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The “hidden figures” of AI: Women shaping a new era of ethical innovation

The end of March marks the conclusion of Women’s History Month. And despite the increased focus on women’s issues and contributions to society throughout the month, the conversation would be incomplete without recognizing how indispensable the success of women—past and present—has been in the tech industry. In particular, women are leading the way every day toward a new era of unprecedented global innovation in the field of generative AI.

However, a New York Times piece that came out a few months ago failed on its list of people with the biggest contribution in the current AI landscape. The piece rightly received criticism for reflecting a broader narrative that has long minimized the contributions of women in technology. That narrative says the contributions of women in AI and technology are peripheral; but we know this isn’t true. In fact, they are central to the innovation and continued development of this field.

Women have been challenging the outdated notion that AI development solely belongs to those who code and construct algorithms—a field that, while shifting, remains significantly male-dominated—for years. Many have been doing this by leading the charge on responsible AI innovation, centered on ethics and transparency, throughout their entire careers.

Women like Kay Firth Butterfield, the world’s first Chief AI Ethics Officer; Elham Tabassi from NIST, spearheading initiatives on ethical AI standards; Miriam Vogel from EqualAI and NAIAC, championing AI equality; Paula Goldman from Salesforce; and Navrina Singh from Credo AI, advocating for responsible AI use are just a few of the many examples of women leading the way in this space.

Other prominent women figures in tech include Fei-Fei Li from Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute, renowned for her contributions to AI image recognition and her advocacy for inclusive and ethical AI development; Joy Buolamwini, the founder of Algorithmic Justice League, highlighting and mitigating biases within AI systems; Lila Ibrahim from DeepMind, responsible for operational strategy behind one of the world’s leading AI research organizations; and Francesca Rossi, leading Global AI Ethics at IBM®, who stands at the forefront of addressing critical AI governance, ethics, responsibility and responsible innovation matters.

These are just a few of the many, many examples of women leading in this field. Leaving women out of the conversation and coverage not only overlooks the diverse perspectives necessary for responsible innovation, but also fails to recognize the vital role of ethics, governance, and consideration of societal implications in the development of AI. It is time for a critical reevaluation, one that acknowledges innovation is as much about its impact as it is about invention.

In a study conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value, Debra D’Agostino, Managing Director of Thought Leadership at Oxford Economics, reinforces the importance of diverse leadership in AI’s evolution. She highlights how women don’t need to be IT experts to lead AI innovation. The study revealed that women are already more likely than men to have used AI to generate, edit and summarize content; and 40 percent say using generative AI has resulted in a greater than 10 percent increase in productivity. Understanding and anticipating how AI can best augment the unique needs and capabilities of a business or team is as crucial as working with the right people in IT to make it happen, D’ Agostino said.

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, it’s important to acknowledge how the contributions of women in AI are not just paving the way for more equitable technology, but are also crucial in realizing the possibility, and confronting and mitigating the immediate and long-term risks that AI poses to our society. Their work is setting the standards for how we, as a global community, approach the integration of AI into our lives.

The future of AI is being written today and women are not just supporting roles in that narrative—they are leading characters in the story. As we forge ahead, it’s important to remember that the true measure of AI’s advancement goes beyond its technical capabilities. It’s about how we harness this technology to reflect our collective values, address our shared challenges and create a world where innovation benefits all of society, not just the privileged few.

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