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  • Writer's pictureSuriya Krishna

Can emerging technologies become gender-neutral?

As new forms of technology continue to revolutionize our personal and public space, can emerging technologies become a catalyst to achieving a gender-neutral world?

To an extent.

Any form of discrimination or barriers that divides society starts with people, their beliefs and attitudes. So, technology cannot offer a one-time solution for fixing these biases existing in the ecosystem. The change has to happen internally which can lead to systemic changes and then societal changes. What technology can do is aid the process of initiating gender-neutral actions among their users. This process won’t be smooth or straight since technology is designed and developed by the same people who carry the biases through generations. However, there are several ways in which emerging technologies promote gender neutrality, but the outcomes mostly depend on the ways they are designed and governed.

Before exploring the examples of tech challenging gender hierarchies, we should be clear about the term gender - neutrality. It refers to making your environment, behavior, and language devoid of any biases, division or assumptions based on gender. Often when it comes to gender inclusivity, people talk about women and their rights. But there are other gender identities used by people and we must understand that gender can exist on a fluid spectrum and individuals can self-identify with any gender they want. So, for creating a gender-neutral tech we need to make it accessible and suitable for all gender identities, i.e, it should be neutral in its design - language, images, audio etc. Before you wonder whether it can be done, you should read about Q, which is a genderless voice assistant that breaks the stereotypes associated with using female and male voices for specific types of tasks. It is giving us a nudge to consider technology as a tool for introducing gender-neutrality. 

Emerging technologies are challenging gender norms, aren’t they?

Emerging technologies hold promise in reshaping the norms and thoughts surrounding gender representation in the public space because they have immense potential for economic and social transformation across many industries and are expected to bring policy changes in the coming years. During COVID-19, the world saw the resurgence of technology in solving problems encountered by humanity. The most prominent idea it strengthened is remote collaboration - work or education, which if scaled and deployed effectively, can increase the access to opportunities for people who are restricted by societal barriers (women, transgender etc.). Technology can help provide more equal access to education, jobs, and opportunities regardless of gender if infrastructure and training gaps are addressed. Digital skills programs for women/girls are an example. This will empower people to grow and contribute to the betterment of society, which in turn will create a society where equality and equity are present. This also presents avenues for them to raise their voice against the discrimination they face from society.

Emerging tech can spread the message of neutrality across borders and destroy the possibility of negative ideas on gender being stagnant. Like social media and online platforms that allow gender-diverse individuals to connect, share experiences, and advocate for rights and equality. From games to the metaverse, online environments can potentially create spaces with flexible avatars and identities decoupled from gender norms. Technologies like apps, software, and devices can be designed in a gender-neutral way, avoiding built-in biases and allowing for diverse gender customization options.

Although technology can redefine gender paradigms in some aspects, it can also exacerbate gender inequalities if its adoption and impact are unequal.

There have been several instances of biases displayed by emerging tech applications recently which raises concerns about the reliability and safety of such systems. For instance, the news of the Amazon recruitment program being discarded after detecting bias against women candidates shows the ability of advanced technologies, such as AI and ML, to perpetuate systemic biases in the hiring process. There is a research paper that examines issues around gender bias and discrimination in artificial intelligence (AI), with a focus on the developing world context. It highlights examples of how technology has been misused for gender-biased outcomes in South Asia, like the use of ultrasound for sex-selective abortions in India. The researchers found that as AI systems absorb cultural norms, there are risks of perpetuating gender stereotypes and inequities, especially with male-dominated design teams. 

Gender representation in the tech sector is skewed and the gap is not getting filled in the way it needs to be. When new technologies are made with input from only one gender, the concepts and values presented will be narrow and constrictive. With emerging tech, the possibility of this happening is very high and leaving it like this is going to cause problems later on. The imbalances in access to technology and opportunities can cause the advantages of emerging tech not to be evenly distributed. This could widen the gender divide between those able to leverage emerging tech and those excluded. Automation is going to polarize society by displacing many workers, but it's going to affect women the most because fields like AI and cybersecurity are still dominated by men.

Harms initiated by emerging tech will also aid gender-based threats which can invade people’s private space and affect their well-being. Tech-facilitated Gender-Based Violence is a term continuously discussed by international organizations nowadays because of the increased exposure of women and LGBTQ+ people to online platforms. It is defined as “any act that is committed, assisted, aggravated or amplified by the use of information communication technologies or other digital tools which results in or is likely to result in physical,   sexual,   psychological,   social,   political or economic harm or other infringements of rights and freedoms'' of people based on gender and identities. Emerging tech like AI can multiply the effects and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. Deepfakes are targeting women more than men according to a report by DeepTrace, an Amsterdam-based cybersecurity firm. These women who are affected by image-based sexual violence will suffer consequences like losing their livelihood and relationships like the two Zimbabwean women from BBC’s The She Word. Cyber harassment of women and transgender people is also common news these days. Similarly, the use of intrusive surveillance technologies is affecting women’s privacy and safety. Problems with regulating such acts is that people who can stop this are very slow in acknowledging the problem and the delay causes loss for the victims.

Creating gender-neutral technologies

Disruptive technologies create both opportunities and risks when it comes to gender representation and equity in the geopolitical sphere. To steer them towards more egalitarian security outcomes, there are certain areas where change should happen. First, inclusive design and diverse teams. When advanced technologies are designed and deployed, they can carry the prejudices and perspectives of their makers. So, by including members from different backgrounds, experiences and knowledge, the product will be flexible and customizable. Having diverse teams, including women and non-binary people, directly involved in designing, developing and testing new technologies can help reduce unintended gender bias. Their perspectives can identify blindspots early. For this to happen, the hiring process should be unbiased. Women should receive opportunities and training to contribute to the tech industry. This has to be made possible by collaboration between public and private society organizations. There is also a talk of making products with people rather than making for them among designers and technologists, i.e. the products should be developed with input from the users. This makes the product more inclusive. Building in customizability and personalization, rather than taking a rigid one-size-fits-all approach and thereby empowering users to tailor experiences to their needs and preferences. 

Next, adopting gender-neutral standards and languages in the product development processes. There are many biases standardized by industries still adorning designing tables like using female voices to advertise baby products and male voices to attract customers in the alcohol advertisements. Changing these practices can make technology and its uses more gender-neutral. Training technologists and deploying organizations on avoiding bias, building gender-inclusive products and setting guidelines and expectations can lead to commitment and accountability. Data is like a currency for emerging tech and the main component of spreading bias in systems. Using sufficiently representative datasets that do not bake in gender imbalances or stereotypes can avoid propagating bias in advanced technologies. In AI and ML, lots of research is being conducted in this regard. Governments and companies need to ensure reliable and safe data collections are used for R&D in emerging tech.

Making technology accessible for everyone and decentralization of implementation can lead to the empowerment of women and other genders who are restricted by mobility and societal barriers.

A research paper argues that the longstanding focus on improving women's "access" to digital technologies like mobile phones and the internet is insufficient to close gender digital divides. They state that despite efforts to improve access, gender gaps in meaningful technology use and socioeconomic benefits persist and are even widening in developing countries. What they propose is holistic policies spanning digital skills, economic inclusion, and changing social norms - not just access. Being mindful of equitable access and impact when deploying new technologies can also lead to technological capabilities developing among women, which in turn will cause the creation of more inclusive technologies. The threats raised by technologies can be reduced by setting up robust frameworks and policies for analyzing the technologies developed. Policies should take measures to ensure gender equality is followed when technologies are designed and should evaluate the effects of each technology on its users after deployment. For this public participation can also be encouraged. 

Technology alone cannot fix systemic gender biases - the roots lie in social attitudes and beliefs.

Technology and its effects are not confined within the borders of nations, so laws and regulatory systems should also develop a pluralistic and flexible approach when dealing with instances of technology-facilitated threats. As technologies keep growing there must be continuous improvements in the evaluative measures and systems. Organizations developing technologies should conduct ongoing audits to detect discrimination, stereotyping or inequitable treatment of genders after deployment. And should correct where needed. When developing a national, subnational or supranational tech strategy, the concerns and possibilities of gender equality should be addressed and a team of experts from different backgrounds should contribute to the creation of reports and insights. This can keep the conversation about the issue on the global level active and progressive actions will be taken. 

Emerging technologies hold promise to challenge traditional gender hierarchies, but also risk exacerbating biases if not governed thoughtfully. The path towards gender-neutral technology requires addressing the entire ecosystem, not just the technologies themselves. This includes promoting diverse and inclusive teams in technology development, establishing gender-neutral standards and languages, ensuring representative data practices, and enabling equitable access and decentralized implementation. However, technology alone cannot fix systemic gender biases - the roots lie in social attitudes and beliefs. Lasting change requires empowering women and marginalized genders through education, economic opportunities, and platforms to raise their voices. Technology strategies should be coupled with policies and collective action towards gender equality across all of society. If we succeed, emerging technologies could become tools to open up new possibilities in how all genders participate in the future, rather than embedding archaic restrictions. But it will take concerted efforts across policy, business, civil society and technology teams to steer innovation in an equitable and empowering direction for all.


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