stem

Entoto Blog 1: How the Gender Gap in the STEM Industry Affects Everyone

Sessen Stephanos

sessen.stephanos@alumni.ubc.ca

Joy Buolamwini is a Ghanaian-American computer scientist and digital activist based at the MIT Media Lab. She founded the Algorithmic Justice League, an organisation that looks to challenge bias in decision making software. Buolamwini, started this because of her experience being the one of the only women (and the only black woman) in her computer science program. She conducted research where she showed facial recognition systems 1,000 faces and asked them to identify whether faces were male or female.  She found that software found it significantly difficult to identify dark-skinned women. This phenomenon marked a large question not just in the tech world but towards society at large.  It is undeniable that with each year that goes by, technology becomes more and more enmeshed in our society. Technology will do more than just make life more convenient. It will be, and already is, deeply entangled in our economic, judicial, healthcare, education and social systems.

What I took away from this instance of Joy Buolamwini, is that the way technology impacts society is a reflection of the people who created it. The narrative surrounding the role of technology in society is that it makes life more equitable and opportunities more accessible. However, the reality of the tech industry today proves otherwise. There are significant barriers to accessing STEM education and jobs; and even within those programs and jobs, there are power structures that guide how these technologies, applications and algorithms are implemented in society. The tech industry is not a level playing field of opportunity and algorithms are not always just and fair.  As shown in Buolamwini’s experiment, if artificial intelligence algorithms are only being created by the same kinds of people, then we will have systems that fail to recognize the people who are less represented. In a society that is starting to use these types of technologies in hospitals, police departments, and various other parts of the public sphere; this poses a huge issue. How can something that doesn’t have a diverse set of minds working on it, be applied to a diverse society?

This question can be asked on both a local and global level. How can technologies that are not developed by and for the communities they are meant to serve, efficiently and properly address their needs? Additionally, how can an industry that is so overwhelmingly populated by men create technology that can adequately address a society that is 50% female? The gender gap in representation in the tech industry is prevalent on a global scale. However, there are more severe barriers that women in Ethiopia face compared to women in the West. Barriers such as gender discrimination, lack of confidence, language difficulties, low literacy, difficulty accessing education, and lack of time and money continue to prevent girls and young women from taking full advantage of technology. Nonetheless, access to mobile phones, internet, information technology and computer software are growing and improving the lives of both men and women. In Ethiopia, 90% of the population has access to a cell phone through 65 million phone subscriptions; 40% of these phones are smartphones. Technology is rapidly changing the social structures in Ethiopia. However, the gender gap in the industry is overwhelmingly present in Ethiopia. In 2018, there were only 4 women amongst a 125 graduating class in Software Engineering at Addis Ababa University. It is important for business and educational institutions to “walk the walk” on equality and diversity by implementing policies that value women and treat them fairly in the workplace. Perhaps no role, could foster this environment for learning and provide opportunities for young people than educational institutions.  Unfortunately, the schools and universities in Ethiopia are failing women in particular in a few ways. First, they are not doing enough to enroll women into their programs in the first place. Universities need to make it a priority to enroll women into their programs, if the STEM field is to change. Secondly, the curriculum of many of these programs lacks an interdisciplinary framework that would teach students about how to apply the content learned to entrepreneurial endeavours or other leadership positions.

The Entoto fellowship would fill this gap by not only having a curriculum that teaches web and application development but by strengthening important skills such as leadership, entrepreneurship, marketing, business plan development, communication and presentation skills. Additionally, it provides opportunities for industry experience by collaborating with various local organizations. Lastly, the fellowship has a mentorship program for students to have support beyond their 12 week immersion. This program would be creating a positive learning environment that would chip away at some of the barriers that women face getting into this industry. It instills confidence, provides network pathways that aren’t  available elsewhere and provides women with the opportunity to study and work in a field that has so much to offer their communities and society at large.