Women in tech: the real digital innovation

A step forward in law, a step backward in business. Slowly but surely, things are moving in France for the respect of professional equality.

Articles of the Labour Code such as L1142-5 or L1142-4 provide for measures to establish equal opportunities between women and men. In particular, companies with more than 50 employees will be obliged to calculate and publish an annual Gender Equality Index. Recalcitrant and poor performers will be liable to a fine of up to 1% of the total wage bill. 

But despite advances in the law, parity is not progressing in technology, it is even regressing. The number of women graduates in the tech sector in France has fallen by 6% between 2013 and 2017, and by 2% in the digital sector. The drop in the number of female graduates is accompanied by a decline in gender diversity in the professional world. Women accounted for only 17% of the workforce in the digital sector in 2018, compared with 20% in 2009.

Remember the  revelations of harassment and gender bias in Silicon Valley in 2017 that had led to demonstrations and claims for gender equality in tech?  And James Damore, who was fired by Google after suggesting that there might be biological reasons for the gender gap in tech jobs? Well, unfortunately, these events have not changed much, and the Valley remains “the valley of men”.  At Facebook, Apple and Google, about 7 out of 10 employees are men. Only PayPal and Amazon do better, with females accounting for 39% and 44% of employees respectively. 

Initiatives to shatter the glass ceiling in tech

From an early age, women are encouraged to turn away from computers. Isabelle Collet’s book, “L’informatique a-t-elle un sexe (Does IT have a gender?)”, shows how the tech sector conveyed a masculine, “geek” image from the 1980s and 1990s, gradually turning women away from these professions. Thus, women accounted for only 27.9% of students in engineering schools in 2018. Then, for those who have the diplomas, very few succeed in setting up a company, often coming up against discriminatory behaviour when they look for investors. According to a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group on the total amount of funds raised since 2008 by French startups, those founded by women received only 2% of the financing.

New technologies and AI in particular are revolutionizing our world and building the future. It is absolutely essential that women participate in this process, so that they are not excluded from the opportunities of the future. We already know that AI can be biased by the lack of data and tests carried out on women and thus propagate “mysogynistic algorithms” and gender inequality. It should be noted that it is not AI that is prejudiced, but society, and AI is only learning these prejudices. On the other hand, AI has the potential to reinforce existing prejudices because, unlike humans, algorithms are not equipped to consciously counter acquired prejudices. Thus, the risk of marginalizing women is real. An Oxford study has highlighted the fact that 47% of jobs could be eliminated by the current digital revolution, and these jobs are predominantly held by women. Not having a role to play in the digital world represents a risk of societal regression for women.

Fortunately, a number of initiatives are being put in place. One of the main themes of this year’s UN World Summit on AI (AI for Good) was gender equality as a fundamental human right and a key principle for a peaceful and sustainable world. A number of practices were identified to address inequalities in technology, and to combat gender bias in PDAs, recruitment tools, search engines and facial recognition systems – which tend to have more errors with women’s faces.

In France, the Sista collective promotes investment in companies run by women, and has drawn up a charter of best practices for funds investing in start-ups. Girls in Tech, Pink Innov’ and Code First Girls support women, train them in programming code and accelerate their entry into the digital market. It should also be noted that at the Station F incubator, 40% of start-ups are headed by women.

Diversity is innovation!

The IT world is extremely dynamic. The more women find a place in it, the more innovation and entrepreneurship will benefit. So let’s be innovative and equip ourselves with tools and methods, like those proposed by the Galion Project, to achieve parity in our teams. For example, let’s start by setting up a proper paternity leave worthy of the name. Let’s set up a company crèche. Let’s recruit with parity in mind. Let’s pay attention to inclusive language and vocabulary. Let’s feminize our teams right from the start. Mixed teams outperform economically, so what’s holding us back? 

An article initially posted on Forbes.fr

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