My mother enrolled in a high school physics course in 1968. This wouldn’t be especially notable except for the fact that it was the first time in her school’s history that girls were permitted to take physics. In prior years, boys were allowed to study physics while girls were expected to enroll in home economics. While my mother acknowledges she was not destined for a career in physics, there were women of her generation that did aspire to enter the scientific field: Dr. France Córdova, Director of the National Science Foundation; Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and Persis Drell, former director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, are just a few of the women who not only studied physics, but excelled and built their careers in the field despite the barriers of their generation.
Women have progressed significantly since 1968. They now make up half the national workforce, earn more college and graduate degrees than men, represent a major economic force in the world, and the majority have the privilege—yes, the privilege—of electing to study physics in high school. Yet the gender gap in science persists, especially in computer science and engineering. There are many factors contributing to this discrepancy. Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, maintains that the biggest problem with attracting and retaining women in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—is that there is not one major hurdle to overcome, but hundreds. Harassment, gender-based discrimination and bias, lack of mentorship, and a scarcity of women in positions of power are only a few of them. And then there is the newest hurdle, so often hailed as help: technology.
Technology holds the promise of being a great equalizer in that it is a way to connect and empower men and women alike throughout the world. However, the reality is that most technology today is designed by men, for men. No other scientific field dominated by male influence concerns me more than the development and design of artificial intelligence. Outdated ideas of gender and race breed in spaces that lack diversity. The STEM fields in which women are most significantly outnumbered by men are computer science and engineering. All of which is to say that computer simulations of intelligent behavior that are meant to look, act, and sound more human are actually being made according to what men think it means, or should mean, to be human. Or, more specifically still, what men think it means to be a woman. Consider that each leading technology company’s artificially intelligent digital assistants are female: Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), Cortana (Microsoft). And don’t even get me started on sex bots!
This is not just about women’s relationship with technology and how they are represented by it. Problems that arise with artificial intelligence are not merely technical or gender-based. They raise significant issues about our humanity and what makes us human. Artificial intelligence will soon be ubiquitous, and will take on roles greater and more meaningful than we can currently comprehend. I do not want the development of machines that are designed to imitate human behavior to be solely developed by male scientists who continue to perceive my gender a mystery.
And so I think of my mother and the women of her generation who began chipping away at the barriers preventing and discouraging them from pursuing STEM fields. One generation later, I still perceive the bias, have personally felt discouraged in my own pursuit of scientific studies, and am increasingly aware that I am not alone. The most pressing issues of our time, and those on which I’m proud to work every day, including debates about public health, climate change, genetic modification, net neutrality, and encryption, anchor our global discourse about the future. Without representation of women in these fields, and particularly in the advancement of artificial intelligence, we have little say in what is to come.
Underlying biases that plague STEM fields are not just unacceptable, they are personal. It is imperative that young women are encouraged and incentivized to join the notable cadre of women like Dr. France Córdova, Shirley Ann Jackson, and Persis Drell, to choose careers in the sciences that will provide a counterbalance to gender biases and enhance objectivity in scientific study and advancement. My mother didn’t go to physics class so that a man in Hong Kong could make a robo ScarJo.