Is Tech Still Forgetting About Women?
In a world primarily built and designed for men, unconscious design bias means gender often fails to be taken into account. And it’s women who pay—from losing our jobs to losing our lives. The most alarming thing? Design bias is only the most obvious part of a much deeper inequality
Seat belts, artificial heart transplants, voice-command systems in cars, even iPhones. What do these items all have in common? Gendered design bias.
Supposedly designed for the ‘average person’, these products in reality cater to the ‘average male’. People tend to design for needs and wants they can personally relate to, so if the majority of tech companies are led by men, with a primarily male workforce, they will be more likely to fail to understand the needs and problems women face—and their products will reflect that.
Globally, the percentage of women employed at major tech companies, on average, is less than half their total employees. Women made up 33 percent of tech giant Apple’s workforce in 2018—a growth of just 3 percent since 2014. Google's employees were 31.6 percent female in 2019, while others are as low as 19 percent.
A multitude of companies have come under fire for designs that fail to consider the needs of women. Apple has been in hot water multiple times recently. In late 2019, their new Apple Card was placed under investigation to determine whether its algorithm was discriminating against women by giving them a credit score up to 10 times lower than their male counterparts.
And despite the fact that women buy more iPhones than men, many women have called out Apple for designing a phone that is too large for the average woman to use with one hand.
“I’m not saying Apple is being evil and deliberately setting out to design phones that injure women by being too big for the average female hand,” said author of Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez, to The Independent at the time. “They are just part of an industry—and a world—that consistently fails to remember that women are 50 percent of the population.”
A Vicious Cycle
Why aren’t there more women in tech firms to contribute to these designs and identify how the products fail women? The answer, ironically, is partly down to design bias. Verlebie Chan, the co-founder of women’s tech community Connected Women Hong Kong and software development engineer for Microsoft, says that Amazon, for example, has been found to use a biased AI system. “Amazon uses an AI system for recruitment purposes, where they score the candidates and scan through their entire CV to recommend certain candidates,” she says. “But we found that there was actually a bias within the algorithm that downgraded women’s CVs based on having the word ‘women’ within the document, like ‘Women’s Tennis Club’.”
“It’s not purposely designed that way, it’s the fact that we’re not aware of the bias. The algorithm is trained by historical data, so if previously successful candidates have all come from ‘Men’s Clubs’, or from certain industries and backgrounds, then that is the data that will train the algorithm,” Chan says. “It’s a vicious cycle, because if we continue to be the minority it will be reflected in the data again and will continue training the AI that way.”
Bad Design Leads To More Women Dying
The inability to take sex into account isn’t just about the size of your phone—it can result in sickness or even death.
Seat belts were designed for the average male physique, as was the driver's seat of a car—a design flaw that has led to higher risk of death or serious injury for women, whose physiques are different on average, and tend to sit further forward. Even today, 62 percent of women in their third-trimester of pregnancy don’t fit into the standard seatbelt design. The only artificial heart on the market in the US fits 80 percent of men, but only 20 percent of women. And the list goes on.
“People within the tech field are quite aware of the bias, but people who aren’t in the industry aren’t as aware,” says Chan. “I think people are learning more and more about it, but I still don’t think it’s enough.”
Jill Tang, the co-founder of Ladies Who Tech, an organisation focused on closing the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), agrees that society needs to be more clued in when it comes to unconscious bias. “If people continue to be unaware of the gender imbalance we face, then we’re going to have to continue living in this world of gender inequality.”
From a purely business perspective, alienating your company from 50 percent of the global population is far too big of an economic loss to ignore, Tang says. “If you continue to see men and women in traditional working roles then you are not optimising the contribution from women where they are able to contribute more to the GDP,” says Tang. “At a corporate level, when there are higher levels of gender diversity there are also higher levels of innovation, and that really helps to bring in more profit.”
It starts with education?
There is an assumption that boys are better than girls when it comes to science and maths, but there’s absolutely no data to back that, Tang says. Instead, the low numbers of women in STEM jobs speaks to the cultural and social barriers young girls are facing.
“Some parents will actively tell their kids not to be engineers and just to get married. There’s a lot of social pressure involved,” Tang says. “There is a mum I know who is an engineer; she told me that she actively discouraged her daughter from studying science despite how much she loves it, because her personal experience has been so difficult.”
Tang speaks of the multiple roles women are expected to play: wife, mother, daughter and employee. “You’re going to burn out because there’s no support system there to help you out, and naturally, you’re going to choose to leave your job.”
The number of students studying STEM subjects will always affect a society’s level of innovation and, ultimately, economic growth. “So if you have a society lacking in STEM talent and you don’t have enough people to fill these roles, then why would you want to lose women—50 percent of the population—if they can do the same or sometimes a better job?” says Tang.
How To Redress The Balance
Incorporating gender diversity within tech is something that is best implemented at a young age, says Tang. “From a governmental perspective, a great example is South Korea—they are planning to put 10,000 female IT teachers into their primary school system to ensure that from a young age children are used to having women talk about computer science.”
It’s also as simple as raising your voice in a meeting or making sure women are properly credited for the ideas and projects they create, says Chan. “I’ve seen people talk over women many times in meetings, and now we actively ask the woman to reiterate the idea she was proposing. Sometimes we just need to speak up for other women within our workplace. These small gestures will help a lot, and will eventually become the norm.”