Bridging the AI divide: Breaking down barriers to ensure women’s leadership and participation in the Fifth Industrial Revolution

Bridging the AI divide: Breaking down barriers to ensure women’s leadership and participation in the Fifth Industrial Revolution As AI shapes various industries, students who understand AI fundamentals will be better prepared for future careers. Copyright: Sarah Farhat/The World Bank

The unprecedented growth in the use of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) tools such as ChatGPT, Claude, Gemini, Copilot, among others, is rapidly impacting all sectors, and disrupting the skills needed to thrive in the labor market.

In fact, AI is expected to drastically change the job market, with almost 40 percent of global employment being impacted by AI, and according to PEW research a greater share of women’s jobs will be impacted by AI due to the type of jobs they have. It is in this context that we ask the question: if AI skills are the future, how can we ensure equal economic opportunities are available to both young women and men?

This blog reviews the main barriers in access and use of AI and proposes key recommendations to work towards a future where the voices of girls and women are contributing to shaping the AI revolution – the 5th Industrial Revolution.

The gender AI divide: A fast-emerging gender digital divide

Globally, there are 244 million more men than women using the Internet; 9 out of 10 adolescent girls and young women (compared to 7 out of 10 in boys and young men) are offline in low-income countries, with the highest gaps in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.  Also, for every 100 young men with digital skills, only 65 young women attain the same skills. This digital divide was made even more prominent during the COVID pandemic when girls had less access to devices, platforms and overall digital learning than boys.

It is therefore no surprise that the gender digital divide is mirrored in the access, use and participation of women in AI. This follows the existing inequalities in our societies, which are expressed as stereotypes which keep women from pursuing and thriving in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers and jobs.

The gender AI divide is caused by the exclusion of women at every stage of the AI life cycle, from design, research and development to implementation.

What can education systems do to support girls and women and make their voices heard in the AI revolution?

1. Enhance digital skills and AI literacy training early

As AI continues to shape various industries, students who understand AI fundamentals will be better prepared for future careers. Building a foundational understanding of how AI systems work and produce output not only prepares students for future careers in technology, but it also ensures that all students enter the workforce understanding the basics of AI.

In fact, the European Union has updated their Digital Competence Framework (DigComp 2.2) to include skills, knowledge and attitudes related to AI and the use of data. Most students can then anticipate in a future where they will be working using AI. We can therefore support girls and boys by building AI literacy early, which encompasses the knowledge and skills that support teachers and students to ensure the safe, ethical, and meaningful use and assessment of AI systems (adapted from Digital Promise and UNESCO, 2023).

According to UNICEF’s Policy Guidance on AI, we need to ensure protection from harm, appropriate use, and secure participation of all children by supporting investment in the required digital infrastructure, appropriate content, and services. Lack of connectivity, devices, and electricity can further enhance the digital and AI divides. The need to develop AI tools that can be adapted to different contexts is paramount. Recently a program in Ghana found a positive impact in the use of an AI powered math tutor that works on basic phones with low bandwidth data networks.

2. Facilitate access to STEM/AI careers and opportunities

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that women represent only 29.2% of STEM professionals, with low levels of retention in the workforce. Getting more women in STEM (including AI) requires a whole of government approach and connection to the private sector, so that there is a pipeline of talent that can access greater opportunities and encouraging working environments.

In Peru, the IDB, Amazon (AWS) and the Catholic University  partnered to provide training and mentoring to 600 women who were exploring their interest in tech careers. Similarly, in Ghana, the SheCodes Foundation aims to train 2,000 women at no cost, to expand their career prospects.  

Some strategies to attract girls and women into these fields can include showcasing role models, providing mentorship programs, and supporting targeted safe spaces for training and upskilling in coordination with the private sector. Initiatives such as UNESCO’s Women4EthicalAI are working towards incentivizing girls, women and under-represented groups to participate in AI.

3. Support women’s leadership and representation in research and development of AI

Equity is not the status quo. Women must not only be consumers of AI solutions. If women are not involved in the design and creation of AI systems in a meaningful way, systemic gender biases will continue to be perpetuated. A recent report from UNESCO revealed alarming tendencies in GenAI to produce gender bias and racial stereotyping. AI research is still primarily dominated by men: in 2022, only one in four researchers publishing on AI worldwide was a woman and women represent only 20% of employees in technical roles in major machine learning companies. While 73% of business leaders believe having more women in leadership roles is important for mitigating gender bias in AI, only 33% currently have a woman in charge of decision-making for AI strategy.

An urgent call to action

Today, Girls in ICT Day highlights the need for more women in leadership roles in AI and other STEM fields. We have the blueprint and know what needs to be done to increase digital skills among girls and women and support them to pursue STEM careers. Programs and initiatives to support women in AI follow these same patterns.

However, now we stand at the threshold of a new industrial revolution. If we maintain the current status quo, AI will dramatically disrupt the labor market and negatively impact women in an unprecedented way. Governments, academic institutions, the global community, and industry leaders need to guarantee pathways and forge opportunities for women at every step of the ladder, from education to job opportunities.

Together, we can build a foundation for an AI era that’s not only innovative but inherently inclusive. Let’s inspire and support girls and women to become the AI leaders of tomorrow.


Acknowledgement: Gratitude to Halil Dundar, Practice Manager of the Global Education and Engagement Unit, for his comments and inputs to this blog. 


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