AI is driving rapid technological advancement, reshaping our society, healthcare, education and how and where we work. But what does it mean for the tech gender gap? Claire Penketh reports:

A BCS roundtable at the Labour Party Conference held in partnership with Labour Women in Tech and Labour Digital recently discussed the pressing issues of diversity and inclusion in tech. Speakers ranged from leading Labour politicians, to senior female entrepreneurs, through to representatives from the tech giants and professional bodies.

Dan Aldridge, BCS Head of Policy outlined the challenges around women in tech: 94% of girls drop computer science at the first opportunity, around 20% percent of the tech workforce is female with Black Women making up 0.7% of the total. He added this is against a backdrop of 11 million people in the UK being digitally excluded.

The Transformative Power of Technology and AI

The primary recurring theme in these discussions was the transformative power of technology, particularly artificial intelligence (AI). The speakers consistently highlighted how AI has the potential to revolutionise various sectors of society. Shadow AI Minister Matt Rodda MP spoke about AI's applications in healthcare, where apps used by surgeons can predict the risk of blood clots following strokes, and AI's role in diagnostics, such as mammogram analysis. The message from the Shadow Minister was while there are risks, AI, if harnessed effectively and wisely, can bring about significant positive changes.

He said: "AI has transformative potential in areas like medicine, everyday life and economic growth. In addition, AI is proceeding at a blistering pace worldwide, and in the UK we have a competitive advantage, which is important."

However, Polly Curtis, CEO of Demos, warned: "We're facing a massive industrial revolution, and there are so many opportunities which are desperately needed to grow the economy. But there are huge risks as well. What's required is a really detailed plan of how we make that transition because the risk is, if we don't plan for the skills transition, you end up with what happened in the 80s around the coal mining communities, with areas of the country decimated by an industrial revolution."


Successful entrepreneur Pauline Norstrom, Founder and CEO of ‘Responsible AI’ companies Anekanta® Consulting and Anekanta® AI, said she is frequently the only woman entrepreneur at senior-level discussions and the only woman on the board in previous corporate board roles: "I feel what that means for me, and other women who aren't around the table is that I have to amplify my voice to make sure what I'm saying is not just my view but also representing those that aren't there."

The reason for her concerns, in a nutshell, is the broader issue of sexism: "There is an underlying societal problem, which is misogyny, and I don't mean it in terms of extremist hate. I mean it in terms of the core belief system at the root of misogyny which considers women to be inferior to men and that leads to exclusion or a lack of inclusion. Women need to be supported into high-level leadership and company director roles because they are the role models which break down anachronistic ‘beliefs’"

Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO of Mumsnet and Gransnet, described AI as a hugely disruptive force, and, without regulation, there would be trouble ahead. She said: "We are back where we were at the beginning of the internet revolution 20 years ago; it's as big as that, and it's going to change the world. As the founder of Mumsnet – the only one of the top ten social platforms in this country that is female-dominated – we know what it’s like to be on the sharp end of misogyny. For instance, we’ve had bomb threats, and I’ve had dirty underpants sent through the post to our office."

Female empowerment in tech education

The panel believed education and skills development were closely intertwined with gender disparities and digital exclusion. The speakers consistently advocate for education reforms prioritising digital literacy and technological fluency.

In personal anecdotes, attendees spoke about changing perceptions so that girls and women would want to engage with technology. Baroness Thornton, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, said it was ‘heartbreaking’ that her ten-year-old grand-daughter was not interested in studying coding at school.

Samantha Niblett, founder of Labour: Women in Tech, said the dial had stayed the same over the last two decades regarding the disproportionally small number of women in the sector. As a mother of a daughter, the wish to see that change had been one of the spurs to her setting up Labour: Women in Tech.

For Kanishka Narayan a Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate, his main point was the role of generative AI, which he said was radically changing the pace and quality of skills learning.

Wider discrimination

According to Areeq Chowdhury, Head of Policy at the Royal Society and Labour Councillor, it wasn't just women facing discrimination in this brave new world. He said the black community faced similar barriers. He described a Royal Society Fellowship scheme to help more academics and researchers into senior positions from the black community.

Priscilla Mensah, a policy specialist in Disability Rights who has a degenerative sight condition, also spoke about the widespread discrimination that disabled people face, especially those with sight loss – which she said 'doubly magnified' their marginalisation. She added: "The employment gap for disabled people in the United Kingdom today is somewhere around 29.9 per cent, and if you look at that for blind and low vision people, it’s around 50 per cent."

She illustrated how, on the one hand, being able to use assistive technology has been crucial in helping her in her everyday life – but there were still discrepancies in developing the best possible technology for people like her: "The magnifier on your iPhone or Android is significantly less effective than the camera. The magnifier is used by people who are low vision and blind, like me, to get around. But somehow tech companies are still making magnifiers that are poorer quality than the cameras in their phones, which makes no sense."

The Crucial Role of Policy and Governance

The role of policy and governance in the technology landscape emerged as a critical and recurring theme. The speakers emphasised the need for proactive, well-crafted regulations that promote transparency, accountability, and ethical practices in the development and deployment of AI.

The discussions underscored that striking the right balance in regulation is crucial to fostering innovation while safeguarding against potential risks. Mumsnet founder Justine added: "You've got to be firm and bold about regulation here because otherwise, in 20 years, the misogyny you see on the internet will be tenfold because no one's controlling them, and it's feeding itself on the language of the internet."

Shadow Minister Matt Rodda MP said when it came to the Online Safety Act , the Labour Party had always argued 'for a more determined approach', and he suggested that when it came to hate speech, the Labour Party was thinking deeply about how to take this issue forward and was actively seeking views and engagement.

He questioned the slow pace of the government's reaction to regulating AI. He said the AI White paper was a 'step forward', but it had failed to respond quickly enough to issues like the rapid development of ChatGPT. He conceded the government's approach to existing regulators overseeing the implantation of AI in some sectors was a 'sensible way forward'. However, there were gaps, he said, around foundation models.

Justine from Mumsnet was succinct in her advice to the Labour Party: "I think if I went back 20 years and we were having this conversation about what Labour could do about the Internet, I would say - just don't be afraid of regulation."

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Mary Towers, an employment rights policy officer in the Rights, International, Social and Economic Department at the TUC, has been working on a major project looking at the use of AI in employment relationships. She said: "On a wide variety of issues, unions' role in training is key. Union-led training could help people, for instance, to reskill, where they're under threat of redundancy, or perhaps undergoing transformational role change. This union-led training should be publicly funded as it is a public good".

She said it was essential to challenge the idea that productivity and growth couldn't go hand in hand with strong unions and regulation, and collective bargaining could drive meaningful change. She added: "Worker-powered technology has the potential to increase productivity and to ensure that everyone benefits."

Addressing Persistent Gender Disparities

The speakers consistently illuminated the glaring underrepresentation of women in technology-related fields. There is, the panel said, an urgent need to encourage and support more women and girls to pursue careers in technology and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, founder and CEO of Stemettes, President of the British Science Association, and Trustee of the Institute for the Future of Work, (IFOW) said she had three suggestions. Firstly, amplify the 'herstory’ of tech across the curriculum: "There's a lot of names that we don't get to see. Folks don't get to hear that it is a rich and diverse herstory, and it's almost like a secret."

Her second point was adopting practices generated by organisations like the IFOW. She said: "It's a very good policy tool that enshrines what good looks like. We have to be intentional with our deployment, our D&I assessments and our mitigations in how we deploy technology to ensure that we empower folks with their well-being and dignity in work, and AI can enact that."

Her third point was how to incentivise and reward people when it comes to lifelong learning of technology. "It's not something we do culturally," she said. She hoped this was an area that the Labour Party could work on, because she said: "There's always something new to learn about; this year, it's AI; next year, it'll be something else."

Michaela Neild, Government Affairs and Public Policy Manager for Google said one of her company's priorities was looking at how lifelong learning could be accessible to all and help, for instance, women and other underrepresented groups switch jobs: "People will have more than one career, and will need to retrain, rescale, upskill, adapt," she said.

Inclusive environment

There was general agreement that initiatives that foster a culture of respect and equity are essential to creating a safe and supportive environment where all individuals can thrive and contribute their talents without fear of discrimination or bias.

Holly Porter, MD of the BCS Institute, said it was important for those women who had, for instance, attended tech boot camps to feel welcome in the industry, and she urged employers to make a cultural shift that would welcome people from more diverse backgrounds.

Matt Rodda MP said the Labour Party's policy around apprenticeships was to reform the levy so that it was more flexible to accommodate women returners. He also emphasised the need for policies from industry that promoted flexible work arrangements.

The Impact of Hybrid Work Models and Economic Opportunities

Charlotte Holloway, Head of Government Relations EMEA, Zoom, and Member of the Board of Directors at TechUK, described the upside of hybrid work models regarding regional economic growth. She described her experience working from home in Plymouth, which allowed her to do a job she would typically do in London or Brussels.

She said: "There's a really interesting moment that could be captured by the current government or an incoming Labour government where we think about the role of hybrid technologies and AI in driving regional growth."

Charlotte cited a recent report from the Hybrid Work Commission, that mentioned a 5% increase in female employment during the pandemic.

She emphasised that progress was potentially endangered by the return to the office trend.

In addition, she said there needed to be policy solutions that brought together the various themes of regional regeneration and helped women play a bigger role in newer industries like AI.

Charlotte concluded: "When we look at the skills shortages we have in the country and the skills that we're going to need, these AI-augmented hybrid roles and thinking about how that all fits together is really, really important."

Bridging the Digital Divide

Tom Lowe from the Digital Poverty Alliance said: "The way we think about AI is that it needs to be subject to democratic accountability, and there has to be a strong emphasis on the public's voice in shaping where and how this kind of system is deployed. Even individuals who are digitally excluded are still going to be impacted by these AI systems. We think there needs to be a strong sense of everybody being able to influence these systems accountably."

Bridging this divide was imperative to building a more inclusive and equitable society. Casey Calista, Chair of Labour Digital, said: "We talk about good jobs throughout the UK, and that's critically important. Throughout this talk about tech policy, we must focus on not leaving anyone behind and how to include women and minoritized communities and everyone."

Simon Staffell, Director of Government Affairs at Microsoft said it had to be an opportunity for all: "It's easy to be really optimistic about the tremendous opportunity presented by AI across every sector. This opportunity can only be realised if the technology works for all people, and skills are fundamental to this. Copilot technologies show a great potentially to have democratising and levelling effects - helping inclusivity and accessibility - which both public and private sectors should lean into."

The Importance of Collective Efforts

Finally, the conversations consistently emphasise the importance of collective efforts to overcome the challenges discussed. This recurring theme emphasised that addressing gender disparities, digital exclusion, and discrimination requires a united and collaborative approach from all stakeholders.

BCS CEO Rashik Parmar cited the success of diversity and inclusion programmes that he knew of at some of the tech giants which he said had helped increase female participation

When it came to AI, he said: "You'll see not AI replacing jobs, you'll see those that use the right form of AI, succeeding and exceeding better than most. So, how do we help females and people not empowered today to get the skills and capabilities they need? That's the challenge - we know how to do that, but it needs a collective response."