UNESCO’s new publication, I’d blush if I could, shares strategies to close gender divides in digital skills through education. Produced through a collaboration with Germany and the EQUALS Skills Coalition, it contains three parts, a policy paper and two think pieces.
The POLICY PAPER outlines the persistence and severity of the gender gap in digital skills, provides a rationale for interventions, and makes recommendations to help women and girls develop strong digital skills.
THINK PIECE 1 explains the "ICT gender equality paradox", UNESCO’s finding that countries with the highest levels of gender equality such as those in Europe also have the lowest proportions of women pursuing advanced degrees in computer science and related subjects. Conversely, countries with low levels of gender equality such as those in the Arab region have the highest proportions of women completing advanced technology degrees.
THINK PIECE 2 examines how AI voice assistants projected as young women perpetuate harmful gender biases. It offers recommendations to ensure that the continued proliferation of digital assistants does not widen gender divides.
The title of the publication borrows its name from the response given by Siri, a female-gendered voice assistant used by hundreds of millions of people, when a human user would tell ‘her’, “Hey Siri, you’re a bi***.” Although the AI software that powers Siri has, as of April 2019, been updated to reply to the insult more flatly (”I don’t know how to respond to that”), the assistant’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse remains unchanged since the technology’s wide release in 2011. Siri’s ‘female’ obsequiousness – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products, pervasive in the technology sector and apparent in digital skills education.
I’d blush if I could seeks to expose some of these biases and put forward ideas to begin closing a digital skills gender gap that is, in most parts of the world, wide and growing. Today, women and girls are 25 per cent less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic purposes, 4 times less likely to know how to programme computers and 13 times less likely to file for technology patent. At a moment when every sector is becoming a technology sector, these gaps should make policy-makers, educators and everyday citizens ‘blush’ in alarm. The publication explains the role gender-responsive education can play to help reset gendered views of technology and ensure equality for women and girls.