Is Artificial Intelligence breaking the code for women in technology?

Perspective from a couple of women in the field of AI and data science

This is a contributed piece by technology writer, Alan Zeichick

Computer science has long been a discipline seemingly dominated by males, with the number of women in the field, and even of those graduating with technology degrees, perennially lagging behind the number of men. A recent study by the National Girls Collaborative Project in the United States and the success of conferences like “Women in Data” in the UK suggest that this may be beginning to change, and one catalyst for that change may be the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence (AI).

Take Cylance, the fastest growing cyber-security software startup in the past ten years, according to research firm Gartner. The company developed an AI-based alternative to traditional antivirus (AV) — and just recruited the second female member for its fast-growing data scientist team, now numbering 14.

Another example of a company embracing women in the field of AI is Fast Forward Labs, an organisation that works with businesses to accelerate their data science and machine intelligence capabilities. The CEO, Hilary Mason, is a woman described by her peers as awe inspiring. She installs a culture in her company of trust and respect where everyone is an equal. Her known moto is: ‘In our office everyone is expected to put the loo seat down!’

Fast Forward Labs’ President, Kathryn Hume, loves her job but acknowledges that there is an art for women to establish themselves as equals when meeting with men working in business. She admires many of the strong women she’s met in her career, as they often need to be twice as good as their male counterparts to be taken seriously. She admits that when studying her Ph.D at Stanford, right in the heart of Silicon Valley surrounding by male engineers and investors, there were certain company cultures that exhibited misogynistic traits.

For Xuan Zhao, the first female data scientist to join Cylance, pursuing her career path was an extraordinarily tough battle.  Zhao began her career with a Ph.D in electrical engineering, a course that was definitely not the norm for a young girl, especially growing up in China. “The environment we grew up in embeds us with the idea that we are not as good as men in terms of maths and engineering,” said Zhao.  “I grew up being told that ‘Inability constitutes the very virtue of a woman’ and ‘To do well is inferior to marrying well’. Being raised this way, young girls learn to believe that in the world of IT and maths, they can’t compete with men.”

The figures speak for themselves.  At school, Zhao was one of eight girls in a class of 70, at college she was one of six females out of a class of 110, and her doctoral program consisted of five women and 50 men.  “I have seen a lot of smart, young women doubting their own abilities. Most women dropped out of the Ph.D in Electrical and Computer Engineering program at Cornell University after one to three years, mainly because of stress and lack of confidence.”

When asked why she had the confidence to against the odds pursue a course and a direction in engineering Zhao gives a lot of credit to her parents. “My parents were unique in that they were more open-minded about women and career choices and encouraged me to follow my interests. My father was a mathematician, so that helped too.”

Kathryn Hume similarly credits her parents’ influence for her courage to pursue her career path. Her father was a mathematician and engineer and, more significantly, her mother was a tech business woman who set the example that it is acceptable to have a career, a strong opinion in business, and also be a loving, supportive mother at home.

Hailey Buckingham, the second female data scientist hired at Cylance, began her training and education in biology and chemistry, with her undergraduate degree in biological science. Data science was not on her radar at all but she had always been computer savvy, and had a talent and interest in solving problems and mathematics. When she was younger than 15, she happened to come across a broken computer — and fixed it. That was a start of a beautiful relationship with computers.

Buckingham most definitely was not encouraged to take the traditional route to data science. “I got a lot of kickback along the way. I have so many stories I could tell about how I was not taken seriously in IT. For example in a chemistry class our computer system was making errors – so I took it upon myself to fix the machine. It took hours, but I succeeded, yet the reaction from my TA was to say it was not necessary, and I should have just asked someone else to do it for me, rather than giving me credit for what I had done. The attitude has been that I am not doing what I am ‘supposed’ to be doing. When I ask questions, I am more likely to get direct answers from my university professors rather than challenges like they give my male counterparts.”


AI – the career leap for women

Kathryn Hume began her career in AI working for a startup. Whilst she enjoyed the fast paced, team and goal orientated world of the private sector,  and applying her problem solving skills to address her clients’ business challenges, she always found she was lacking in passion for the subject at hand until she found AI.

“As someone with a combined maths and humanities, languages and literature background, AI is so appealing. The technology is seeping into every part of our life. It is governing the images and posts that we see on social media, it is starting to dictate the clothing selection we make from what is suggested to us when browsing on the Internet, what routes we take on the way to work. It is absolutely pervasive and most importantly there are tools that are beginning to engage human social channels, such as speech, text, images. It is an incredibly exciting time to be working in this domain.”

Breaking into a career in AI was not difficult for Zhao.  Soon after she finished her course she became interested in AI and machine learning and its potential to change our lives for the better and revolutionise every industry. She heard about Cylance through a friend who referred her to the company. Cylance embraced Zhao from the start, and she has been treated as an equal to her male counterparts ever since. Zhao and Buckingham feel that at Cylance, they have a voice and are respected for the skills and innovation they bring to data science and AI.


Women and AI – a powerful combination for the future of AI

AI clearly has the potential to break new ground for gender equality in high technology industries. AI affects every aspect of our lives, and every industry – from manufacturing and healthcare to retail and fashion. Its universal appeal is attracting more women into the field and what’s more, as more women involved, AI applications might truly reflect the values and of all people, for the benefit of us all.

Zhao gives the example of the fashion industry. “Women have an important perspective, particularly in developments in AI that are related to female oriented industries. For example, there are exciting developments with AI and the fashion industry. AI is being used to design fashion – to learn dress style. AI Applications can recommend style looks and customised style looks based on fashion trends and users’ personal style history, for example.”

Similarly Hume infuses about AI’s impact on the creative industries: “There are amazing developments in AI with art and music. For example AI is now being used to extract artistic style from images – so we import it onto our own images.”

Buckingham highlights social justice and AI as being an important development for women to contribute to: “There are huge amounts of data from NGOs and agencies that are trying to distribute aid to minorities and to women but there is an analysis gap. Better critique is needed of that data – economic data, health data, housing data - and Al can massively speed up the process and find insights that humans are not capable of or intending on finding for the benefit of women and others.  Women can certainly pioneer this work as well!”


Will the robots take over humans? – a women’s perspective

Kathryn Hume says fears that the world is going to be taken over by robots is ‘Chicken Little’ logic and rather urges everyone to address the strong ethical social injustice that does exist today with AI. “AI should not be associated with a terminator scenario but the bias and unfair use of algorisms that can impact on human livelihoods. We know that info shown on Facebook feeds via algorithms are leading to increasing polarised views with real-world political consequences such as Brexit and Trumpism. We would be better served to build products that account for the serious social issues that exist today. This area of work could have huge appeal to women with interest in social and political issues.”

When asked about the fears of dangerous AI machines, both Zhao and Buckingham compare AI to the nuclear bomb.  Zhao puts it as: “It is there to protect you from evil but has the potential for mass destruction. Yes, AI has the potential to destroy or overtake certain human capabilities, but currently it does not have the hardware capacity to do so. However, when that happens - which it will - humans will develop rules and regulations to protect us just as we did for the nuclear bomb.”

Buckingham’s way of describing it is: “There is enough peace in the world to balance out destruction. We are just so chaotic as a species that we can’t quite get it all together, but we are just peaceful enough that we don’t let it all fall apart! Humans are always going to find ways to be cruel to each other with new tech, but we’re still here – I don’t think AI is going to be the deal breaker there. Just as any military advance in science can cause death, the same science can ultimately be used to help promote peace. For example, the Haber process that converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) was used first for weapons in World War II, but now it’s one of our most important sources of fertiliser. AI is probably going to prove to have that double-edged potential, too.”