The consequences of excluding women from innovation in technology
Women need to be factored in the innovation process for better outcomes
During Women’s Month, it’s fitting to consider the position of women in information and communications technology (ICT) and what that means for the world. Women remain deeply underrepresented in this sector and our society is the poorer for it.
The technology space is essentially about innovation — creating and developing ways to improve lives. This can only be done optimally when women are intimately involved in the process.
There are a number of examples of the alarming consequences of not involving women in innovation.
Voice recognition, technology using artificial intelligence, initially struggled to respond to women’s voice commands. This was because it was developed by men.
There were similar blind spots in the development of artificial hearts. When first developed in 2013, according to Vice, these were three times heavier than an actual human heart and only 20% of women could accommodate them. By contrast, 86% of men qualified for an artificial heart transplant.
When airbags were first introduced, crash-test dummies were used to refine how they worked. The dummies were, however, the same size and weight as an adult male. So despite the deployment of these tested airbags, many women and children were still dying in crashes. Only 30 years later was a female crash-test dummy introduced to measure the effect of airbags on women.
Here again women’s perspectives were ignored simply because of the preponderance of men on the tech design team. When women and children die because of this, all of us suffer and gender transformation of the industry becomes an urgent priority.
Improving lives must include the lived experience of women. The best way to achieve this is to encourage the advancement of women in the technology industry through education and a culture change.
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gains pace and trends such as automation and robots start to transform the workforce, women will be the most affected. Gender inequality means manual jobs such as factory work done by women will be automated, such as “sewbots” replacing seamstresses.
These trends will also create many jobs. But for women to gain access to those jobs, they need to have the correct skills and be encouraged to enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths).
In the US, for instance, according to the Population Education blog, only 35% of STEM undergraduates are women and only one in seven female STEM graduates goes on to work in those fields. The World Economic Forum reports that women make up only 26% of the STEM workforce in developed countries.
In SA, the gender imbalance is similarly large. The Women in Tech initiative asserts that of an estimated 236,000 SA tech jobs, only 23%, or 56,000 of them, are held by women. Fixing this will take real commitment.
But the playing field is uneven from the start. From childhood, girls are more likely to lose out on a quality education due to the inequality of gender roles, and because of violence against women and children. Poor availability of menstrual products, the marginalisation of girls in the family and the fear of violence and harassment on school commutes all handicap women’s life opportunities.
Boosting women in tech must thus start with boosting women in society, in education and in the workplace. This means addressing the root causes of gender inequality — the literacy gap, the pay gap, sexual violence and employment policies.
This is not simply a moral imperative — women’s empowerment has concrete financial benefits. A study by Catalyst found that companies with the most women on their top management teams experienced financial performance 34% better than companies with the lowest representation of women.
Despite the clear benefits of gender equality, its implementation has been slow. Men have a significant role to play in remedying this. A McKinsey report found that men were less aware of the unique work challenges that women faced and were less convinced that women could lead as effectively as men.
This speaks to corporate culture. Changing it requires a clear and ongoing commitment to gender equality from the top of an organisation. Male managers should sponsor and mentor female colleagues, and performance reviews should be restructured to eliminate gender bias – for instance, where it disadvantages women who take maternity leave.
At Huawei, this has meant emphasising gender equality in employment, prohibiting gender bias in all its forms, and supporting initiatives to inspire and train women and girls in the tech space in which the company operates.
Huawei's vice-president for wireless networks marketing and solutions, Dr Mohammed Madkour, said on a recent visit to SA that the Fourth Industrial Revolution “must be built on collaboration. It must include everyone. Women are needed in ICT now than ever as it is the platform for all industries, and their skills and creativity will enrich many economies.”
The social benefits of women reaching leadership positions in technology are already clear. Companies such as NVision, led by engineer Surbhi Sarna, are developing improved technology to detect ovarian cancer. Leah Sparks and Katherine Bellevin have created Due Date Plus, a smartphone-enabled maternity programme. Software created by developer Margaret Hamilton helped put a man on the moon.
In fact, one of the innovations that modern ICT is built on was developed by a woman. Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, with co-inventor George Antheil, invented a type of radio communications that could “hop” from one frequency to another, so that allied torpedoes could avoid detection during World War 2. Lamarr’s scientific triumph is now used in modern wireless communication.
These women have been trailblazers, but sadly they remain a minority in the technology space. By demanding that they take their rightful place in the workplace, Huawei is campaigning for social justice and ensuring that the human race is best equipped to meet the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and of a dynamic, uncertain future.
This article was paid for by Huawei.
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