Is the Future of 4IR Female?

While most of chatter around 4IR centers on seemingly limitless technological potential, there’s one opportunity that has been curiously overlooked: the role of gender.

By Mary Ames, May 20, 2019

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In the last decade, enormous technological changes have transformed the way we live, consume, learn, and communicate. The rise of the internet powered by the ubiquity of smartphones has altered the course of human history. As we continue to innovate, new data-heavy industries and sectors promise even more changes. Artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and smart city governance are just a few areas that will be the focus of our brave new world. This new epoch is broadly classified as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) by leading scholars, thinkers, and advocates.

While most of the 4IR debate pivots around the technological aspects of this new industrial revolution and the potential for these innovations to bring millions out of poverty and effect social change, there’s one critical social component that has been curiously downplayed: the role of gender. Previous industrial revolutions radically altered the nature of labour and along with it family dynamics. As families left rural life and men went to work in factories in the First Industrial Revolution, for example, the role of women in the home became entrenched in society.

With the evolution in the modern economy, women slowly became integral members of the global workforce. The World Economic Forum recently found that many of the jobs across Asia that could soon be made redundant through automation are performed by women. The loss of these jobs will have profound societal effects. If we start a conversation about the role of gender in 4IR today, we can lay the groundwork for a more equitable future tomorrow. But first we need to consider how the technology is written, created, and designed.

This conversation must focus on much deeper issues than the balance of labour and risk of automation destroying jobs. In her new book, The Big Nine: How The Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, New York University professor Amy Webb carefully unpacks how algrothirms are produced in siloed communities that willingly or not imbue their own biases into the platforms.

She has several examples to make her case. Many AI algorithms, Webb notes, refer to nurses as femine and doctors as male. This type of subtle inference adds to imbalanced perceptions of gender in society and replicates existing divisions. Moreover, we don’t know the extent of the bias built into algorithms due to the opaque and often proprietary nature of AI optimisation. Our inability to observe these changes in real time is concerning.

Webb goes deeper by asking a fundamental question: Who is creating the technology of the future? Based on her research, most of the leading programmers and coders in the United States are male and come from privileged backgrounds. She finds the same to be true in China. If society is unable to observe how these programmers are creating the algorithms of the future, how can we ensure that issues such as gender are balanced?

Webb’s argument belies something more visceral about the 4IR and gender: How our technology reflects values such as empathy in decision-making and leadership. It is commonly believed that women possess deeper levels of empathy than men. Researchers at Pisa University, for example, found that women were more likely than men to yawn when someone else yawns in their presence. While this might seem non sequitur, the researchers believe that their study demonstrates how women are more in tune with the psychological state of those around them, which is why they are more likely to yawn when someone else yawns too.

Our moment is defined by hope and possibility but it’s also overshadowed by changes to how we think, learn, and communicate. Children raised today know smartphones and tablets better than paper books and wooden toys. This generation is growing up knowing information to be instant, not gained through effort. As such, we face a deficit of empathy and traditional decision-making and leadership skills. With little oversight over the creation of new technologies that will entrenched this shift, we need to consider ways to boost the gender balance in the 4IR.

The good news is that we are still building the architecture of the 4IR and with the right amount of discussion and clear action, we can ensure better balance. Dubai’s recently opened global centre for the study of 4IR in collaboration with the World Economy Forum is a great venue to refine this discussion. At the nexus point of the global technology shifts defining the future, the centre can help create the intellectual infrastructure needed to ensure that gender is positively incorporated into our new technological innovations. This is by no means a regional or country-wide debate. It’s a global one where all parties have a vested interest in creating the world we want to live in.