Parity or a disparity: Assessing women in tech

by Meredith Lowry (mlowry@wlj.com) 234 views 

2018 has been called the Year of the Woman. But as a woman in a technology career, I’m looking toward 2092. According to a recent statistic from the Cardozo/Google Patent Diversity Project, based on historical trends, it will take until 2092 before we have gender parity for inventors.

We need more women voices across the board — in leadership and politics, but also technology. This year has seen record participation in politics by women, and with representation for women at the state and national levels hovering around 20% for a group that represents 50.8% of the population, this is a welcome change.

But the stats for women in technology-based jobs are roughly the same, and the impact of the disparity will become more problematic as we rely more and more on technology in the future.

At its core, technology relies upon data, code and algorithms processing that data. Business, social media, search engines and many other aspects of our everyday lives rely on algorithms. But algorithms lack the human experience to understand the nuances of data. Without female voices and involvement in the construction or maintenance of these algorithms, there is a potential for bias to invade them and our way of life.

Examples of algorithmic bias crop up in the news or research from time to time, from LinkedIn recommending male users like “Andrew” over female users named “Andrea” in 2016, to Amazon recently pulling its artificial intelligence algorithm used to rank potential new hires as it penalized resumes that included the word “women’s.” Research from Boston College also showed some of the underpinnings in artificial intelligence rely upon and can amplify sexist stereotypes.

That does not mean technology is inherently bad. Instead, it means we as a culture need to be aware of the biases in our technology and work to scrub the bias from it. Technology companies and our society need to work to get more women in technology to have more perspectives to combat the bias. But we also need to provide a culture that welcomes and celebrates women in technology. Research time and time again supports the idea that diverse teams perform better and provide a higher return for their companies. And there is more to the lack of women in technology than a lack of women graduating with STEM degrees, though statistically, women make up roughly 37% of STEM graduates annually. That number must increase to see change.

Work also must be done to provide resources and support to women in technology. A study recently conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and MassChallenge showed women-led companies received approximately 2.2% of the venture capital funding provided in 2017, but return 78 cents per dollar to investors in comparison to the 31 cents returned on investment by their male counterparts. Clearly, based on those numbers, women aren’t the only ones missing out.

To help 2092 gender parity occur in our lifetime, we must focus on education and knowledge. More STEM education, yes. But also understanding the detriments to technology if women are continually underrepresented. And the awareness that technology already includes women in thriving careers and that the tech culture is changing to support and recruit women.

These are some of the goals of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Technology conference, held in conjunction with the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit, which I had the privilege to chair. We hosted more than 600 attendees in sessions focused on a range of topics, from the use of technology to remove bias to technology development of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But more can be done. So, I invite you to join me again next year for the 2019 Women in Technology conference and Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit.

Our region doesn’t have to wait until 2092 for gender parity in technology.

Editor’s note: Meredith Lowry is an intellectual property attorney with Wright Lindsey Jennings in Rogers. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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