In today’s economic climate, many companies are embracing technology to offset the impact of global uncertainties such as COVID-19. Big data is driving business growth in many instances, while 5G technology, cloud technology and digital transformation are expected to have significant effects in the next 12 to 18 months.

Institute for Public Policy research states that women are twice as vulnerable as men to losing their jobs to automation. It is a reality that prompted Dr Natalie Oh, Senior Lecturer at UNSW Business School, to launch the inter-varsity tech literacy program for female students.

“Universities need to help women better adapt to the changing requirements of the job market by providing them with the necessary knowledge, skills and opportunities. Through the inter-varsity tech literacy series, our aim is to deliberately target female students in business to reduce gender bias,” says Dr Oh.

“This program aims to empower female youths with skills in technology that translate to all fields of business, so that they are better prepared to initiate their careers within an industry that continuously experiences disruptive innovation.”

Dr Oh partnered with Angela Kim, the Australian ambassador for Women in AI to plan the program and help with the selection process. Four universities across NSW – UNSW, Macquarie University, University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney – are taking part in the program, with the view of expanding interstate next year.

The program is structured into four virtual masterclasses and aims to help women defy gender inequality in the workforce by addressing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG):

  • Quality Education (SDG 4)
  • Gender Equality (SDG 5)
  • Reduce Inequality (SDG 10)
  • Partnerships for the goals (SDG 17)

Tech giants Salesforce, Microsoft, DXC Technology, Yellowfin and Gradient Institute are all key participants in the program aiming to provide students with practical tech knowledge such as tools for data visualisation, blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) products.

“We aim to address this problem through technology literacy programs so that young women are educated across a spectrum of technologies without having to necessarily pursue a degree in information technology. The goal of this program is to make business female students more tech agile,” Dr Oh says.

Why should women be more involved in the tech industry?

The aim of Women in AI is to provide empowerment to females looking to work in tech, with a clear focus on diversity and inclusion.

“One of the biggest risks when using AI is the unconscious bias being built into machine learning algorithms. As AI still needs human intervention and the majority of people working in AI are men, the process will naturally create algorithms from the male mindset. It is therefore essential to be aware of such biases and ethical components from the start of the design process and one way of achieving this is by including female input in machine learning,” Ms Kim says.

Ethics is also important when assessing the integrity of AI.

“You have to assess and review if you are compliant with the product and check if it is diverse and inclusive. Satisfying such requirements will soon become mandatory in Australia and other countries for tech products. Tech organisations are cognisant of this and have been proactively encouraging more females to build a career in tech.”

Has the gender gap in tech decreased?

The gender gap in the tech industry has not been bridged. The number of women interested in working in the industry has actually decreased, notes Ms Kim.

“As of December 2019, only 18 per cent of machine learning engineers who are specialising in AI production service creation were female,” she says.

The gender gap is due to misconceptions about the skills needed to work in AI.

“People think you have to be a hardcore data person or be a language programmer. What they don’t realise is that nowadays, nearly everything is automated. So, a lot less coding (or sometimes no coding) is needed. Also, by participating in workshops such as the inter-varsity tech literary series, this will help to break preconceived notions that females have about a career in tech.”

Ms Kim also says that many women looking to start a family have also chosen not to advance their career in tech due to technology-based roles that often come with tight implementation, deployment schedules and a somewhat inflexible work arrangement. 

“The number of women in pure tech roles has consistently decreased industry-wide due to the lack of flexible working arrangement such as practical job-sharing roles from corporates and tech companies,” she says.

“Microsoft is a great example of a tech company that recently proposed a job-sharing model to be more inclusive. Through this model, two females can share one job and work part-time to balance other priorities they may have.”

Companies also need to lead by example and adapt a top-down approach when demonstrating the importance of flexibility at work, she says. An example is how Peter Harmer, CEO of IAG, often works from home on Fridays to encourage females to have a more flexible work arrangement.

“With greater awareness about AI bias and ethics, people are starting to have a more holistic view of what the problem is. I think the future is positive, because more people are beginning to think that a career in technology is not only for males,” Ms Kim says.

What do tech employers look for when recruiting?

What’s important is understanding the logic behind the technology being used and the ability to be tech agile, says Dr Oh.

“Our aim is not for females to be proficient in just one application. We want them to be exposed to as many technologies as possible so that they can be confident that whenever they pick up new technologies that they can do this,” Dr Oh says.

Rather than a particular skill set, Ms Kim says it’s more about being tech literate and having the agility to learn and master new technology suites.

“Curiosity for technology is very important for people to succeed in the tech industry. You also need to have a very open mindset and be ready to continuously learn and adapt to new changes.

“You need to be willing to put in your hours to acquire a new skill as well. Have grit and be resilient. The more you're confident, the more you become fluent in technology.”

Participants in the program have noted the benefits of the workshops and how it’s changed their views of a career in tech.

“The inter-varsity tech literacy series has offered an invaluable opportunity to learn about some of the most innovative technologies provided by market-leading tech companies. The workshops offer a great blend of practical learning and interactive Q&As. Although I did not have a strong tech background, every workshop has empowered me to explore different areas within the tech field and learn how to apply my interests in technology and business,” says Zoe Ong, Bachelor of Commerce/Information Systems student at UNSW Business School.

The program will conclude with The Grand Challenge on 29 October 2020 where teams will compete in a case challenge that focuses on the blend between business and technology. The winning team will have the opportunity to intern at one of the partnering tech organisations. Women in AI is also sponsoring the winning individual to travel to Paris and visit the Women in AI headquarters next year.