Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Workplace Diversity in 2021

Gender gap narrows in tech but COVID-19 is a major setback for parity

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report says COVID-19 lockdowns were a disaster for women globally -- but some tech sectors saw significant increases

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual report on the Global Gender Gap warns that the COVID-19 pandemic has added several decades before parity is reached -- instead of 99.5 years it will now take 135.6 years.

The tech sector, however, has shown some increases but more can be done according to top executives at WEF.

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Workplace Diversity in 2021

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The report blames the economic impact of lockdowns around the world, which have impacted sectors that employ many women; and also the extra care needed for family members which falls on women to provide.

Tech companies have been publishing annual reports on the diversity of their workforces and although progress has been made it is not enough.

Sheila Warren, head of blockchain and data policy at WEF, attacks a common myth that diversity in tech is hampered by a lack of qualified candidates.

"In most fields it's not real – 42% of Ph.D. candidates in STEM are women – in any industry, it's not an excuse. By developing full inclusion pathways, rather than narrowly focusing on hiring, companies can address the underlying systems that lead 50% of women in tech to leave the industry before the age 35."

Women employed in data and artificial intelligence (AI) sectors now make up 32% -- an increase of 10 percentage points from 22% in the previous gender gap report.

Kay Firth-Butterfield, WEF's head of artificial intelligence and machine learning,  says that it is particularly important in AI that more women are employed. 

"Suppose only men create algorithms. In that case, they bring their prejudices and way of seeing the world to the way they code, increasing the bias."

Firth-Butterfield  says it is important that women are employed in every aspect of AI and throughout an organization to ensure responsible development of AI algorithms that are inclusive of many people and not just representing engineers. 

There is a very real danger that AI systems will assume that the lack of women in their training data is a result of not having the right qualities and then that gender bias becomes coded and amplified in AI development.

Next week the WEF is presenting the Global Technology Governance Summit discussing responsible design and use of emerging technologies.