Tech & Telecom Law News

INSIGHT: Tech Start-Ups Need to Woman Up

Oct. 10, 2019, 8:01 AM

There’s a long way to go before the technology industry levels the playing field for people from all walks of life, and for both sexes. It’s a shame that, for a relatively young sector, some old-fashioned trends still dominate.

One need not look far to see where the problems start. A recent study examining the make-up of “machine learning” researchers at Big Tech companies revealed that only 15% of AI researchers at Facebook and 10% at Google are women. Additionally, and at a broader level, Google continues to be led by a team consisting of predominantly white and Asian men.

Therefore, it makes sense that certain biases continue to pervade in favor of the white, male portion of the population, with women losing out as a result. This is not helped by advances in (for example) AI, which has, historically and usually, been designed by a male, white majority, and not a diverse team representative of those it ought to serve equally. The knock-on effect is that code is written in such a way as to perpetuate diversity bias, and this will continue until codes are rewritten by women, or adjusted with the failings from earlier codes caused by unconscious bias acknowledged.

What Does This Mean in Practice?

If so few women are tasked with leading the charge in AI and machine learning, these male experts will, consciously or otherwise, teach algorithms with their own—sometimes unhelpfully backward-looking—view of gender stereotypes. Picture collections curated by and used in machine learning might suggest outdoorsy, active images in favor of men, for example, and images leaning to a more homebound, housework-burdened images for women.

Since AI is being used in myriad social tech and tech that supports and is entirely embedded in everyday life, I can’t see how we can expect it to be any different. It is simply re-enforcing a gender-biased norm. As long as society, and those who employ people to write and manage the narrative considers that men are the only ones who can code (or, by way of another example, who like gaming), this isn’t going to change.

There is another side to the story when we look at start-ups, and the entrepreneurs and investors who succeed in getting them off the ground. Joelson has been taking a closer look at the support and investment that start-ups attract, which has led to some startling confirmations—though not, in truth, very surprising ones. It has revealed that a very small fraction of companies founded and co-founded by women have been able to seek investment, compared to far larger number of companies established by men only.

We don’t want to see companies recruit, or fund, women under duress. And, in some cases, for instance in the venture capital industry, we have seen investors encouraged to invest in women as part of a positive discrimination agenda, which can only motivate female or male employees and entrepreneurs, if the intention behind such investment is positive and ungrudging.

Quotas are not, in my opinion, the whole answer. Should industries seek to over-correct themselves and apply a box-ticking exercise, they do all their people a disservice, something we do see more often with the tech industry than with any other. If quotas are to be applied, they have to be applied from the best motives and with the right attitude.

I also believe, however, that there is an issue with women tending not to think of themselves as equally good as the men in the sector. This represents a huge waste of talent. We need to find ways to give women and minorities greater confidence and self-worth. It probably requires starting from a much earlier point than midway through a career. Far better to consider what can be done when women are looking for jobs in the tech sector or even before going to university.

Only by looking at these issues head-on, and addressing them, will we be able to change, and to do better.

I’m not sure I have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions, and I agree with counterparts who would encourage girls to study STEM subjects and pursue careers in technology. Look to role models, the Martha Lane Foxes and Cheryl Sandbergs of the world. For every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs there’s a Martha and a Cheryl; perhaps they just don’t shout as loudly about what they do as the Bills and Steves.

Ask, “Why should he be any better for the job than I am?” He’s probably not. If he is, fair game, but at least it’s worth a shot. But women should not rule themselves out of the race.

Talking about lack of diversity exposes the issue. Only by understanding what’s gone wrong (or to put it little more positively), to see what we might improve, can we mend the issue and move forward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Philippa Sturt is the firmwide managing partner at Joelson in London. She specializes in corporate and commercial transactional matters, and is experienced in a wide range of investments and fundraisings. Her main areas of practice include acquisitions and disposals, company reorganizations, shareholder matters and commercial agreements.

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