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Diversity in Digital: Debugging Social Bias

Whether it be the pay gap, harassment in Hollywood or sexism across the political sphere, one topic which has circulated with regular occurrence of late is gender equality. Within the context of the digital industry there is no less prominent a discrepancy, particularly concerning the representation of women in tech roles – or rather, the lack thereof.

A 2016 study into gender representation in the digital industry by recruitment agency The Candidate determined that women were successfully paving their way in this previously male-dominated industry within ’soft skills’ roles such as marketing and social media, PR, communications and account management. Roles perceived as more technical, such as DevOps and back-end coding, were filled by their male counterparts.

Women who have climbed to the top of the industry, however, are now rising to the next step: actively trying to increase the female contingent in and promote professional avenues across the sector for women, while taking a closer look at the social biases coded into society.

The same year, Annie Moss-Quate and Rose Montague were invited to host an event at the inaugural Leeds Digital Festival 2016. Unimpressed by the number of women they came across in key digital roles, they collaborated to host a speed networking session. She Does Digital was born.

She Does Digital’s sell-out event made waves among collectives of people passionate about diversity within the ever-growing Leeds digital scene. Leeds Digital Festival 2018 events such as She Does Hey!, All Points North, and the Founders Friday and KPMG Mentor Lounge puts female role models centre-stage, handing the mic to women at the forefront of industry to share their wealth of experience with fellow business people and digital enthusiasts, as well as encouraging more women to step forward into both business and tech.

Meanwhile aql and Bigword’s #GirlTechLCR, organised by the Ahead Partnership, at Leeds Digital Festival, will reach out to over 100 students at six schools in the region, giving them the opportunity to meet digital employers through panels, speakers and workshops, as well as the chance to discover the variety of roles available in this diverse sector – routes to which might not be immediately obvious. For the creative writing or psychology students, how many realise their skills are suited to advising on AI personalities, or ensuring an optimised user experience?

This outreach approach seems particularly effective. Lola Wilson, Marketing and Business Development Coordinator, says, “After events like this we’ve seen the number of students considering a career in digital almost double in previous years, so we’re very excited to be offering this to even more students this year.”

While young people have a clear interest in technology, gender imbalance remains a prominent issue. In the final quarter of 2017 alone, reports from the Office for National Statistics indicate unemployment among young women ages 16 – 24 rose by 21,000, while unemployment among young men – who are filling roles in the ever-expanding digital sector – decreased. Ahead Partnership have gone back to school to ask why more qualified women aren’t entering the digital workforce, with some disheartening results:

The latest research shows that 30% of girls aged 11-16 think ICT at school is “more for boys”, and less than half of girls questioned were clear about the types of jobs they could do in tech. Considering that only 26% of the UK tech workforce is female, employers could go a long way towards meeting their skills needs if they made a concerted effort to attract more women to the right roles.

Capturing the imagination of girls to break down these biased perceptions early on, and offering training opportunities to equip young women for a job in the industry, are pivotal to creating a healthy interest in the field and securing long-term gender parity.

Recognising the economic and well as social advantages of diversity in tech, key employers in the area are proactive in training and ultimately hiring diversely, with the likes of Sky’s Get Into Tech initiative, and community groups such as Code First: Girls. The group, whose local teaching members often appear from Sky Betting & Gaming, provides accessible hands-on training, with a mission to teach 20,000 girls and young women to code for free by 2020.

Programmes Manager of CodeFirst:Girls, Siobhan Baker will be joining forces with the team from a similar Swedish-based project, Java4Women, and their UK resource providers, Virtual Pair Programmers to discuss the challenges of coordinating training projects in Java4Women A Presentation & Panel Discussion About Women in Tech. Joining the discussion are: CEO of Panintelligence and Founder of Lean In Leeds, Zandra Moore; Aline Hayes, Head of Systems at Lloyds Banking Group; and Tom Hudson, Technical Trainer at Sky Betting & Gaming.

Backed by the Swedish government and delivered by cohort of Swedish recruitment and tech companies, including Lexicon and TNG, the Java4Women scheme saw candidates undergo intensive training and 90% of candidates secured jobs in the digital workforce on completion of the course. The Java4Women training programme will no doubt offer a global perspective on cross-collaboration, diversity in digital, and the disconcerting digital skills gap.

However there’s a more fundamental reason why women and minority groups should become involved in the technical aspects of technology as we begin to programme our future.  

Last year, University of Virginia Assistant Professor in Computer Science, Vicente Ordóñez, began to notice software algorithms were displaying some peculiar behaviour: they were making arguably sexist associations between photos and gender, displaying their programmer’s unconscious bias. Mateja Jamnik, Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Select Committee on AI, Reader in Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge, believes this bias is represented in algorithms being built by predominantly Caucasian male teams.

‘We need to ensure our engineering teams are diverse so they can reflect our society. We also need to be aware of biases when we collect data – and make sure we collect data that is truly representative,’ urges Jamnik.

Mark Yatskar, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and colleague of Ordóñez, notes that unfortunately this phenomenon within AI not only reinforces existing social biases in regards to gender, race, and more, but could also actually make them worse.

Jamnik’s comments also highlight the financial benefits for companies who hire a diverse team: to ensure a user experience that is culturally relevant and positive overall – ensuring their customers are happy and ultimately return.

As digital diversity takes its place among the prolific gender equality campaigns of the moment, events at Leeds Digital Festival will be propelling the movement for gender equality forward with the characteristic no-nonsense practical approach suitable for the Tech Capital of the North. Whether motivated by protecting the bottom line or an equal workforce for your children, debugging our social bias at all levels for an equal workplace isn’t going to happen overnight. To echo the stoicism of the She Does Digital team: ‘We’re in this for the long run.’

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