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Past, present and future: Who are the women in cybernetics?
Wednesday 8 March 2023
To mark International Women’s Day, and in line with this year’s theme ‘Cracking the code’, we chatted to three academics at the ANU School of Cybernetics. They discussed why diversity is integral not only in cybernetics, but all innovation for the future.
International Women’s Day isn’t just a day for those identifying as female. It starts conversations about why ensuring diversity in all avenues is paramount for equitable progression. At the ANU School of Cybernetics, this isn’t a conversation to be had one day per year, but rather a constant reflection on how we can empower a greater range of voices to expand our ideas.
Why diversity and why now?
Associate Professor Dr Kim Blackmore from the ANU School of Cybernetics and the ANU Gender Institute explains that everybody responds differently when looking at how society responds to technology.
“If we don’t have a range of voices in the conversation, many things will be missed. That means different genders, different cultures, different stages of life and different abilities to understand what is happening from those different perspectives,” Dr Blackmore says.
“We’ve seen that including people from diverse perspectives in the early stages of development really has a flow-on effect for broader society, not just those groups.”
For example, when Apple Health debuted in 2014, its users could track various health concerns from step count to sodium intake and blood alcohol content. The functions were impressive, with senior software engineer Craig Federighi boasting that “you can monitor all of your metrics that you’re most interested in.”
But this did not, for almost a year, include period tracking.
“It baffles me that this happened in this century,” PhD candidate Chloe Skafte said.
“They somehow completely missed that nearly half of the world’s population has a menstrual cycle. This demonstrates how we still need to be actively including a range of perspectives into conversations from idea generation, development, deployment and decommission,” Skafte says.
The digital gender gap, a space to innovate
Unsurprisingly, the rapid growth we’ve seen in internet use has benefited some groups more than others. This gap not only means that many women are offline but are also excluded from the countless opportunities the internet provides. There has been minimal improvement since 2011, with 250 million fewer women online than men. The effects are also felt at the country level, with governments in 32 countries, including Nigeria, Egypt and India losing an estimated $126 billion from women unable to contribute to the digital economy.
“There is a digital gap, absolutely there is,” explains Dr Safiya Okai-Ugbaje, lecturer at the ANU School of Cybernetics.
From her perspective as an African woman in STEM, she says that while this is a global issue, often it is more prominent in developing countries.
“The world has moved on, it is no longer enough just to have an education, or know how to read and write,” Dr Okai-Ugbaje says. “We are at the point where women need to be co-creators and innovators of technology, not just consumers.”
Dr Blackmore agreed that we should be moving towards empowering women to feel more capable in contributing to, and controlling the direction of future technologies.