Dr. Naila Siddiqui Kamal is a senior gynaecologist and Senior Lecturer, Imperial School of Medicine London

We have seen dramatic changes in gender roles in recent decades. As we find ourselves on the verge of the fifth industrial revolution, disruption has taken over all aspects of life. This has automatically triggered an emerging need in required skills, cognitive abilities and their acquisition pathways. So it’s become increasingly important to consider how gender choices have evolved over recent decades with particular regard to current female involvement in AI related careers.

Factors studied by social scientists to understand differences in choices based upon gender include: the influence of gender socialization, gender roles, and gender stereotypes; social policies that make it difficult for women to easily combine work and family roles; differences in the educational backgrounds and human capital of men and women; sex differences in interests, values, motivation, and abilities; and sex-linked genetic and hormonal influences. Correlation of these factors is a very complicated social science research area. One of the most provocative associations would be if women were presumed to be making their choices based on their intellectual abilities.

Meyer et al finds women’s underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The field- specific ability beliefs (FAB) hypothesis in this study aims to provide such an account, proposing that women are likely to be underrepresented in fields thought to require raw intellectual talent—a talent that women are stereotyped to possess less of than men. Their findings suggest the academic fields believed by laypeople to require brilliance are also the fields with lower female representation.

The most controversial question in gender differences in abilities is whether there is a gender disposition when it comes to intellect. The largest study to look at sex differences in brain anatomy (‘Sex differences in the adult human brain’ 2018) found that women tend to have thicker cortices, whereas men had higher brain volume. Sadly, the authors didn’t go any further in their findings than the obvious anatomical differences.

After my initial literature search on the subject of female career choices over the last few decades, it was evident that published literature was very skewed and limited by geographical and conceptual boundaries. A publication of the US department of Labor (1947) presents a vivid account of career choices by women in USA.

It seems obvious that during that period, women were not at the leading end of careers that lay people would consider a high intellect-requiring domain. But what’s particularly sad
is that recent publications highlight a similar pattern. This does not infer that women have a lesser intellectual bias at all. It merely suggests that the tendency of socio-economic factors poses a barrier to a greater number of women coming through in such roles.

ICT and related disruptive technologies, such as AI, are considered as the new high intellect careers for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students in current times. Price Water House Coopers (pwc) published a ‘Women in tech’ report in 2017.

It states that despite decades of progress towards workplace equality, women remain woefully underrepresented in the UK’s technology workforce. They quote the figures from WISE (Women in Science & Engineering) that just 23% of the people working in STEM roles across the UK are female – and only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women.

The impact of societal influences is deeper in some regions of the world towards what is considered as ‘western education’, let alone emerging technologies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that girls still lack the confidence to pursue high-paid careers in science and technology, despite their school results being as good as – or better than – those achieved by boys.

Many factors are considered to be influencing this paucity of female representation in technology-based careers particularly in healthcare, but they are not very different to
the 1947 US Department of Labor report. One aspect that is a major player is perception of chances of success and reaching the top of a career ladder in that field. It takes a very strong will, rock-solid determination and a level of financial and social freedom to take on the challenge of ‘going against the odds’.

Should that be a deterrent? Not in my opinion. It has been achieved with many examples (though fewer than male representation at same levels) of women in technology-based careers. IBM Watson published a prestigious list of women in AI 2019. Forbes wrote a piece on incredible women advancing AI research, highlighting the amazing stories around these individuals and their work. One particular story captures the common barriers that women have to face even in this day and age. A world-renowned pioneer in social robotics, Cynthia Breazeal splits her time as an Associate Professor at MIT, where she received her PhD and founded the Personal Robots Group, and Founder and Chief Scientist of Jibo, a personal robotics company with over $85 million in funding.

While Breazeal’s work has won numerous academic awards, industry accolades, and media attention, she had to fight early scepticism in the 1990s from other experts in robotics and AI. At the time, robots were seen as physical and industrial tools, not social or emotional companions. Her first social robot, Kismet, was unfairly called out in popular press as “useless”. Breazeal bucked the trend with a very different vision: “I wanted to create robots with social and emotional intelligence that could work in collaborative partnership with people. In 2-5 years, I see social robots helping families with things that really matter, like education, health, eldercare, entertainment, and companionship.”

Taking inspiration from the work done by female leaders in AI, I have established a start-up (medret.co.uk) which is looking at educating and enabling women in developing regions in better understanding of AI and its applications in their surroundings so that they can lead innovation and economic and social growth in their settings