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  • Megan Yates

It's a Man's World

When James Brown first sang, ‘It’s a man’s world’ he could have been thinking about the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Unfortunately, not much has changed since 1966 when the song was first released.

In keeping with other STEM fields, data science remains largely male. As a female data scientist, I’m often in meetings where there are no other women in the room. I’ve stood in registration queues at data science events and been the only female in sight. Formula One may have scrapped the “grid girls”, but the tech world certainly hasn’t scrapped theirs. At large tech conferences, some exhibitors even resort to using young, scantily-clad women ostensibly to lure men to their stands. 

Unfortunately, our world isn’t equal. A Forbes article in 2017 looked at people studying data science part-time and found that data science lagged behind other STEM fields in terms of gender parity. A survey in the same year by Kaggle, the data science competition platform, revealed that just 16% of Kagglers are female. But not only is there a paucity of females operating in the field,  they also earn less on average.

The gender pay gap has been fairly well documented. A UK survey in 2017 shows that women in STEM fields earn about a fifth (20%) less than their male colleagues. Across Africa, South Africa has the sixth-largest pay gap, with mostly Muslim countries faring worse. A recent StatsSA survey puts the South African gender pay gap at close to a quarter, with women earning 23% less than men. Code for Africa has built an online tool that allows users to explore the gender pay gap between men and women in Africa. You can explore the tool here

This generic “average” comparison doesn’t only say that women in the same job earn less than men, it also indicates that women are more likely to work in industries with lower average pay. This gap extends to other fields such as sports, with men’s prize money often double that of women (A local surfing event, the Billabong Pro Junior Series in Ballito, South Africa, is a recent example of exactly this).

New data from household chore app BusyKid reveals that the gender pay gap starts much earlier than we think. BusyKid analysed data from 10 000 families and found that boys were paid around 50% more than girls in their weekly allowances. Now parents probably aren’t doing this deliberately, but subconsciously, they’re splitting household chores into stereotypical gender categories and valuing them differently. What’s more, boys earned more than girls for doing the same chore. In the case of babysitting for example, the reasoning for this may be that parents see girls as being naturally caring and nurturing, so reward them less for this task.

We’re concerned about creating AI systems that exhibit biases of all kinds including sexism, but are we good enough at knowing when we’re being sexist ourselves? It’s totally cool that apps are generating this kind of data and we can use it to understand our inherent behaviour and biases. So why should we be concerned about a gender pay gap you may ask? Well we’re essentially shortchanging half our talent pool. James Brown knew this and followed the opening line “This is a man’s world” with, “But it wouldn't be nothing … without a woman or a girl”.

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