Closing the gender gap in an age of digital transformation


For millennia, when we talked about humans, we meant men. From standard piano keyboards that are too big for 87 percent of women to the male body presented by default in most clinical anatomy images and glass doors in modern workplaces that are too heavy for women to push open, we've long been living in a world that has generally been designed by men and for men, but seldom realized this problem because it's not deliberate but a product of an old way of thinking.

"Humanity is male and man defines women not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not considered an autonomous being," Simone de Beauvoir wrote in "The Second Sex" in the 1940s. Some three quarters of a century later, it still rings true, though women are overshooting gender parity by a few metrics. Most of the time, the consequences of women being the second sex are not as devastating, but they can be deadly on quite a few occasions. For instance, women are 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured in a car accident because a male representation – 1.77 meters in height and 76 kilograms in weight – has been used as the crash test dummy since the 1950s, Caroline Criado Perez wrote in her book "Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men."

While these issues remain largely unresolved or ignored, we've rapidly entered a digital age, which brings more opportunities for women to engage in technology and even start their own businesses but also further exacerbates their current plight. In reality, gender disparity has never been more protruding in the era of digital economy, as Perez denotes in her amply researched book on how today's world that's increasingly reliant on big data is exposing women to more risks.

The reason behind is twofold, interweaving and aggravating each other. Deeply ingrained gender conceptions have led to unbalanced gender participation in digital-related education and employment. Low female engagement, in one of the defining development trends of our world, has, in turn, been contributing to more gender stereotypes due to a lack of female perspective, forming a vicious cycle.

If women are left out of developing frontier technology that will shape our future and our world, it will not only lead to overall economic losses but also run the risk of women being left further behind in the employment market of the future and how the future is shaped.
 -  Beate Trankmann, resident representative, UNDP China

The female participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM, from early-age education to leadership in the workplace, remains much lower than that of their male counterparts though the onset of such education could date back to the Age of Enlightenment. "Globally, women and girls make up one third of students in STEM. Women represent 28 percent of engineering graduates and even less in science like physics and math," said Smriti Aryal, head of UN Women China, at a recent symposium cohosted by UN Women and the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) in Beijing.

The number of female STEM graduates in the U.S. was roughly 35 percent of the total during the school year 2020-21, according to Germany-based data platform Statista. In China, women account for 53 percent of college students but the percentage is much lower when it comes to female majoring in STEM. Zhang Xiaoyan, vice president of the Center for Information and Industry Development (CCID) under China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, talked about her latest trip to Harbin Engineering University. "The former military academy of the People's Liberation Army is very strong in marine and nuclear technology and equipment study. It has around 30,000 students, but only 5,000 are women. That's just one sixth." Besides questioning whether gender imbalance will get worse in digital-related education, she's also concerned that stereotypes like women are not good developers will dim their career prospects in the time of digital transformation – which, together with the information and communication technology (ICT) sector, comprises the digital economy.

Stereotypes that women are not good developers and other prejudices against women need to be abandoned.
 -  Zhang Xiaoyan, vice president, Center for Information and Industry Development

According to the World Bank, digital economy makes up over 15 percent of the global GDP. In 2021, it contributed 45 percent to the GDP of 47 major world economies. The 2022 report of UN Women's Gender Snapshot reveals that excluding women from the digital world has caused losses of $1 trillion in low- and middle-income countries in the past decade, and the loss is expected to grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025.

"In the tech industry, there are twice as many men as women. In the artificial intelligence (AI) sector, only one out of five is a woman," Aryal said at the symposium themed "DigitAll." "They are the first to lose jobs because of the shift to automated and digitalized nature of work."

What's worse, women are more underrepresented as they climb the career ladder in the tech industry. In China, there are around 500,000 R&D staff, of whom women make up 45 to 48 percent. But the female proportion falls to one quarter among professors and associate professors; higher up, among the academicians at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, women only make up 6 percent, said Fang Xin, research professor and member of the Presidium of the CAS. Worldwide, only 2.8 percent of Nobel science winners are women.

We need to encourage more women to engage in technological innovation and decision-making so that the female perspective can be reflected in the whole research and development process.
 -  Fang Xin, professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Into the corporate culture of the digital world, women, though actively using technology or tech services, actually only "make up less than 10 percent of leadership positions in organizations that shape the standards and norms of the metaverse," said Beate Trankmann, UNDP resident representative in China. She went on to give two examples on how such disparity results in gender biases, which in turn reinforce the disparity in a vicious cycle.

"A study released in January 2023 found that there's a visible lack of investor trust in women-led tech startups, only 17 percent of venture capital goes to women-led startups. Another example is about AI biases perpetuating gender stereotypes," she explained. For instance, AI-powered recruitment programs tend to give higher rating to male candidates because their algorithm is fed by a male-dominant employment pattern.

AI has gender biases that are factored into its data by humans long trained to take women as the second sex. "Plenty of programs use 'he' when referring to a doctor while 'she' for a nurse. The same applies to 'boss' and 'secretary.' And such gender biases also exist in gaming and e-sports," said Fang. However, a study released by the American Psychological Association last year revealed that people would be less outraged when gender discrimination occurs as a result of an algorithm rather than direct human involvement. That's actually a more alarming trend.

Fang believes that apart from the deep-rooted gender mentality, women's dual responsibility for and pressure from family and career, as well as their tendency to lower expectations for their own career development as they age have also given rise to the current plight of women in the digital era. As a member of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress for 15 years, she's one of the pioneers striving to improve the work conditions for female scientists, including establishing tech ethics boards top-down aimed at eliminating gender prejudices, setting up women's committees in all physics, mathematics and chemistry departments, and expanding the access to kindergarten for children as young as two years old of working mothers at the CAS.

According to Zhang, around half of the 2,000 researchers working at the CCID are women, and there's an increasing number of women in mid-level management positions in recent years.

Investing in the support for female developers will also bring a diverse perspective and improve the quality and coverage of services, minimize gaps and inequities.
 -  Smriti Aryal, UN Women China Country Representative

Besides incorporating gender considerations into the workplace in science and technology sectors, creating role models serves as a powerful tool to encourage girls and young women interested in STEM to fulfill their dreams. Aryal called for support early on for girls to involve in STEM, by facilitating intergenerational communication and mentorship so that they have models to look up to for their career aspirations. "Many girls start having interest in STEM at 11 but lose interest by the age of 15," Trankmann warned, agreeing that profiling inspiring role models can be a powerful tool, giving an example of Tsinghua University adding two female scientists to the heads of its department of computer science for the first time in history.

But one of the top priorities for now is to ensure women and girls worldwide have more access to digital literacy and have a greater voice in developing gender-inclusive technology, as the first step to stop females from being the second sex in this digital world.

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