Working in digital and AI is an exciting place to be. There are new tech developments happening at an incredible pace, opening up new ways for the charity and social good sector to increase impact. We know this is the start of much more innovation and change that is coming down the track, and I’m really excited about it. So why do I feel this creeping sense of unease? 

I’ll tell you why. Despite the plethora of technical developments,  the culture in the AI space is nowhere near as progressive as it should be.

I speak at many events about AI and I have noticed that I am often the only person who looks like me. I’m often the only person of colour on the panel, and frequently the only woman. 

I speak at a lot of other sector events and, over the last couple of years, have noticed more efforts by event organisers to be inclusive, such as improving representation of marginalised communities, and also paying speakers. Both of those things are a step in the right direction. Yet in my experience the AI space, especially at events, is not diverse, and is dominated by white men. 

And it’s not just the events. Yes, I have had many positive experiences working in digital and AI, which far outweigh the unpleasant ones. However, I have become concerned about the lack of diversity in AI, so much so that I posted about it on LinkedIn recently  and received many comments and private messages from talented, experienced female leaders  who had the same worries. People shared many recommendations of women speakers for AI events on the thread so please do take a look if you are organising an AI event in the future. 

There absolutely are many supportive men working in AI, some of whom I’m lucky to have as colleagues, allies and friends. Yet I have also witnessed behaviours that are not inclusive, such as:

  • Events where there was only one woman and person of colour on the agenda, with the vast majority of airtime given to white men
  • Men telling me what AI reports and guidance I have written were really about (in their opinion), getting it wrong and then insisting they were right (despite not having been involved in the writing process)
  • Men requesting meetings to ‘pick my brain’ about AI in the sector, then telling me that my insights from organisations I work with weren’t correct

I welcome hearing different perspectives if they can be shared with a respectful exchange of views. That’s the issue. I did not feel respected or included in any of the instances above. 

And that’s the irony of working in AI. It’s a really exciting place, with technology that will propel us all into the future. But in terms of inclusion, it doesn’t feel progressive. Quite the opposite.

Why does this matter? 

Firstly I think the messages which the AI and the wider tech sector is sending out are confusing. On the one hand AI practitioners love to talk about the risks of bias and discrimination, and how there is a need for responsible, ethical AI. And yet the workforce in AI, much like in tech, has poor levels of representation. The World Economic Forum recently found that just 22% of AI professionals globally in 2023 were women compared to 78% men. 

What does this mean? It means that the fast moving world of AI is being designed for a privileged few, not the many. The concerns about bias and discrimination in AI have been well documented, from racial bias in facial recognition technology to worries  about AI tools used in filtering job applicants and fears about the algorithms in the tech being used by government departments

The AI sector is talking about the risk of bias and discrimination, and it formed part of the discussion at the AI Safety Summit last year. Yet the biggest risk in AI is not the tools. It’s not a Terminator style robot going on a killing spree. It’s the people working in AI. It’s us. 

The lack of diversity in the AI workforce, and consequently the datasets which AI is being trained on, is one of greatest risks we face in how these technologies develop. And that could lead to discrimination at scale, with inequity coded into the software and the decisions that will change our world forever. 

AI is moving fast and the window we have to make a difference, before bias and discrimination is embedded further into these technologies, is short. I’m not the first person to say this and I won’t be the last. But we need to act now. And that can start with small things such as making our AI events more inclusive, and calling out bad behaviour. 

Discrimination in AI is part of a bigger tech sector issue

These behaviours are nothing new.  The issues we see in a lack of diversity in the AI workforce speak to a well known problem. Only a fifth (19%) of UK tech workers are women, and less than a tenth of senior tech leaders are from ethnic minorities. 

As a woman working in the tech for good space, I am fortunate to have a job I adore, and to have a supportive network. I have had a huge amount of positive, fulfilling and inclusive experiences in my career. Yet I have also experienced some toxic behaviours from men which I have written about before. And other women in digital that I know have had similar experiences. 

At its worst, navigating discrimination can feel like having two jobs. I love my day job running a digital consultancy for charities and nonprofits. That bit I can do, and I enjoy. It’s the darker stuff  including the sexual harassment, racism and sexism I have experienced, that has been very difficult and onerous, and in some instances traumatic. On a bad day I feel that I am having to fight my corner and be hypervigilant about staying safe. 

The incidents I’ve experienced recently in the AI space brought back a horrible memory.from a few years ago. I was on a call with a male tech leader. He was insistent that a report I had written was about another subject entirely, and that an initiative I was working on should be led by his organisation, not mine. As the conversation progressed and I politely disagreed with him, offering up different points of view, he became increasingly aggressive as it became clear I would not bend to his will. 

Looking back on this call now, it’s obvious he was used to getting his way, and would make things very uncomfortable for anyone who did not submit. When the call ended, I was shaken up. I remember putting down the phone and bursting into tears. I was in a coffee shop and I sat and cried for ages, turning my face to the wall so other customers wouldn’t see me, dogged by a horrible sense of shame. 

Some time later I saw this man at a conference. and he made sexually inappropriate comments to me. I got the feeling that this was another of the standard operating procedures in his toxic playbook. 

Nowadays I would handle that call very differently. When similar things have happened since, I end the conversation. I’m lucky that I am at a point in my career where I feel confident to do that. I worry about younger women coming into the digital sector though who may not have the luxury of saying no, or access to support networks to help them. 

What you can do to help

There are many inspirational, inclusive and kind, male and female leaders working in tech and AI, which gives me hope. 

Creating more inclusive events, and doing what we can to make the AI workforce more diverse, will help. As will paying speakers. 

One of the best things we could all do is to get the conversation about discrimination out into the open. We need more safe spaces where women and people from marginalised groups working in AI and tech can talk about their experiences. I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from this as part of an EDI action learning set I’m in at Catalyst. There is a lot to be said for looking at a problem in direct sunlight, with other people, and working out what action to take together.

Here is the  awful truth about what discrimination is, in AI and wider society. The conversations about it often happen behind closed doors, because not everyone sees it. It is so normalised that it is often only the people who it is happening to who witness it, like a hideous magic eye picture. The secrecy, and the shame, are part of what gives it such force. And if we are not careful, discrimination will become even more embedded in the AI tools and the data we are all interacting with multiple times a day.

We need to confront discrimination in the tech sector once and for all, exposing its insidious nature and dismantling the barriers it creates. The future of our society depends on our willingness to fight for equity and justice in every aspect of our lives, including the technology we build and use. Together, we have the power to build a better, fairer world – but only if we have the courage to stand up, speak out and demand change. The clock is ticking.The time for action is now.