When technology imitates life: The rise of discriminatory artificial intelligence


By Teresa Harris



Early last year, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down after several employees were ousted for their behaviour towards women, and the company was accused of fostering a toxic culture of sexism and harassment. In August 2017, James Damore, an engineer at Google, released a 10-page memo asserting women are biologically less suited to careers in tech, and criticized the company’s gender diversity efforts.

We’re familiar with these headlines, and the many others that have placed the state of gender diversity in North America’s tech industry under intense scrutiny. However, the problem goes deeper than we may realize — from the minds of employees, to the technology they’re producing — specifically in the realm of artificial intelligence. The result? Artificially intelligent technology that mimics the people and environment it was founded by and in: at best, inherently biased, and at worst, explicitly sexist.

Devices using artificial intelligence deeply affect how we live, work, and play. Voice-powered personal assistants are now with us in the car and kitchen, and suggestive search engines, which make use of machine-learning algorithms, seem to know us better than our closest companions. Since 2012, C.B. Insights reports that funding for A.I. start-ups has increased by over 850 per cent. Tech leaders including Google, Apple, and IBM have each purchased at least five companies with A.I. specialization, with Google acquiring a whopping 12 in the last six years.


“The problem goes deeper than we may realize — from the minds of employees, to the technology they’re producing.”


The consequences of the gender and racially homogeneous work environments characteristic of Silicon Valley are already being seen in the A.I. market, which comes as no surprise to many industry experts.

“When you don’t have the diversity of people designing voice-recognition software, you forget to test the technology using those people,” says Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and managing partner of Feminuity, a Toronto-based consulting firm that works with innovative companies to help them navigate through the unmapped territory of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. “Still to this day, some A.I. software doesn’t understand particular types of accents, i.e. those that deviate from the Western white male.”

University of Virginia computer science professor Vicente Ordóñez found that research-image collections supported by Microsoft and Facebook have shown “predictable gender bias in their depiction of activities such as cooking and sports,” strongly associating women with the former and men with the latter.

In 2017, news website Quartz studied how voice-powered assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana responded to different types of verbal harassment, including lewd comments about their sex, sexuality, sexual characteristics, or sexual behavior. They found that “the bots most frequently evaded harassment, occasionally responded positively with either graciousness or flirtation, and rarely responded negatively,” meaning these virtual women almost never asked the harasser to stop, or told them that what they were saying was inappropriate.

These bots haven’t been around long enough to absorb the patriarchal biases entrenched throughout our society. However, the people — or should we say, the men — programming them have. And while bias and behaviour like this can be corrected, it requires a researcher to be looking for that bias in the first place, and to specify what he or she wants to correct. If recent headlines are any indicator, many within the tech industry don’t see the issue, or the value in correcting it.


“There are a lot of women who aren’t comfortable in environments where they don’t know everything. So encouraging them to take the leap is very important.”


Angelique Mohring is the founder and CEO of GainX, a company that uses A.I. and machine learning to aid global corporations in their transformation across people and projects. While she won’t deny the current state of gender inequality in the tech workplace, she remains hopeful that women not only belong there, but can add significant value to the field.

“Because of A.I., we’re going to need a skill set that goes beyond digital talent. The broader perspective women have will be worth its weight in gold in the future economy.” Mohring describes the ‘future economy’ as one wherein companies do much more with less — something she believes women are particularly well suited for. “Throughout history, women have always done more with less. We have been continually figuring out how to survive and take care of families and communities with very little.”

So how do we derail the speeding train that is biased artificial intelligence?

The obvious answer: get more women into tech so that more women, and a more diverse set of women, are designing and programming the tech we use. But Anne Martel, co-founder and SVP of Operations at Montreal startup Element AI, doesn’t think it’s as simple as getting more women in the door.

“It’s the company’s responsibility to be a safe place to learn, fail and learn from that failure,” she says. “There are a lot of women who aren’t comfortable in environments where they don’t know everything. So encouraging them to take the leap is very important.”

Even still, Martel thinks the consequences of non-diverse tech go beyond sexist and discriminatory software — she believes biased A.I. is destined to fail in the marketplace. “To allow for the adoption of A.I. systems, they have to be relatable. And a lack of diversity will prevent us from truly benefiting from these systems, because they’re not going to represent the reality we know.”


The One-sided State of Tech

According to data from the National Science Foundation, the number of women holding computer science degrees has declined from 25 per cent in 2004, to 18 per cent in 2014. And research from Morgan Stanley revealed that just 29 per cent of employees in tech are women, and only 13 per cent are executives.

The cause of a female shortage in tech comes down to what, in 2008, the Harvard Business Review called “The Athena Factor.” At the time, a reported 63 per cent of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) experienced sexual harassment at work, the result of cultures that celebrated “hostile machismo.” The review found other antigens that deter women from workplaces, including isolating them on teams of predominantly men and using systems of risk and reward that tend to disadvantage risk-averse women. The result? A 52 per cent drop off between women who graduate with degrees in STEM fields, and those who remain in those industries.

A more recent survey conducted in 2015 by a group of female tech investors and executives, titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” revealed that “84 per cent of the participants had been told they were too aggressive in the office, 66 per cent said that they had been excluded from important events because of their gender, and 60 per cent reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.”





Meet Rachel Ignotofsky, an Illustrator and Author Breathing New Life into Women in Science

Rachel Ignotofsky is a New York Times Best Selling author and illustrator whose work highlights the incredible scientific achievements of prominent women in history. Get to know what inspires her, and how she’s using her talents to reshape the way we view women in traditionally male-dominated fields.



My first job ever was… I answered the phone for an amazing woman named Terry, who ran the continuing education program at my college. She is literally the sweetest woman in the world, even when I showed up the first day in pajamas like a dumb kid.


I decided to become an illustrator and author because… I always wanted to be an illustrator, but I decided to become an author because i think educations is incredibly important. Whether you are a kid or an adult you need to understand the world around you to make informed decisions. That’s why I use my illustrations to promote scientific literacy and teach history, especially around women’s issues.


My proudest accomplishment is… My first book: Women in Science. It is literally a dream come true times infinity to be published.


I surprise people when I tell them… That I just learned to ride a bike.


My best advice to people launching a creative pursuit is… Work on your passion projects every day and make sure they are visible online.


My best advice from a mentor was… Never freelance for free. Always work for competitive pay and that leads to more work that pays competitively. “Exposure” does not pay the bills.


Rachel Ignotofsky_Marie Curie


My biggest setback was… Figuring out how to be my own boss when I first quit my 9-5 job. You know you have work but you kinda feel like you’re floating in the ocean at first.


I overcame it by… Becoming the queen of calendars. I have three paper calendars and two day planners keeping me on track at all times. I set benchmarks for the year, then each month, week and day to keep me on track with large projects and personal goals.


Work/life balance is… My work is my life. I truly love what I do. Left to my own devices it is all I think about, but I keep myself in check with my day planner. It is all about those daily goals. Once I have everything on my list done I am done for the day. That way you stay fresh.


Rachel Ignotofsky_Patricia Bath


If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… How messy my desk is. It is natural disaster level messy.


I stay inspired by… For my book it is the stories of the women in them. Just learning about their lives, their raw passion and everything they had to overcome to contribute to science — it is truly inspiring, and I want to do my small part to have more people learn about them.


The future excites me because… I am excited to see how kids who grew up since birth with the internet take on the world to make it a better place. I feel that these kids are more likely to advocate for themselves and ask questions about the world around them, and aren’t afraid to be themselves.


Women in science are… A part of history. From ancient times to modern day, women have been exploring the world around them and contributing greatly to science. Whether it is Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin discovering that the sun is made up of hydrogen and helium, or Lise Meitner discovering fission (just to name a few), female scientist have changed our world. Although often women have been left out of the history books we are now telling their stories.


My next step is… In March my new journal is coming out called I Love Science filled with scientific reference pages, inspirational quotes, and prompts to encourage you to explore and ask questions about our universe. In July, my next book comes out called Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win.



Meet Natalie Panek: Rocket Scientist and Advocate for Women in STEM

Natalie is a rocket scientist, adventurer, and advocate for women in technology. As a Mission Systems Engineer at MDA’s Robotics and Automation division, Natalie works on the next generation of Canadian space robotics and space exploration programs. She seeks to pursue the road less traveled while working towards her dream of becoming an astronaut.

As told to Meghan Jeffery


My first job ever was working at the Calgary Science Center where I welcomed guests on stage prior to shows in their Discovery Dome Theatre. Looking back I realize that job is where I really became comfortable speaking in public in front of large audiences.

I would tell my 20-year-old self to work outside of my comfort zone as much as possible and participate in hands-on projects that provide opportunities for building, making, tinkering, experimenting etc. In the engineering and tech world there is no better experience than literally getting your hands dirty.

My dream job when I was a child was an astronaut. And it still is my dream job today; a long-term goal of space travel that I am always working towards.

My proudest accomplishment was persevering to land a coveted internship position at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. I applied for this scholarship four times and was rejected all four times. After the fourth rejection I had the idea to call the Chief of the Office of Higher Education at NASA and was offered an internship on the spot after the short phone conversation. Never underestimate the power of perseverance.

I went into tech because I love working on challenging problems with the flexibility to brainstorm creative solutions. Plus at my job we build hardware that actually goes to space, which is totally cool. It will be neat to say that I was part of a team that put a rover on Mars.

My best advice to young people starting out in tech is to dream big, dare to achieve the impossible, and stay optimistic. Optimism can make or break a team especially when things go wrong (which they inevitably do!).

Related: Interested in more females in tech? Meet Michele Romanow, serial entrepreneur and newest dragon on Dragons’ Den. 

My best advice from a mentor was realizing and understanding that it is OK not to know all of the answers all the time.

I balance work and life by making time for priorities – and I think being an engineer teaches you very well how to manage priorities. While I love what I do, I don’t think looking back on my life I’ll wish I spent more time on the computer, but I’ll always want more adventure.

My biggest passion is the outdoors. What I find particularly interesting is how interrelated my career in space and passion for the outdoors has become, especially from a conservationist/activist perspective.

Natalie_Panek_400x400The best extra-curricular activity I got involved with was building a solar powered car as part of a university team that we raced across North America. And I was a driver during the race. Crossing the border between two countries in an experimental test vehicle was unreal.

Women in tech means shedding myopic mentalities and leveraging communities with diverse perspectives to positively affect our future.

Millennials are in a unique position, having been shaped by technology, to harness the digital age that we live in to revolutionize the way we live and work.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know that I play competitive ultimate Frisbee.

I stay inspired by embracing curiosity. I think it is extremely important as we grow to maintain childlike wonder; to look at the world with wide eyes and so many amazing opportunities for lifelong learning.

The future excites me because there are unlimited opportunities to learn and explore. The vastness of space and of the world around us makes us want, and need, to know more.



From philosophy to tech, meet Danielle Graham

Unlike many people working in technology, Danielle Graham didn’t take the traditional STEM route in University—she studied the arts. From growing up in Namibia and Ethiopia, studying philosophy at the University of Toronto, history at Dalhousie University, and an MBA at Wilfrid Laurier, Danielle has landed as the Women in Tech Program Manager at the Communitech innovation centre in Waterloo Region.

To her, technology is all about creating solutions and making an impact on the world. Danielle’s resume is extensive, from consulting overseas in South Africa and Ethiopia to co-founding a company, Crio Water, an award winning sustainable home drinking water treatment company.

Communitech, Danielle’s employer, is a part of Cisco’s Circle of Innovation, an internship program with Cisco, Communitech, and Business Development Bank of Canada. The program has partnered entrepreneurs across Canada with interns from the University of Waterloo to help grow companies digital presence, all while using Cisco technology to drive future growth, collaboration, and success. Communitech is one of the groups who help source the innovative entrepreneurs to match with the interns.


I first knew I wanted to get involved in tech because I wanted to work on and create solutions that could have a lasting and scalable impact.

Mentorship is important because you can learn the right lessons from someone else in a few minutes, which could take you a lifetime to learn on your own.

My proudest accomplishment is founding the first Fierce Founders bootcamp (called the Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp) at Communitech. I created the program from scratch and turned 6 days of workshops into two 3-day sessions with a month in-between. The break allows companies to get customer validation and complete homework that is created by executives in residence, who support 25 women entrepreneurs in the community. The women who participate in this program create a network that continue to support other women in tech through community events.  

I surprise people when I tell them I grew up in Africa. I lived in Namibia and Ethiopia throughout my school years and only returned to Canada when I graduated from high school at the International Community School of Addis Ababa.

My best advice to young people starting out in tech is learn as much as you can. The more you can learn at a younger age, the more you will reinforce your own confidence in your ability to learn about and create new tech.

Engaging young women in STEM is important because they are equally talented and capable of engaging in this field. We are losing half of the potential talent in STEM if we don’t include women, and that has a huge negative impact on the STEM ecosystem and within innovation in Canada. There are many competitive and lucrative career opportunities within the field that are currently underserved from a talent perspective that women have the potential to fill.

More women are getting involved in tech – to a certain extent – but overall we are seeing the numbers decrease in many STEM fields. The socio-cultural implications of tech being designated as predominantly male continues to deter many women. As less women participate in tech, there are less role models for younger women and the cycle perpetuates.

Technology means you can accomplish functions outside of your physical human limits. The significance of technology stretches from exciting new hardware meant solely for the purpose of entertainment or as the competitive advantage for a country at war. Whether it is highly significant or mundane, it is all technology and it stretches the potential for what humans are capable of.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know that I’ve been to 35 countries and counting! I love to travel and I just booked my next trip (to Puerto Rico).

The future excites me because I believe in the power of entrepreneurship to solve some of the world’s worst problems and I’m excited to see how the things will change when more women are involved in tech startups.

Meet an Entrepreneur That’s Dedicated to Teaching Kids to Read

When your CTO lives in Denver, Colorado, your team lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and you live in Waterloo, Ontario—it’s safe to say technology plays a big part in your day-to-day. Leah Skerry, co-founder and CEO of Eyeread, an education technology startup helping children learn to read, certainly credits technology for the ability to communicate with her team via video conferencing and other platforms.

Not only does technology help with communication—it’s the foundation of her company. Eyeread helps personalize reading lessons for teachers, uses analytics to help determine what is holding children back, and creates lesson plans to adapt to different skill sets. And this isn’t Leah’s first venture. She launched a crowdfunding site for amateur athletes called Pursu.it, was selected as one of the 21 Emerging Leaders of Nova Scotia, and is an active member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community.

Leah has partnered with Cisco’s Circle of Innovation, an internship program managed by Cisco, Communitech, and Business Development Bank of Canada with interns from the University of Waterloo, to help grow Eyeread’s digital presence. We asked Leah and her new intern, Joyce Yu, about their new partnership and how they’ll be using technology to collaborate and drive future growth and success.


Why did you decide to be an entrepreneur?

It was not a conscious decision. In the early days of university, at the Sobey School of Business, I discovered a way to major in business but take all my electives at NSCAD studying design and fine art. I wanted to be an architect. Then mid-way through university, I was assigned a class project to grow a business using only ten dollars. I combined my interest in business and love of design to create a successful initiative developing ads using Facebook and Twitter, which were still novel at the time.  I snagged the Atlantic Canadian Student Entrepreneur of The Year in 2009 and since then I’ve been captivated with solving challenges through new approaches and innovations.


My boldest move to date was reaching out to successful, and notable people like David Ferrucci (who was the principal investigator at IBM, leading a team to develop the Watson computer system that won Jeopardy) and IDEO leaders when Eyeread was just an idea. Our mission was to improve literacy globally and based on that we were able to secure amazing people in a one-hour online think tank.

What is your best advice to those starting their own business?

I was once told the difference between an entrepreneur and an employee is the ability to work through the psychological ups and downs. My advice is not to give up if you choose to start a company. Developing something new takes time. You will most likely pivot from your original idea while establishing your company in the early days. To get through the ‘ups and downs,’ be passionate about the problem you are addressing. If you are consumed with solving a problem and starting a company is the only way to solve it, you are in a good spot; You will be able to work through the tough times because there will always be tough times.

I surprise people when I tell them I love aerial silks. Like Cirque du Soleil style. I practice as often as I can. It’s an amazing way to bring creativity and exercise into my life.

Technology has helped my business because my CTO is in Denver, the rest of my team is in Halifax, and I am currently based in Waterloo. Video conferencing has helped my team produce meaningful, thoughtful, and valuable work without needing to be in the same space. Products like Google Hangouts, WebEx, and Slack (team messaging) allow us to communicate effectively while working remotely.

I plan to use technology in the future to teach every child in the world to learn and love how to read.

We use machine learning to create games that teach children basic reading skills that adapt to a child’s unique skill level and interest. Our technology solves a big problem for teachers: Teaching to a class makes it difficult to personalize instruction and engage children in subjects they are interested in. Our technology helps teachers personalize lessons and keeps children engaged.

Joyce_400x400Meet Leah’s intern, Joyce Yu

School: University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University

Program: Honours Business Administration (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Computer Science (University of Waterloo) Double Degree

Year of Study: 1 (Starting 2A term in September)

What are you looking forward to at your new internship?

I am looking forward to using Cisco’s various products, especially their collaboration endpoint products like TP. Such tools that make long-distance communication effortless interest me; perhaps it is because I have been apart from my family who lives overseas while I was growing up. More importantly, I’m excited to see how I can integrate the use of such products into other companies’ projects. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with two entrepreneurs, TrustPoint Technologies and Eyeread, on very interesting projects. I’m hoping to learn more about IoT security solutions through my work with TrustPoint, as well as contribute to Eyeread’s amazing product that helps improve literacy skills of young children today.

How will you use technology to engage with your new employers?

I am excited to get involved with the online platform Cisco has created for employees, such as the various social media campaigns like #LoveWhereYouWork and #NeverBetter that allow me to share my intern experience with others. I also plan to make good use of Cisco Jabber to connect with my mentors and colleagues, and have WebEx meetings to see them face-to-face, regardless of where they physically are. Aside from Cisco’s tools, I use Google Hangouts to meet with the two entrepreneurs I am collaborating with, who are in Waterloo, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia, respectively. With the use of technology, I can close the distance between my employers and I.


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