evasion as condoning the sexual harassment of women.
Neither Siri nor Alexa of course have a mind of their own. They have been programmed to respond to prompts in one way or another. Last year, digital news outlet Quartz tested how they respond to sexual harassment: in response to “You’re a slut”, Siri said “I’d blush if I could”. Someone had programmed it that way.
I bet that person was a man: some three-quarters of staff in tech firms are.
Girls must be encouraged to create
The digital gender divide is particularly large when it comes to girls and women as creators of technology. As AI becomes ubiquitous, this is increasingly a problem: without girls' and women's perspectives, we risk creating tools, solutions, and systems that reproduce and perpetuate existing gender inequalities – as well as fail to address the unique issues and challenges girls and women face.
This is not merely a hypothetical risk. Already, we’ve seen “comprehensive” health apps that come without period trackers because the developers didn’t see menstruation as a core bodily function worth tracking. Research has shown that AI-powered facial recognition systems are particularly poor at recognising darker skinned women’s faces. And machines currently provide gender-biased translationacross languages, assuming someone who is a nurse, for example, is always a woman.
This is a problem. Women and girls constitute half of the world’s inhabitants, and if we’re not involved in creating our common digital future, it will be created for us.
Getting tech into the hands of girls
As a girls’ rights organisation, Plan International is working to get technology and technical skills into the hands of girls themselves. We believe it is vital to provide girls in developing countries, including those without access to formal education, with opportunities to themselves create technology and digital solutions that address their needs – which is essential. A "brogrammer" in Silicon Valley is unlikely to understand what benefits a teenage girl in Ecuador could gain from technology.
We walk the talk too. In Uganda and Ethiopia, we have set up SmartUp Factory innovation hubs, where marginalised youth – including girls – can access and try out digital tools and technologies. In an environment that is safe for and encouraging of girls, they are supported to develop their own solutions for communal problems using methodologies such as human-centred design.
In Timor-Leste, Plan International has worked with girls and young women to develop the country’s first sexual and reproductive health app, designed to provide youth with easy access to reliable information on topics they often have no one to ask about. And in China, we have worked with teachers to influence their views on which gender is more “suitable” for careers in ICT.
This work is important. If we don’t want women looking for a job online to be less likely to be showntargeted ads for high-paying roles than their male counterparts, and if don’t want AI to be more likely to label people who are cooking and cleaning as women, but people who are playing sports and shooting as men, we need to increase the number of women engaged in creating technology.
Digital equality will help create an equal society
We also need to make technology our ally. Beyond creating digital tools and solutions that address the needs of girls and women, like apps to improve street safety or ones that connect mothers and mothers-to-be, we need to explore the potential of creating gender transformative technology, i.e. tech that seeks to transform unequal gender power relations and actively challenges the prevailing status quo.
An example of this type of tech is Sheboard, a predictive text app developed by Plan International in Finland together with girls and young women. The app works just like a regular keyboard, but challenges prevailing gender stereotypes of girls being primarily pretty or beautiful, by suggesting empowering words such as “strong”, “smart”, and “clever”, following phrases like “I am” or “my daughter is”.
The future is digital, and if the majority of humankind is not involved in creating that future, we’re in trouble. Instead of allowing tech to perpetuate gender inequality, let’s harness its power for the opposite and create a gender equal society where no one loses out.