AI shapes a new generation female IT leaders
- 17 April, 2019 14:00
Artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing a fresh approach to the old ways of thinking in the tech sector which will help shape female leaders, says Karolyn Gainfort, an advisory committee member for Woman in AI.
Gainfort has felt the brunt of gender bias and disparity during her 25-plus year career in the IT and telecommunications sector.
After a stint tech in the UK, Gainfort went home to New Zealand in the early 90s and experienced being “patted on the head” and offered junior pay, which was less than her male peers who had the same level of experience as herself.
“It felt like I was at war a lot… to be taken seriously,” she said. “I remember an older woman I worked for, said to me one of the things about turning 50 is I can say what I want, I’ve got the wisdom and experience and if people don’t like it they can just…go away.”
Although it was a “jungle out there for a while”, Gainfort stuck it out and now sees the benefits that come with age and experience in an industry that she is passionate about.
What Gainfort experienced in New Zealand was different from the doors that opened for her in the UK. Despite originally heading to London to become a ballerina -- on her mother’s insistence and her own love of dance -- Gainfort took a job as a receptionist in a film production company.
“My mother didn’t speak to me for a week,” she said. “But that didn’t stop me from putting my hand up for things, especially when new technology was coming out like the first Epson PC. At the time, I helped set up a bulletin board for the music industry with British Telecom.”
Gainfort’s career in the UK progressed from there when she started specialising in project management and quality software assurance and finally to her current position as digital risk mitigator - principal consultant at strategic advisory firm, KJR.
“I love new technology and just how it shapes business and how it affects people’s worlds,” she said. “That’s why I have been doing this for so long.”
Her unusual background, her curiosity and her tenacity helps give her different perspectives to the technology conversation -- which has led her to often champion the need for more diversity just being a “normal” part of the industry.
“There’s this gorgeous young woman at the Woman for AI camp. She told us that when men ask her what she does for a job (she's a robotics engineer), they don’t believe her, and they are stunned and shocked,” she said.
“It’s still a surprise for me to see that now, although I am used to it and can ignore it, to see it happen to a young woman – it’s 2019.”
This is where the AI industry can make a difference in the issue of diversity and gender equality. Gainfort said AI requires a diverse way of thinking with the need to be creative to help use the technology to help the world and solve social problems.
“There is a lot of fear and fear mongering around AI, which is a real shame” she said. “It can be used to do manual jobs where humans had done them before, but you still need humans to input the tasks into AI [systems].”
However AI can be “skewed” said Gainfort, last year Amazon abandoned an AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women.
“If somebody implements AI, and uploads it with 20 years’ worth of data and uses that past information to make predictions, it is going to be biased, old and out of date,” she said.
“That’s where the diversity of thinking is needed – so when it comes to using a prediction tool in an HR system, you won’t upload old data of mostly male candidates with software engineering degrees.”
Where it gets interesting for Gainfort is looking what the AI is being taught and by who. With a diverse AI team, she said it’s not just the AI engineer or the data scientist in putting too much data or too little data.
“A diverse team will look have someone that can look at what the data is, the impact of using it and whether or not there is a need to take away or add information,” said Gainfort. “They can really spend time preparing and researching what they think the successful outcome will be.”
It’s an exciting era that the world is moving into, acknowledged Gainfort, especially if the business sector pushes more young women through with their views on diversity.
“At the Women in AI camp we have girls aged 11 to 26 all listening to each other and pitching ideas,” she said.
“They’re looking at how AI can help with mental health, training dogs in the home (especially older ones that have been brought home from the RSPCA – so they aren’t dumped again) and assisted living robots for the elderly. Some of these issues directly impact their own lives and their families.":
Gainfort says this is where AI’s strength lies, is ensuring a generation of girls are being asked about how they can help in problem solving, without the need for a technical background.
“It’s a creative technology that will enable a lot of positive change in the world,” she said.