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I'd Blush if I Could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education

May 2019

The title of this publication borrows its name from the response given by Siri, a
female-gendered voice assistant used by hundreds of millions of people, when a
human user would tell ‘her’, “Hey Siri, you’re a bi***.”

Although the AI software that powers Siri has, as of April 2019, been updated
to reply to the insult more flatly (”I don’t know how to respond to that”), the
assistant’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse remains unchanged since
the technology’s wide release in 2011.

Siri’s ‘female’ obsequiousness – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products, pervasive in the technology sector and apparent in digital skills education.

This publication seeks to expose some of these biases and put forward ideas to
begin closing a digital skills gender gap that is, in most parts of the world, wide and growing.

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Today, women and girls are 25 per cent less likely than men to know how to leverage digital technology for basic purposes, 4 times less likely to know how to program computers and 13 times less likely to file for a technology patent. At a moment when every sector is becoming a technology sector, these gaps should make policy-makers, educators and everyday citizens ‘blush’ in alarm.

The publication has three parts: a policy paper and two think pieces.

The POLICY PAPER outlines the persistence and severity of the digital skills gender gap, provides a rationale for interventions, and makes recommendations to help women and girls develop strong digital skills through education.

THINK PIECE 1 explains the ICT gender equality paradox, UNESCO’s finding that countries with the highest levels of gender equality such as those in Europe also have the lowest proportions of women pursuing advanced degrees in computer science and related subjects. Conversely, countries with low levels of gender equality such as those in the Arab region have the highest proportions of women completing advanced technology degrees.

THINK PIECE 2 examines how AI voice assistants projected as young women perpetuate harmful gender biases. It offers recommendations to ensure that the continued proliferation of digital assistants does not widen gender divides.
The think pieces are intended to complement the policy brief, but also function as stand-alone products.

The EQUALS Skills Coalition hopes that the three outputs, considered collectively, shine new light on the persistence of digital gender divides and, more importantly, inform education interventions to help women and girls cultivate the digital skills they need to thrive in life, learning and work.

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