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Decoding equality: Changing the world one line at a time

22 Oct 2019Inclusion

When technology is built by a narrow demographic, research shows it tends to reflect their unconscious biases. The solution? Get more women and girls, BAME and LGBTQ people into that workforce to write diversity into the code the tech sits on. We meet some of the next generation of engineers.

Martha Jukes looks pensive for the first time in what is a very animated conversation, characteristic of a young woman who is in her element.

“The talk yesterday really inspired me…It was just fascinating to see the progress that she’d made in her career – that she’s now a manager and she’s a woman”, she says of Emma Smith, Vodafone’s global cyber security director.

“I see lots of women workers in STEM subjects, but never really managers or bosses, or the lead creator or anything like that.”

“That’s made me feel a lot more confident, because I always imagined myself as one of the people just working beneath, never as the boss in a company.”

“I’ve never ever imagined that, and that kind of made me think, oh, you know, I suppose eventually one day you could work your way up to being the head of a game development team leading and directing.”

Martha is 16, working towards A-levels in computer science, psychology, and maths. A keen coder, she wants a career in gaming as a programmer.

And that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s more vital than some realise.

Picture imperfect

When asked to draw a mathematician or a doctor – almost invariably the majority of children make them a male professional.

In a recent social experiment conducted by MullenLowe for the charity Inspiring the Future, a small group of elementary school children were asked to draw various professionals.

The outcome was 66 drawings, but only five of women.

The iconic Draw-a-Scientist Test reinforces these findings on an even greater scale with years of research repeated many times over.

In the original study, 99.4% of drawings depicted a male scientist. Of 5,000 collected between 1966 and 1977, only 28 were of female scientists – all drawn by girls.

Fifty years, 78 studies, and 20,860 pupils (years K‐12) later, meta-analysis found that in the most recent study female representation rose (28%) but the majority were still white (80%) and still male (72%).

What is more – the older the student, the more likely they were to draw a man.

One of the core dangers is that stereotypes restrict and perpetuate biases. And these biases can have a detrimental impact.

Picture credit: Aaron Burden / Unsplash

Miscalculated / does not compute

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the European Parliament predicts around seven million new STEM jobs by 2025 in Europe alone.

Digital skills are central to these roles.

But the gender disparity in STEM education is striking. As students move on to higher education, only 35% of students enrolled in STEM-related fields are female, and less than 30% of all of the world’s researchers are women.

“I do think girls don’t really get pushed into STEM as much as boys. The cyber security course that I went to last week, there were 20 girls and 30 boys – and they were saying it’s always over crowded with boys,” says Iffe, a 15-year-old student from London.

“I don’t think people really see computing and coding, IT, as a major career choice for girls.”

She, like Martha, is on a #CodeLikeAGirl course – a free global coding programme for girls from Vodafone in partnership with Code First Girls

The diversity imperative – computer says know…

Why it is imperative that girls and women get involved in STEM.

Joy is an MIT graduate, a Fulbright fellow, the winner of several awards and has been listed on the BBC’s 100 Women in 2018, and America’s Top 50 Women in Tech by Forbes.

Over a million people have watched her Ted talk.

But on a facial recognition system used around the world – she was unrecognisable.

This doesn’t mean the system didn’t recognise that she was a distinguished individual. She was quite literally – invisible.

Joy Buolamwini is a woman of colour.

Joy realised people who were coding algorithms had failed to programme the software(s) to identify range of skin tones and facial structures.

On a trip to Hong Kong, the same generic facial recognition software was in use – and in Hong Kong, Joy was once again, invisible.

“I learned that algorithmic bias can travel as quickly as it takes to download some files to the internet,” she says.

Algorithms are used on a global scale – they are ubiquitous, as they help to sift through huge swathes of data generated on a daily basis.

Which means we’re increasingly dependent on essentially man made sets of rules to understand these data sets, together with machine based artificial intelligence (AI).

So if there is coded bias, the consequences are at best discrimination – at worst, life threatening.

Technology is the backbone of our modern world. It has the power to transform lives.

Which means a balanced and diverse representation in STEM is needed to make sure this is coded into our increasingly digital society.

Equal access to STEM education and careers is a necessity not only as a human right, but from a scientific and development point of view, according to UNESCO.

As Holly Oegema simply says in her article The Importance of Diversity in Tech:

“Problems can easily arise when something needs to be developed for an entire population, but only a small segment of that population is put in charge of addressing that issue”.

Back at the #CodeLikeAGirl training, the girls are working to change that.

Participants at Vodafone's Code Like A Girl workshop at Paddington, London. Picture credit: Vodafone Group

Future perfect

“We did python in school and I really struggled with that, and it really put me off coding,” says Iffe.

“In the other course we were in a group – it was three boys and two girls. I don’t think they did it on purpose, but I asked the boys when I didn’t understand – and they would just say ‘oh she doesn’t know how to do it – so I’ll just do it for her’. But they didn’t teach us.”

“The coding we’re doing here – the teachers are really helpful, and they properly go over it. Also being with groups of people that actually know how to code, it’s made it easier – all the HTML, CSS – things that I would not know how to do – it’s so much easier for me to do now”

Gemma, 17 and the STEM leader for her school, is doing A Levels in maths, further maths and chemistry, and has come to learn and be with like-minded people.

“I learnt so much, HTML, lots of different programming languages, like Java Script, CSS Bootstrap. And we’re also using this application called Github, which I actually think they use in industry as well,” she says.

“So I think it’s good to start learning that early because I actually want to become a software developer when I’m older.”

Ana, 14 is studying computer science, art, Latin and maths.

“I want to be a designer or mathematician – both of which predominately rely on computing. I hear there are more women needed in all fields, particularly in STEM,” she says

“I think things are changing, and girls are being given more opportunities in STEM, but I feel like we still have to work for the equality we deserve.”

“Technology is changing so much recently and it’s going to continue. I think we’re never going to quite know what we’re going to need. But having basic skills and being able to use what’s available now will then help later on,” says Oliva, 15.

Gemma agrees.

“Technology is so big. There’s so much room for innovation and inventions, it’s everything. It’s just so broad. It’s such a crucial skill to be able to code because in any job you could be asked to program,” she says.

“And there’s loads we don’t know about yet. New things are being developed as we speak. And at such a fast rate.”

Watch this space.

Research

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/the-digital-skills-gap-is-widening-fast-heres-how-to-bridge-it/

https://epale.ec.europa.eu/fr/content/e-skills-and-jobs-digital-age

http://eskills-scale.eu/news/single-view/the-high-tech-skills-gap-in-europe-will-reach-500000-in-2025-with-a-strong-polarisation-of-skills-needed.html

https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/policies/digital-skills

  • Coding
  • Connectivity
  • Human rights
  • Inclusion