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African women needed in STEM to advance rights in AI

African women needed in STEM to advance rights in AI

The African continent needs more women in science, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields in order to advance women's rights within-and through AI.

This is according to Masego Madzwamuse, team leader at the Social & Economic Justice Cluster of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA).

Madzwamuse spoke to ITWeb Africa following her recent TEDxLittletonWomen talk in Gauteng, South Africa.

She said governments, companies, and society at large needs to unite to provide regulation and standards that will protect the rights of women in AI.

"Africa could take advantage of its youth dividend to build future skills, but investments in closing the gender gap will be required. Women need to be involved in tech innovation to respond to gendered differences and AI must be transformative and not take away women's economic autonomy," said Madzwamuse.

According to the World Economic Forum's 2017 report on the future of Jobs, the level of women in STEM jobs in Kenya stands at 17%, 6.7% in Ghana and 26% in SA.

The WEF also reports that 41% of all work in SA is susceptible to automation, 44% in Ethiopia, 66% in Nigeria and 52% in Kenya.

Madzwamuse added that the current landscape for women in STEM fields in the continent is not enough to drive full inclusiveness.

Current AI threat

Madzwamuse believes algorithms are perpetuating inequalities and conceal biases, which will have further implications in the increased usage of AI in decision making.

"The increase in the use of algorithms (mathematical models) and big data in the finance sector threatens to erode the gains made in access to finance. Algorithms which are pre-loaded with gender biases are used to make vital decisions about who gets jobs, loans and so forth.

"The tech companies that are developing these programmes are said to be reluctant to fix the problem. Even pioneers such as Elon Musk - the tech entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX speaks of AI as the biggest risk we face as a civilisation; he points to weaknesses and almost an absence of regulation," she continued.

To illustrate Madzwamuse referred to digitisation and border control in which officials could be replaced by robots.

She added that there's a particular threat facing African women, particularly those in the informal sector. "There are challenges that women face in the informal sector which we should be reflecting on, including harassment, soliciting of bribes and sexual exploitation by border officials."

In 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute found that US$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women's equality. The institute notes that the public, private, and social sectors will need to act to close gender gaps in work and society.

"Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women, who account for half the world's working-age population, do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer," reads the report.

According to the African Development Bank, women comprise a little over half of Africa's growing population and their contribution to the region's economy is extensive, but they also form the majority of the poor. "This is largely because they make up 70% of the informal sector, where work is unstable, poorly paid and invisible," notes the report.

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