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  • The existence of gender bias in AI algorithms and standards development

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    Ben Hedley

    The existence of gender bias in AI algorithms and standards development

    When social media platforms use AI algorithms to moderate user-uploaded images, they may inadvertently censor and suppress photos featuring women's bodies.

    Why? Because these AI tools, developed by large technology companies like Google and Microsoft, have been found to consistently rate images of women as more sexually suggestive than comparable images of men.

    Even everyday situations, such as women receiving medical examinations, are flagged as sexually suggestive by these algorithms. For example, an image demonstrating how to perform a clinical breast exam was given the highest score for raciness by Google's AI, while Microsoft's AI was 82% confident that it was "explicitly sexual in nature." This algorithmic bias has real-world consequences, particularly for female-led businesses that rely on social media for promotion.

    The algorithmic gender bias in image moderation is just one example of how systems that are based on a default male standard can inadvertently cause harm. The same issue can have far-reaching consequences in other domains. For example, in the workplace, gender-biased performance evaluation algorithms have been found to perpetuate disparities in hiring and promotion.

    The movement towards gender-responsive standards emphasizes the importance of considering how standards might have unequal impacts. It recognizes that the status quo, which often takes men as the default, is not neutral and can actively disadvantage women.

    Roadmap to gender equality in standards development

    The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has been leading the charge in addressing gender bias in standards development. In 2016, they established the Gender Responsive Standards Initiative to integrate a gender lens into the process and content of standards.

    The initiative calls upon standards bodies to sign the Declaration for Gender Responsive Standards and Standards Development, committing to actions such as:

    1. Creating and implementing a Gender Action Plan to become more gender-inclusive.
    2. Increasing the representation and participation of women in standards development committees.
    3. Analyzing the gender impacts of standards being developed and using sex-disaggregated data to inform the process.

    Over 50 standards organizations have already signed the declaration, demonstrating a growing recognition of the importance of gender responsiveness in standards development.

    Case studies highlight the positive impacts of this approach. For example, the development of gender-responsive standards for clean cookstoves has helped address the disproportionate health risks faced by women due to indoor air pollution in developing countries.

    To support standards bodies in their efforts, the UNECE has provided detailed guidance on how to implement gender-responsive practices. This includes conducting gender-based needs assessments, setting targets for women's participation, and establishing monitoring and evaluation frameworks to track progress.

    The need for gender-responsive standards has never been greater. By proactively addressing biases and ensuring diverse representation in standards development, we can create a future where the benefits of innovation are accessible to all, regardless of gender.

    The movement towards gender-responsive standards is a critical step towards achieving the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. It is only through concerted efforts and collaboration between standards bodies, policymakers, industry and civil society that we can hope to build a more inclusive and equitable world.

    To learn more, download our recently published Gender Responsive Standards guide. 


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