Two statistics about the current status of diversity in tech should trouble us all. In the UK last year, only 15% of students taking A level computer science exams were women. In the US, although women outnumber men at universities overall, only 18% of computer science degrees were awarded to women.
Why does this matter? Who cares who designs and builds the technology we interact with? It’s lifeless, mechanical, neutral, right? Wrong. Technology combines with our daily lives – in our homes, cars, schools, hospitals, governments – quietly and absolutely. It’s woven into the fabric of our society and each day makes decisions for us, and about us. Human and machine are inextricably linked. It’s become as vital as the air we breathe, the water we drink. A life necessity. And when this technology isn’t human centred, designed by people who reflect the full diversity of our society, things start to go wrong. Our world becomes less safe, less predictable, less secure.
It’s worryingly easy to find stories of biased, non-representative technology. An investigation conducted by the University of Southern California in 2019 discovered that Facebook’s job adtech would advertise ‘male’ jobs such a lumberjacks primarily to men, and ‘female’ jobs like cleaners to women. In the same year, an algorithm predicting the medical needs of 200 million US patients heavily favoured white patients over black. In 2020, a study by the US Department of Commerce found that facial recognition AI misidentifies people of colour more often. Technology is a force for good, but it can also be discriminatory, biased and amplify prejudice across huge sections of our society with frightening and invisible speed.
That’s why the lack of diversity in tech education is so concerning. Without a pipeline of diverse thinkers, of all genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds, the design, build and development of tech will continue to reflect the views, and biases, of an all too narrow group. Credit decisions, CV selection, facial recognition, security controls – all big decisions, made daily by machines, developed primarily by the same socio-economic group. Technology innovation accelerates at lightning speed. But the diversity of the people creating it does not. From boardrooms, where in US tech companies only 10% of CEOs are women, to the classrooms where we nurture the next generation. It’s an issue at every level.
The world is in the early days of establishing guardrails for safe and trusted technology – reliable not just in its day-to-day operation, but the ethics of its use and deployment. Each of us can help to build this trust and break the vicious circle. As parents, we can encourage our daughters to study STEM subjects, and speak with teachers about avoiding gender stereotypes in the classroom. As businesses, we can ask whether the technology we are buying has been built by diverse teams, and make this part of purchasing decisions. As consumers, we can demand privacy, security and transparency in the tech we use daily.
GALLOS is determined to be part of this change, by making sustainability and safety in technology part of its wider advocacy. We know this starts with education. We’ll use our platform as a powerful voice for awareness raising. We want a safer, more secure world – sustainable tech is key to achieving this.