We profile three women in the charity sector leading on leveling up digital
International Women’s Day on Monday 8 March 2021 celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women across the globe.
This year’s theme is ‘choose to challenge’ because from challenge, comes change.
In the tech sector, change is constant and fast-paced. Often the tech comes first and the questions about fairness and bias are asked later.
In this article, we profile three inspiring women leading the way for change in the tech and charity sectors.
In 2010, Reshma (pictured left) entered US politics as the first Indian American woman to run for US Congress. During the campaign, she spent time visiting local schools and was struck by the gender gap in computing classes.
It is a gap that translates into the number of women designing technologies and leading the tech industry on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2020, TechNation reported that, despite interventions, the proportion of female directors in the UK tech sector has remained almost exactly the same since 2000 at 22%.
Reshma was inspired by the need to teach more girls to code and to enable them to thrive as leaders in the tech sector. She set up global non-profit, Girls Who Code, in 2012.
Girls Who Code has helped set up 257 coding clubs across the UK. They have reached 500 million people worldwide through their online programming and 300,000 girls through their in-person programming. They expect to close the gender gap for entry-level tech roles by 2027.
Reshma says, “Girls Who Code is more than an international non-profit. We are a movement.”
Joy Buolamwini (pictured right) describes herself as a ‘poet of code.’ While studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Joy discovered a fundamental flaw in generic facial recognition software. As a black woman, the software could not recognise her face unless she wore a white mask.
As this generic software was open access and could be used by other developers, the racial bias implicit in the code could travel. In fact, when Joy was taking part in an entrepreneurship competition in Hong Kong, she found the same facial recognition software had been used to build a social robot that could recognise the faces of her white colleagues, but not hers.
In 2016, she founded the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL) to fight algorithmic bias. It is a non-profit combining art and research to raise awareness of the racism, sexism, ableism, and other harmful forms of discrimination that can be perpetuated by AI systems.
Reema Patel (pictured centre) was working at the RSA and with the Nuffield Foundation in 2016 when the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocketed issues of big data use and accountability to the attention of the world.
The public debate sparked by the Cambridge Analytica story centred on the collection and misuse of data. People became more nervous about handing over their data, fearing how it might be used.
Reema was part of a critical conversation between the Nuffield Foundation and others on issues of digital exclusion, data misuse, and algorithmic bias. It was suggested that a new organisation was needed in the UK to challenge the way technologies are created and bring the public into the conversation. The Ada Lovelace Institute was born.
It was a statement of intent to name the institution after mathematician Ada Lovelace who is widely regarded as one of the first computer programmers. History has given great prominence to her contemporaries, like Charles Babbage, but not to women like Ada who viewed algorithms as tools with the potential to better humankind.
The Institute aims to create the conditions that allow data and AI to work effectively for the public that they serve. They have live research on the equity and fairness of pandemic technologies such as the vaccine passport concept. Asking questions like, "will the need for a smartphone to use this technology exclude those in tech poverty or older people lacking digital skills?"
As Head of Public Policy and Engagement at the Institute, Reema lives Ada Lovelace’s legacy with a sense of pride. Ensuring that all relevant voices are heard is central to her approach.
Reema says, “thinking about these issues isn’t just something that technology organisations do, but that the entire ecosystem does.” She believes that the voices of civil society are critical to the debate on fair and equitable technologies and encourages more charity leaders to engage.
These three women embody the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day. Their challenges are leading to real change in the digital technology sector.