Gender Equality and Technology: Workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Women Empowerment


Within the context of the UN system-wide strategic approach and roadmap for supporting capacity development on artificial intelligence, UNESCO supported a workshop on “AI and Women Empowerment” organized by Prof. Colin de la Higuera, UNESCO Chair in Teacher Training Technologies on 2 November 2019 at the Center for Research and Interdiscplinarity (CRI), Paris.

The meeting included interventions from UNESCO Chairs, namely, Prof. Bhavani Rao, UNESCO Chair in Women Empowerment and Gender Equality, India and Prof. John Shawe-Taylor, UNESCO Chair in Artificial Intelligence, UK as well as Mitja Jermol, UNESCO Chair on Open Technologies for OER and Open Learning, Slovenia. The Workshop also included interventions from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), INRIA, the French National Institute for Computer Science and applied Mathematics, the University of Lyon and the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique . The discussions focused on the following  points:

  1. Data driven and programmer driven biases in AI systems
  2. Gender equality and participation of women in AI research and project implementation
  3. Role of AI education in women empowerment

Prof. Bhavani Rao, Director of the Amrita Robotics Lab at Amrita University, India presented initiatives involving Human Computer Interfaces and Artificial Intelligence for empowerment of rural women in India.  Concerning the participation of women in AI research, Prof. John Shawe-Taylor, UNESCO Chair in Artificial Intelligence at University College London (UCL), presented tools adopted by the Computer Science department at UCL to encourage women’s participation in computer science research.

Emphasizing the barriers for growth faced by women in technology, Wendy MacKay, INRIA National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, talked about her experience as a woman and a researcher and concurred with Michèle Sebag, from CNRS about the existence of “multiple glass ceilings” for women in research and the industry.

The discussion moved on to the issue of bias and discrimination, where Prateek Sibal, Consultant, UNESCO and co-author of UNESCO publication “Steering AI for Knowledge Societies”, raised concerns around ‘technological determinism’ and advocated for a human centered approach anchored in human rights and ethics for the development and use of AI.  The speaker highlighted how facial recognition technology could have life threatening consequences for people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Michèle Sebag shared research insights on the differences in language use based on gender and how these biases continue to be propagated in hiring algorithms to translation systems. Frédérique Krupa, Human Machine Design Lab, presented the findings of her study “Girl Games: Gender Design and Technology” where she identified gendered belief systems as the principal influence among other factors in encouraging boys and discouraging girls to be interested in technology and pursue a career in ICTs.

The final segment of the workshop explored the role of AI education for women empowerment. Sophie Touzé, VetAgro Sup-Université de Lyon highlighted that the skills of the 21st century would be based on four Cs of Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical thinking. Mitja Jermol, UNESCO Chair on Open Technologies for OER and Open Learning, pointed out that most discussions today focus on increasing knowledge in mathematics and software programming for development of AI, but miss the fact that AI is now mature enough that it needs not only developers but also people trained in skills to use it across different fields.

The session concluded with an engaging discussion on the path forward, which identified two key issues. First, the concerns related to gender equality cut across disciplines and have a strong socio-cultural dimension that limits women’s participation in the workplace. Second, AI systems often perpetuate gender biases and stereotypes that are harmful to women and individuals with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. Addressing these biases requires greater vigilance, technical solutions possibly through defining new research challenges for women empowerment and dimensions of fairness, accountability and transparency. The discussion on AI and education would continue at the upcoming UNESCO workshop on Teaching and Learning Competencies for AI from an Information Access Perspective.

For more information on the Teaching and Learning Competencies for AI, please contact Zeynep Varoglu, Programme Specialist, UNESCO at Information about UNESCO’s work on human centered AI is available at