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Women and Artificial Intelligence: Breaking the glass ceiling

In a recent article published in Daily Trust, penned by Dr Zaynab Ango, on April 8, 2024, titled ‘Northern Nigeria: Let’s stop killing women’s dreams…

In a recent article published in Daily Trust, penned by Dr Zaynab Ango, on April 8, 2024, titled ‘Northern Nigeria: Let’s stop killing women’s dreams and future’, a poignant call to action resonated, urging society to cease stifling the aspirations of women. Dr. Ango’s impassioned plea for the advancement of girl-child education, particularly in Northern Nigeria, serves as a beacon of hope in a region where opportunities for women remain constrained.

Inspired by Dr Ango’s compelling narrative, I am driven to advocate for the increased participation of women in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. This sector, crucial for the development of intelligent systems, suffers from a notable under-representation of women, depriving it of diverse perspectives, skills, and contributions.

The under-representation of women in AI is a worldwide challenge, not exclusive to Nigeria. Courses in institutions perceived as challenging or difficult often see limited applications from women. Fields like computer science, engineering, medicine and surgery, mathematics and physics are among those where women’s enrollment is notably lower. This trend is not unique to any particular country, but rather a global phenomenon.

Across the globe, these courses are predominantly populated by men. It is rare to find a country where women outnumber men in such disciplines, whether at universities, colleges, or polytechnics. Right from the initial stages of entry, there is a noticeable disparity, with very few women opting to pursue computer science. This lack of adequate representation from the outset automatically places women at a disadvantage within the AI industry, resulting in significantly reduced participation of women in the AI technology sector.

Based on my personal journey, I’ve earned a B.Tech in computer science, followed by an M.Sc. in Computer Science, and eventually a PhD in artificial intelligence. Throughout these academic pursuits, I’ve noticed a striking pattern: the overwhelming majority of my classmates were men, with only a handful of women encountered along the way. This trend persisted as I transitioned into teaching computing at various levels, spanning over 15 years across universities and colleges both in Nigeria and abroad.

In my experience, it’s rare to come across a computing class where women outnumber men, with the exception being my time in Malaysia, where female dominance in academia and the technology industry is notably pronounced. Despite teaching and observing numerous applicants seeking admission to computing programmes, I’ve consistently observed a significant disparity in the number of women opting out of pursuing careers in computer science. This phenomenon sets the stage for the under-representation of women in the AI industry.

Reflecting on these experiences, it becomes evident that women’s under-representation in the AI is not a result of intentional marginalisation, but rather a consequence of a lack of interest among women themselves. Even as I’ve actively engaged in over 70 computing conferences mostly AI focus worldwide, both in-person and online, the gender ratio has consistently skewed towards men, with only a few women participants.

In the realm of computing research, estimates suggest that women comprise only between 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the research community, placing them firmly in the minority.

This disparity underscores the urgent need for initiatives aimed at fostering greater inclusion and participation of women in the AI field, not only to address gender imbalances but also to harness the full spectrum of talent and innovative perspectives that women can bring to AI development.

Given the prevailing dominance of men in the computer science field, the mere mention of a programmer often evokes the image of a male. This perception is transient to language translators, which consistently assign the male gender to the term “programmer.” In response, the AI community has raised concerns regarding the gender bias perpetuated by these language translators, accusing them of reinforcing stereotypes.

While men have dominated the AI profession, it’s essential to recognise the significant contributions women have made in advancing the field. One notable example is Grace Hopper, who pioneered the design of the first programming language compiler, laying the groundwork for developing modern AI systems. Additionally, Ada Lovelace is credited as the first programmer, showcasing the early involvement of women in computing.

Even during World War II, women were employed to programme computers and conduct crucial ballistics calculations, highlighting their indispensable role in advancing technology during pivotal moments in history. Their innovations, discoveries, and expertise have shaped the trajectory of the field, enriching it with diverse perspectives and groundbreaking achievements.

Efforts to bridge the gender gap in AI must begin with early education initiatives in primary and secondary schools that inspire young girls to explore their interests in science class, setting the stage for computer science courses. Providing mentorship programmes, scholarships, and support networks can help cultivate a pipeline of talented female professionals in the field of AI. It’s time to ignite the interest of women in AI and inspire them to pursue courses in this dynamic field.

AI is uniquely suited to accommodate the nature of women’s activities, offering flexibility and accessibility that align with their diverse roles and responsibilities. The AI discipline allows women to engage in tasks anytime, anywhere – whether they’re in the kitchen, on the move, or at home. With their innate skills in managing households and caring for children, women often face the challenge of balancing domestic responsibilities with professional activities.

However, studying AI presents a transformative opportunity. By embarking on a journey in AI, women can unlock the potential to work from home without the constraints of traditional office environments. As freelancers, they can leverage their skills to earn income in both local currency and dollars, all while enjoying the comfort and convenience of their own homes. This newfound independence liberates women from the need to rely solely on government jobs, offering a pathway to financial empowerment.

Furthermore, the field of AI is rich with opportunities for creativity, innovation, and problem-solving – qualities that women inherently possess. By tapping into their natural talents and embracing the possibilities afforded by AI, women can carve out fulfilling careers that align with their passions and aspirations. In essence, urging women to explore AI is not just about filling a gender gap in the AI tech industry; it’s about empowering women to pursue their dreams and thrive in the coming AI sandstorm.

Together, let’s champion diversity and inclusion in the computing tech sector, ensuring that women are encouraged to access the boundless opportunities that await them in the world of AI technology.

 

Chiroma, Asst. Professor of Artificial Intelligence University of Hafr Al Batin, Saudi Arabia, [email protected]

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