If you are in office reading this, look around you. Do you see more men than women? Chances are that there are more men. If you see 4 women in every 10 workers, your office is a near perfect reflection of the global workforce: According to the World Bank (WB), 39.39% of the global workforce was comprised of women in 2015[i]. What do the numbers look like in a technology company and why is that important? At leading enterprises and startups in the US, women constitute between 25% and 45% of the workforce. Other than these, the other tech leaders lag behind the WB statistics. Diversity reports published by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 2015, provide us a further lens to view the tech companies though: according to the EEOC, women make up only 25% of the workforce in computing/engineering organizations and only 11% of the executive positions at Silicon Valley companies are held by women. The reason it is important to fix the gender mix in a technology company is simple. Technology serves people. And, as you already know, 50% of the people in the world that technology serves are women[ii]. Women understand the pain points and challenges of other women and can devise solutions faster. In other words, women make technology work better, almost instantly better!
The pace of development of new technologies like AI, Human Interaction 2.0 and IOT is staggering. These technologies are producing amazing things, from virtual assistants to self-driving cars and smart cities. Google estimates that robots will be smarter than humans by 2045. We will have computers that have human intelligence, and we’ll be putting them inside our brains, connecting them to the cloud, expanding who we are! Women can make a tremendous difference to how these technologies are applied.
For example, a variety of processes around carpooling and car rental services, room sharing and collaborative workspace can be designed to make women more comfortable and safe. At the bottom of this is the fact that customer service and customer experience are key to success. Think of the virtual assistants currently invading businesses from retail to banking and from travel to healthcare. If these virtual assistants are going to win in a market that is comprised 50% of women they better know how women think. But these virtual assistants are being built predominantly by males. This can bias the algorithms and other human interaction systems in terms of their behavior, attitudes and responses towards women, alienating women customers.
Virtual assistants are expected to support 40 to 50% of customer facing transactions, sales and service requests in the next few years. Imagine a Virtual Subject Matter Expert (vSME) helping women with fixing broken equipment or furniture or providing financial advice or even selling a product. The outcomes would be better when virtual assistant systems have ‘women’ in their DNA as well.
An example from healthcare magnifies the hypothesis that we need more women in technology. An increasing number of virtual doctors are manning (excuse this rather unfortunate term, given the context) health care centers that provide the first level of diagnosis and providing treatment based on tech-dependent data and analytical systems. These systems learn from data. If the data and algorithms are biased, because the constitution of the teams devising them has an inherent bias, the impact will be catastrophic.
Women have a unique combination of skills and exhibit qualities that technological systems need to reflect: aside from being nurturing, women have empathy, listening ability, simplicity, creativity and a high emotional quotient. For technology to truly serve both genders equally, we need women who can work with small communities, create better UI that serves the needs of a broader set of users and build more intuitive systems. Technology that is infused with the inputs of women can transform a help desk, boost customer satisfaction and improve sales numbers.
Fei-Fei Li, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University and Chief Scientist of AI/ML, Google Cloud, puts the urgency of this need well when she says, “If we don’t get women and people of color at the table—real technologists doing the real work—we will bias systems. Trying to reverse that a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible. This is the time to get women and diverse voices in so that we build it properly, right?”
Fei-Fei Li resonates with me. As a Practice Director who has spent years developing solutions in the next generation Human Machine Interactions (HMI) space, I have been a first-hand witness to the benefits of a diverse workforce. Every time we brought in a diverse team of designers, creative directors, artists, programmers, domain experts to work together on conceptualizing and building a solution, there was a huge jump in innovation within the group. Initially we used to struggle to get the ideas, but today we see a huge number of ideas and innovation taking birth in the team—from pioneering IP in the next generation technology areas like HMI, computer vision, AR, VR to Gamification. We have multiple patents registered in the area of next Generation technologies by this team. As a team, we have realized that our journey starts with the user and ends with the user. And if 50% of the users are going to be women, there better be more women working on the solutions than the industry currently has.
A study published in Innovation: Organization & Management reinforces this. The researchers analyzed levels of gender diversity in research and development teams from 4,277 companies in Spain. Using statistical models, they found that companies with more women were more likely to introduce radical new innovations into the market over a two-year period[iii]. This, then, should be the goal of every technology lab, technology-based product and service: putting more women power into the development and application of technology.
- The World Bank: Labor force, female (% of total labor force)
- The World Bank: Population, female (% of total)
- Taylor & Francis Online: Gender diversity within R&D teams: Its impact on radicalness of innovation