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AI & The Coding of The Patriarchy

A new report, I'd Blush If I Could: Closing Gender Divides in Digital Skills through Education, from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) looks at the ways in which artificial intelligence - particularly the kind that is becoming ubiquitous in many homes and lives, like Alexa - reinforces existing gender bias.

According to a summary from TIME, AI Voice Assistants Reinforce Gender Biases, U.N. Report Says, "The new report...looks at the impact of having female voice assistants, from Amazon’s Alexa to Apple’s Siri, projected in a way that suggests that women are 'subservient and tolerant of poor treatment.' The report takes its title from the response Siri used to give when a human told her, 'Hey Siri, you’re a b-tch.'”

Uhm. Did you know that Siri was programmed to answer that question?

That reveals exactly who has a seat at the development table. Tech bros only, thank you very much. Casual misogyny is the air they breath. Sometimes, as in this case, that misogyny becomes visible.

Which gives us a chance to do something about it.

Research has long shown that unconscious bias is rampant and replicated in environments that lack diversity. In this case, we're talking about men making decisions for everyone and forgetting about women. (And, just in case the subtext is not 100% clear, the same thing happens in legislatures that are dominated by men, as the Wyoming Legislature still is.)

Another gendered tech example is this: You can use google maps or waze or any one of a number of types of mapping software to tell you about weather and traffic and distance. But you cannot easily look up which routes are safest after dark or which ones have the most streetlights. If women were driving how tech is built, if we had a seat at that design table, perhaps that feature would be built into every map.

We're sure that you can think of myriad examples - and we'd love to hear about them. (One comes readily to mind, and we've mentioned it before: State sales tax exemptions don't take into account tampons and pads even though women of childbearing age generally have a period every month. And SNAP and Medicaid don't cover those products either. The absence of these products serves as a little reminder that the state statute was written by men, for men. But we digress.)

The same is true for any monolithic team - whether they lack women or people of color or people who work for a living or disability advocates. Diversifying the voices at the table will continue to improve our communities for everyone.

  • We're loving this twitter thread by Holly Scott-Gardner, a blind disability-rights advocate, who talks about the experience of maintaining privacy while taking a pregnancy test as a blind woman. Brought us right around to all the things we take for granted.

  • We're also appreciative of a younger woman of color who worked as a waitress before coming to Congress. When she advocates for a living wage, harassment-free workplaces, and a remedy to the gender wage gap, she speaks from experience. "We need to be paid a stable enough wage to reject sexual harassment, to say, 'I'm not going to take that degrading shift,'" she said, adding, "We shouldn't have to work 80-hour weeks so that our kids can have a meal at lunch -- that's not the way it should be."

  • We can't say enough about what has happened in the Nevada Legislature which is now majority female. “I think a good example is when we’re talking about health care,” [State Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas] said. “Everybody cares about having access to affordable health care, and when you have more women in the room … people are more willing to talk about contraceptives and mammograms and screening for breast cancer. Not because men aren’t aware of them or don’t think of them, it just kind of changes the tone of the conversation.”


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