International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Rock Baroness Rock Conservative 4:59 pm, 7th March 2019

My Lords, it is an honour to contribute to this important debate and I too thank my noble friend the Minister. I am very privileged to be a founding ambassador of Women Supporting Women for the Prince’s Trust. We are committed to supporting and inspiring young women to build their own futures through skills, education and employment, and female employment is, as we have heard, at a record high. This is worthy of celebration and, to be clear, we are celebrating fairness first and foremost, but we are also celebrating the means by which we can capitalise on the economic opportunity that empowering women gives us: that businesses with more women in senior positions perform better. McKinsey has estimated that bridging the gender gap completely would add £150 billion to the UK economy by 2025.

Today I shall focus on a specific and vital aspect of our economy: technology. I say “aspect” quite deliberately, because technology is not a sector, it is everywhere. It will change every industry and impact every business. It is the means by which we will stay competitive and future-proof our economy. If we do not deliver gender equality and opportunity in tech, we are missing the biggest opportunity of all. Economic opportunity and a sense of fairness should pervade our attitude to female economic empowerment, but there is another area that I would like to touch on: tackling inherent gender bias in applications of technology that impact every aspect of our economy and society. If we do not, because tech is the ultimate means to more productive ends, all these ends will have gender bias baked in.

We have heard about bias in recruitment—it is no different in tech than in other industries. But what if the algorithms that assist with recruitment and candidate screening are written by men and effectively for men? Then, we will simply see current cohorts replicate themselves and a perpetual cycle repeated. Artificial intelligence is just that: it is artificial and the artifice comes from people who create the algorithms, who code the inputs into the black boxes that spit out outputs. The data on which these algorithms are trained and developed will itself reflect historic biases, so this is about getting female coders developing the AI of the future and making sure that we take steps to address biases in the data they all work with. The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, eloquently raised many of the issues associated with artificial intelligence.

What, then, can be done about it? In short, we can choose to have a responsible approach to algorithms and the principles of human conduct that govern them. There are a few emerging initiatives that should give us all hope. I was fortunate to be part of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. We specifically addressed algorithmic bias in our report, saying that,

“developers set the parameters for machine learning algorithms, and the choices they make will intrinsically reflect the developers’ beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. The main ways to address these kinds of biases are to ensure that developers

This is a simple, analogue solution to a very complex digital problem. If the people who write the algorithms are reflective of the community, their outcomes are likely to be just.

While the Government did not accept in full our recommendation to use the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to address this diversity issue, I am confident that it is an agenda we can deliver against—through the world’s first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, an advisory body dedicated to strengthening and improving the UK’s use of data and artificial intelligence. I am fortunate to be a member of the board and we see algorithmic bias as one of our first priorities. Through this work, we have the opportunity not just to address the risks of exacerbating unfairness, but to harness the power of these systems in the cause of diversity, tackle bias and increase opportunity for all. The centre will bring together expertise from across sectors and society but also, importantly, listen intently to the public voice and ensure that our governance of these transformative technologies reflects our society’s values.

Technology creates new opportunities for our economy, but also poses new challenges. I am confident that if we act decisively to address gender bias in tech, we will reap all the economic benefits that technology and female economic empowerment can bring, as well as all the societal benefits.