Looking across the digital gender divide

More women should pursue careers in STEM fields


OCTOBER 2021 Illuminating voices / Text by Reiko Kuroda 

Woman have made extraordinary contributions in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

There are Nobel Prize winners, such as Marie Skłodowska Curie, who discovered radioactive radium and polonium; Dorothy Hodgkin, who developed X-ray techniques to reveal the biomolecular structures of penicillin, insulin and, vitamin B12; and, more recently, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who developed a method for CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing. Moderna and Pfizer–BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccines were made possible by Katalin Karikó’s research into mRNA.

Despite these tremendous achievements by female researchers, women are still massively underrepresented in the STEM fields, particularly in Japan. As of 2019, the proportion of female researchers here, across all subjects, was only 16.6% — the lowest among developed nations. Reasons for this include traditional gender stereotypes that persist across our society, as well as both conscious and unconscious biases.

Society can change, and I want to encourage more girls and young women to follow the examples of these accomplished women by developing a love of natural science and pursuing a career in a STEM field to make even greater contributions to our world.

Recently, I was appointed as a member of the Gender Equality Advisory Council (GEAC) by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The GEAC is an independent group of experts that will meet throughout the UK’s 2021 G7 presidency. Its aim is to see that more is done to further the core principles of freedom, opportunity, individual humanity, and dignity for women and girls around the world. We have put forward a list of recommendations to improve equality in the areas of education and economic empowerment, and made calls to end violence against women and girls.

Although I had not been expecting my appointment, I am proud to be a role model for other women and an advocate for greater equality in our world. I am a rarity among chemists and biologists in my age group in Japan. I was the first full professor of natural sciences at the University of Tokyo and am a recipient of the L’Oréal UNESCO Women in Science award. I have also had a number of roles dealing with gender equality or global sustainability, including as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board to the UN Secretary General, a member of the Club of Rome, and a Japanese ambassador of the Women’s Initiative in Developing STEM Career. Additionally, I have extensive experience working in the UK, as a research fellow and honorary lecturer at King’s College London and a senior staff scientist at the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

At the GEAC meetings, in addition to the topic of under-representation of women and girls in STEM, I have focused on the importance of digital inclusion and algorithmic biases that are embedded in artificial intelligence (AI).

Governments — and businesses — must address the digital gender divide by supporting initiatives that provide women and girls everywhere with affordable, reliable, and safe internet and mobile services. If this can be accomplished, it will have profound implications on the ability to create educational, economic, political, social, and cultural opportunities for individual women and their communities.

Increasingly, the private and public sectors are turning to AI systems and machine-learning algorithms to automate both simple and complex decision-making processes. The availability of massive data sets has made it easy to derive new insights, so algorithms have become very sophisticated, and it is often difficult to figure out why they make certain decisions. They are likely replicating and even amplifying human biases present in our society.

The EU, UNESCO, the OECD, and academic societies have all published excellent reports and held webinars on this topic, but gender bias remains hidden away in AI technology, and it is generally not well recognised. Something must be done to change this.

I truly hope governments and businesses do much more to ensure that gender equality becomes part of AI algorithms. This needs to happen now, as today’s digital transformation has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.