#metoo Siri: Why the lack of women in tech just got serious

You might think Lego’s launch of Women of NASA late last year was just a major toy brand rinsing the Christmas market.
And it was. But it was much more.

In fact LEGO® might have just gone and done something momentous for the future of mankind. And womankind. Here’s why.

The mini-figures set celebrates four female space pioneers: astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, astronaut and physicist Sally Ride (the first woman in space) and astronaut and engineer Mae Jemison (the first black woman in space).

And this is important for three reasons.

First of all, it inspired our blog series musing on which inspiring Women of Business we’d like to see eternalised as LEGO® mini-figures.

Second of all, it saves LEGO® from its hitherto dismal track record in gender. In their decades-long desperation to get chicks into bricks, they’ve gone down many ill-advised rabbit holes, least of which is the controversial LEGO® Friends range. It’s pastel pink and purple. The figures are taller, curvier and wear cute little skirts. And play revolves around domestic activities such as baking, homemaking and getting your hair done. Nuff said.

The third reason is a big one and here’s where humanity can sit up.

The lack of women in tech just got serious

LEGO® have chosen STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) – a sector notoriously lacking in female employees. A sector in whose hands rests the code currently going into machine-learning algorithms for artificial intelligence. A sector therefore, in whose hands, arguably, lies the future of the planet.

AI is set to make one of the most profound changes to humanity that we have ever seen. But just go and Google images of ‘computer engineer’ or ‘software developer’ and you’ll get the idea of who’s building all the bots right now.

Gender bias in, gender bias out

We somehow imagine machine intelligence to be objective, reassuringly above primitive human considerations such as gender. But the reality is that that neural networks are built and programmed by humans. They learn how to function from a set of inputs, and if that data contains a bias (even an unconscious one) then the AI will replicate that bias.

“Software is just language,” says Vanessa Hurst, founder and CEO of CodeMontage, a company that helps developers code for the betterment of society. “Any assumptions you have about words and relationships are going to show up in your language. They show up in code.”

The hands, minds, ethics, and morals of the people who create new technology will without a doubt, have a huge impact on humans and the world.

Fetch my slippers Siri

There are already plenty of examples of gender bias-infected AI.

Look at the origins of the names given to virtual assistants: Apple’s Siri means ‘beautiful woman who leads you to victory’; Microsoft’s Cortana is based on a hypersexualised female character in the video game Halo, and Facebook’s M is said to be inspired by Moneypenny – the epitome of the ‘sexy secretary’. Amazon has Alexa and Google’s nameless assistant has a female voice. As a rule, virtual assistants with male personas are introduced as an afterthought.

Screenshot of the character 'Cortana' from the 'Halo' videogame series by Bungie

#metoo Siri

Quartz tech writer Leah Fessler carried out some eye-opening research with worrying results. She subjected several personal assistant bots to verbal sexual harassment to see how they would respond.

She reports that instead of fighting back, most of the bots reinforced sexist tropes, rather than correcting them. “Siri and Alexa remain either evasive, grateful, or flirtatious, while Cortana and Google Home crack jokes in response to the harassments they comprehend.”

Clearly programmers had built in their own ideas of how women might respond to inappropriate questions. What are the chances female programmers would have written in something more like: “Your sexual harassment is unacceptable and I won’t tolerate it. Here’s a link that will help you learn appropriate communication techniques.”


And personal assistants are just the beginning.

As AI becomes sophisticated and ubiquitous, tech firms need to acknowledge the lack of XX chromosomes inside their shiny buildings and be careful not to embed the same imbalances in the intelligent machines that will soon surround us.

There’s no real advantage in assigning gender to AI assistants, but tech firms are inadvertently allowing sexist stereotypes onto our smart devices. If we don’t get female boffins round the table sharpish, all our core AI platforms  will be biased. Reversing the damage later on will be tough, if not impossible.

So while it’s important to balance out the boys in STEM, it’s Defcon1-urgent to get women into AI.

More LEGO® ladies

The under-representation of women in tech has troubled government for years now and there are grass-roots programmes underway to encourage girls into science, engineering and coding. But as a beloved brand for eighty years – and an increasingly powerful social influencer – LEGO® might just be doing more for the cause than all the educational campaigns put together.

So let’s hope.

That some of the Gen Z and Alpha kids who got Women of NASA mini-figures last Christmas will soon be the ones building the fair and female-friendly AI we really need.