Women in History – innovating technology throughout the decades

With the AI revolution not showing any signs of slowing down, The Brief speaks to Investment Manager, Abika Martin, on how women throughout history have changed the face of technology and how inclusivity remains key with the innovation of AI.

Abika Martin
robot and hand touching

At a glance

  • 54% of men have incorporated Artificial Intelligence (AI) into their personal or professional lives, but the figure drops to 35% for women.
  • Throughout history woman have made some of the greatest contributions to our advances in technology, yet have not always been recognised for doing so.
  • As the AI revolution progresses, we should ensure it does so inclusively, so that women are not left behind as this technology rapidly evolves.

This Women’s History Month, I am setting my sights on the future, unpacking the impact of AI through a gender lens. With recent investment returns dominated by the tech stocks collectively known as the “Magnificent Seven”, the Generative AI train that left the station in 2023 shows no sign of slowing. This disruptive technology has been adopted by a third of businesses,1 and while advocates laud the efficiency and productivity gains, concern and conspiracy theories abound in some quarters.

There is a risk in our adoption of AI that isn’t receiving as much airtime; the potential for the tool to compound the many inequalities in our society. A survey conducted earlier this year revealed a substantial gap in AI adoption between men and women, as 54% of men have incorporated AI into their personal or professional lives, but the figure drops to 35% for women.2

Despite many women from history being pioneers of our technological advances, current trends and representation of women in tech show that unconscious bias remains in the digital world. Before exploring this further, and to commemorate Women’s History Month, let’s start by paying tribute to the historic contributions of women that have underpinned many of our greatest technological innovations.

The tech pioneers you’ve probably never heard of

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the only legitimate child of poet, Lord Byron, was effectively the first computer programmer in the world. Between 1842 and 1843, Lovelace published a series of notes on Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine”, with one containing an algorithm designed to be run on it. Lovelace also had the vision for computer science to deliver against a range of applications rather than simply numerical calculations, which had previously been considered the extent of computing capabilities.

You may know of Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) from her career as a Hollywood actress, but it is less widely known that she co-invented frequency-hopping in 1941, laying the foundations for modern-day Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. And while Alan Turing rightfully gets the plaudits for cracking the Enigma code, we should remember that he was joined at Bletchley Park by the likes of Joan Clarke (1917-1996), a gifted cryptanalyst.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was dubbed the “Human Computer” because of her mathematical capabilities, and her calculations were critical to the success of numerous space missions. We have Gladys West (1930- age 93 years) to thank for GPS, the basis of which is her mathematical modelling of the shape of the earth. Lastly, Marian Croak (1955- age 68 years) patented the “Voice over Internet Protocol technology” which enables calls over the internet rather than a phone line – the basis for the likes of Zoom and Facetime, which proved vital for remote working through the Covid pandemic.

Around the same time as Lovelace was computing, Isambard Kingdom Brunel completed the Thames Tunnel and Samuel Morse sent the first Morse code message. While Lamarr was working on frequency-hopping, J. Robert Oppenheimer was working on the atomic bomb. The men became household names, but the women went uncredited and unacknowledged. Clarke had to go by the title of “linguist” because women couldn’t be cryptanalysts at the time. When the first digital computer, known as ENIAC, was completed in 1946, none of the six female mathematicians who programmed it were invited to the celebratory dinner.

Representation in the tech industry

This rather poor track record is in part due to contemporary gender norms, but in the modern age we still see male dominance in the tech industry. Women represent just 28% of technology roles,3 and a meagre 5% of leadership positions in the sector.4 The latter is unsurprising, given 50% of women who take a role in tech drop out of the industry by the age of 35, with 47% citing either a lack of diversity, or poor company culture as the reason why.5

This lack of representation shows when products come to the market. If we consider the primary virtual assistant technology systems, they are invariably named as women – Amazon has Alexa, while Microsoft led with Cortana…the semi-naked, blue-hued female character from their Halo gaming franchise. But the implication that administrative roles are the default domain of women is not the only negative; we are also unknowingly programming unconscious bias into the digital world.

As a result of speech-recognition software being trained on predominantly male voices, the technology is 13% more accurate for men than for women.6 This is not to say the creators of the technology have a deliberate gender agenda. Rather, it is the evolution of structural inequity that exists far beyond just that sector. Men make up 69% of professional event speakers7 and get two thirds of speaking parts in movies.8 As a result, there is a larger data bank of male voices for AI technology to learn from.

Mind the gap

Women aren’t only missing as an input to the technology, but in utilisation too. So, women are less likely to use AI, less likely to be understood by it when they do use it, and less likely to work in the sector that builds it. But things still aren’t equal for those women who buck this trend and pursue a career in technology. In the UK, the gender pay gap for the tech sector stands at around 15.6%,9 well above the national average. For innovative women launching their own startups, there is a further divide, with male-founded businesses awarded nearly seven times more funding on average than female-founded businesses.10

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (1955- age 68 years), creator of the World Wide Web, has long advocated for his vision for the web to be universally accessible. It is hoped that the AI revolution progresses with a similar spirit of responsibility, and a renewed focus on inclusivity, so that women are not left behind as this technology rapidly evolves.


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