At a time when diversity remains a front-burner issue within the tech industry, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show—the tech world’s largest conference—is surprisingly lacking in, well, diversity. While, in the past, the agenda-setting conference has showcased powerhouse solo women keynoters such as IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, this year, CES has chosen, for instance, to present a trio of women executives from A+E Networks, MediaLink and 605, sharing the stage alongside five male execs in a keynote panel.
Not surprisingly, CES’ male-dominated lineup has been widely slammed, with a number of CMOs and other marketing executives publicly criticizing the organization.
CES’ gender imbalance is emblematic of the broader gender inequity issues currently roiling tech. According to Girls Who Code, last year, 30,000 men graduated with computer science degrees compared to 7,000 women. Once they graduate, the statistics are grim. According to Crunchbase, the number of companies with at least one female founder increased to 9 percent between 2009 and 2012—but that number hasn’t budged in five years. The funding picture isn’t much better. According to the Harvard Business Review, among venture capital bankrolled tech startups, just 9 percent of the entrepreneurs are women.
Not content with the status quo, a number of women in tech are taking the lead to tip the gender scales, creating opportunities for women while at the same time making systemic changes when it comes to culture and thinking about diversity.
Here, Adweek highlights five women working to change the tech industry’s game.
1. Kriti Sharma, vp of artificial intelligence at Sage
What she’s doing: Making AI inclusive
Artificial intelligence may be the buzziest new word in tech circles, but it has a significant gender problem, according to Sharma. For starters, AI assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which have female voices and personas as their default option, reinforce gender stereotypes. While these female-branded assistants are often used as “helpers,” fielding passive and anodyne questions (e.g., Siri, what’s the temperature?) or conducting household tasks like dimming lights, their male-branded counterparts such as IBM’s Watson, Salesforce’s Einstein and Samsung’s Bixby are touted as muscular, complex problem solvers deployed to such tasks as plugging into a brand’s CRM system and using AI to determine which sales leads are most promising based on past behavior.
Sharma aims to create a more gender-neutral AI industry. At Sage’s two-day “BotCamp” workshops, students get hands-on opportunities learning to build their own chatbots. And Sharma recently hired Sage’s first conversation designer, a role designed specifically to analyze the voice tones and personalities used to create virtual assistants.
Further, Sage’s code of ethics requires developers to follow five guidelines when creating AI. It covers everything from how to name virtual assistants to building diverse data sets that help companies make hiring decisions when gender is taken out of the equation.
“Women are going to lose twice as many jobs as men due to AI,” Sharma explains, citing research from the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis. “What we don’t talk about is how [AI] is going to impact different parts of society in different ways. I do a lot of work in that area.”
2. Allison Jones, director of marketing and communications at Code2040
What she’s doing: Getting tech students in the door
Code2040’s mission is to make sure that black and Latinx men and women are well represented in tech. To that end, the 30-person organization provides computer science college students with internships at major companies like Squarespace, Spotify, The New York Times and Goldman Sachs.
The organization also works directly with companies to shake up and realign their internal hiring processes. When Code2040 helped blogging platform Medium hire its technical talent, instead of focusing on the usual factors such as college GPAs, it worked with Medium to create face-to-face events with engineering interns in order to get to know each candidate personally.