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Women in STEM: If you gaze at technology, a man gazes back at you

Illustration: Khakimullin/Bigstock

I like to build and create things from scratch. From a young age, I have always been a kind of an inventor. I loved building dollhouses with my Lego bricks. I built on that curiosity further through my interdisciplinary education at the University of Copenhagen and DTU, where I continued to play with larger building blocks, namely technology.

The thing that draws me to the world of technology is the opportunity to be creative in many ways because technology is constantly changing. In technology, my imagination has no limits. Everything can be done, you just have to find out how, and the more different people are involved in the development process, the better you will achieve a comprehensive outcome.

Women are currently underrepresented. I want to be a voice for a minority that should not be a minority seeing how half the world’s population is female. As a woman with a different ethnic background, I would also like to be a role model for girls who lack role models they can look up to.

Nermeen Ghoniem is MSc in Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence from DTU. Former data scientist at Microsoft, now working with artificial intelligence and cloud-based platforms at Jabra. Co-founder of With Purpose, an entrepreneurial community for women in the Nordics, and Hello Ada, a Nordic knowledge base for parents with daughters. The goal is to engage parents in the debate about the lack of diversity in the IT industry. Illustration: Privatfoto

After all, I am not the stereotypical engineer. My gender always comes into play. From my previous career, where people made fun of the fact that I might be a diversity hire, to my days at university, where some lecturers actively mentioned my gender as an issue during examination. In general, it has been difficult to navigate a male-dominated industry as a woman. And at times, it can be lonely and difficult to find one’s place in the IT community.

I have also noticed these obstacles on many levels when it comes to other women in my network. One of my colleagues was always given small tasks because they did not believe that she could handle the bigger tasks, even though they were her speciality. Other female colleagues waited twice as long to get their promotion. A third colleague was always interrupted in meetings while she was presenting because her boss thought that she was bad at keeping her comments short as a woman.

However, the funny thing about the world of technology is that it was built by women to begin with. Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer. ENIAC was the world’s first electronic digital computer, and it was programmed by a team of six women in 1945. Programming was originally seen as women’s work, and there were generally more women employed in technology until the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the situation is completely different. Therefore, working with technology as a woman today also means facing a work culture with an inherent gender bias.

This means that rules of the game are different for women. Because the perfect colleague is the male colleague, and if you do not talk like them, dress like them, or work like them, that becomes the focus. Of course, it must be emphasized that not everyone behaves in this way—but I must state that it is something I have experienced and unfortunately continue to experience as one of the few women in the IT industry.

A 2019 report from the Think Tank DEA points out that parents’ stereotypical perception of STEM education and girls’ interests is holding girls back. Many parents believe that boys—not just their own children—have a greater interest in mathematics, technology and IT, and physics/chemistry than girls. For example, 70 percent of the approx. 1,600 interviewed parents said boys are more interested in technology and IT than girls.

On the other hand, less than one percent said that girls have a greater interest in those topics. Although the study also reveals that girls are just as interested in science and technology as boys—until the age of 11–13. In this way, parental guidance is more impactful than educational guidance.

There must be more diversity and inclusivity in the way we build our technology, and it has to include female representation.

In a 2020 analysis from the Villum Foundation and the strategic innovation agency IS IT A BIRD, teachers, parents, and students were interviewed to investigate the lack of participation of girls in STEM. In the analyses, three gender-based narratives appear to explain the lack of participation.

Two of the narratives are particularly noteworthy. One is the narrative that science, including technology, does not deal with people. The second is the narrative that girls are generally more social, good with people, and therefore better at care-taking jobs, for example at being nurses or working in HR.

The lack of female representation in technology development creates a gender-based bias, which is particularly visible in artificial intelligence. A popular example is how Google Translate, which has a database of millions of translated phrases and words from the web, creates a gender-based bias. For example, Google perceives words like “strong” and “doctor” as masculine words, while "nurse” and “beautiful” are coded as feminine words.

Another interesting example is when Finnish is translated into Danish. Finnish has an officially approved gender-neutral pronoun, hän, which refers to people of any gender. If you therefore run a Finnish sentence through Google, you will quickly discover that the algorithm does not take into account the gender-neutral pronoun, but instead chooses gender on the basis of the gender-based bias from its database.

Should we have a technological world that does not really reflect our real world? A world where half of us are women. The problem is not the artificial intelligence. It is the people behind it. I want a more diverse way of looking at technology, including artificial intelligence. There must be more diversity and inclusivity in the way we build our technology, and it has to include female representation.

From my point of view, it does not work as is. If you gaze at technology, a man gazes back at you. My wish for the future of technology is that everyone, regardless of their pronoun, can see themselves reflected in the technology we have created together.