Does AI help women or simply widen the gender gap?

Artificial Intelligence is helping human endeavour in all manner of fields but the technology is no longer in its infancy and should be equalising imbalances, not accentuating them.


Does AI help women or simply widen the gender gap?

“I want AI to do my laundry and dishes so that I can do art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so that I can do my laundry and dishes.”

This widely shared quote from Polish writer Joanna Maciejewska captures the mood of many women contemplating how the coming technological revolution will change their lives. Marshall Ganz, the founder of Harvard University’s community organising curriculum, noted that collective pain can be a powerful unifier across society because that pain becomes a shared cause. Systematised, it becomes an engine for change.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises nothing less than a new civilisational model, prompting reflection on women’s position within that. How, in short, can women be empowered in this new world? Does the technology let them? This is particularly pertinent for highly capable women who nevertheless continue to have to navigate traditional gender-role distributions and stereotypes within both the home and the workplace.

Invisible efforts

Yusr Sadek, a young Lebanese mother-of-three, shares memes and videos depicting the daily household responsibilities of mothers and feels trapped and unappreciated. “I endlessly divide my daily schedule between tidying, cleaning, cooking, teaching, and worrying about whether my sons will pass their school tests. Day after day, these tasks have come to define my life. It’s even more frustrating that those around us don’t recognise these duties as genuine work that consumes all our time and energy.”

A business graduate, she had to leave her job (where she found success and fulfilment), emigrate to another Arab country, and face the work/home trade-off, ultimately having to prioritise the latter.

“It’s strange how ambitions diminish,” she wonders. “Many are now focused on how AI can spare us from dusting or suggest cooking recipes.”

Gender stereotypes

Yusr is not alone in this struggle. Many societies still expect women to manage the household while the husband works outside the home. In 2020, United Nations Women recommended re-categorising these tasks under the ‘care economy.’

The biggest gender imbalance was within the Arab world. The UN Women report highlighted that “women in Arab countries perform 4.7 times more unpaid care work than men, the highest ratio globally”.

French feminist writer Gisèle Szczyglak, the author of Subversives, explores how societal superstructures like culture, art, religion, and ideology shape the distribution of productive roles, critiquing the notion of “cramming their historical oppression (men) into our genes (women)”.

French feminist writer Gisèle Szczyglak

In her book Prehistoric Women, Tunisian-French philosopher and historian Claudine Cohen argues that male domination is not a natural construct but a historical one, shaped by deliberate social role attributions in cultures that favour men.

Engy Ghanem, a Lebanese-Egyptian postgraduate in data science and machine learning, was part of the scientific community that developed AI but has not benefitted from it. Instead, she chooses to care for her two children at home. She has been out of the labour market for 12 years after university studies that spanned Lebanon, America, and Turkey. "I sometimes experience waves of depression," she explains.

"I lost my initial hope that I would be among the pioneering Arab women to thrive in the digital revolution, expecting universities and job markets to open doors for me."

Virtual assistants

Dr Ghanem thinks AI will assist with household tasks, citing today's virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri, which operate on voice commands.

"Siri initially served as a voice assistant on Apple phones but has since developed similar to Alexa (an AI device for home use). However, it remains accessible only on a limited scale and for those with higher budgets in most Arab countries."

Ghanem says Alexa or Siri can engage in dialogue and detect people's moods, for instance, by finding and playing 'happy' songs.

"The ability to listen, search, respond, and make selections are human-like traits, placing them within the realm of AI, while Siri can perform more intricate tasks, such as by adjusting lighting according to our mood."

They serve as intelligent companions, capable of interfacing with all household appliances, from commands issued via apps or vocalised. They can assist with chores such as dishwashing or laundry or with leisure, such as music or TV, but some tasks, such as cooking, are not yet within reach. AI can learn our routines and requirements and tailor activities accordingly. However, Ghanem says these systems cost money, and many mothers would prioritise their children's upbringing and education if they had a choice.

According to the UN, women in Arab countries perform 4.7 times more unpaid care work than men, the highest ratio globally.

Work participation 

Dr Sally Hammoud, an AI and communications expert, says AI plays a significant role in women's participation in professions and public affairs, with positive and negative effects. She stresses the importance of studying its impact from both the programmer's and the user's perspectives.

"Throughout history, women's participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines has been limited, resulting in male-dominated approaches to data processing, text, and coding," she says.

"This exclusionary design has created spaces where women feel marginalised because they were not considered in the design process. Calls against AI's gender bias, alongside other biases like race, religion, language, and nationality, have grown louder and more persistent. These biases amplify differences and exacerbate social inequalities, notably within the business ecosystem between women and men."

Recreating bias

Hammoud compares Generative AI (GenAI), such as ChatGPT, noting that when asked to generate an image of a manager without specifying gender, it typically portrays a male. Similarly, an Oxford University researcher asked AI to provide five names of doctors and nurses. All doctors were male, while all nurses were female. AI/GenAI produces results based on the data on which it has been trained. Still, this example highlights how it contributes to the establishment of rooted patriarchal concepts and gender-role distributions.

Gender expert Abeer Shbaro notes further archetypal gender norms. "ChatGPT addresses us in the masculine form. The typical depiction of leaders or managers lacks empathy, a trait commonly associated with women's leadership.

Gender expert Abeer Shbaro

"On Facebook, when women face smears, (parent company) Meta often does not deem these remarks contrary to its community standards, which makes you wonder who is setting or enforcing these standards."

Tech firms' algorithms

Hammoud discusses Meta's impact on women's digital reputation, saying Facebook and Instagram have "evolved beyond social media platforms into Meta advertising entities, profiting from algorithms developed by AI".

Understanding this clarifies concerns regarding women's content, as Meta consistently requests algorithm transparency yet does not disclose them, she says.

"Meta also does not provide gender-based preferences to advertisers. Numerous studies monitor interactions and decode algorithms, revealing that Meta prioritises content that potentially harms women's reputation through nudity and commodification, appealing to viewer engagement based on pain and pleasure."

Women can be "the primary targets of deepfake videos", she adds, "especially those actively engaged in politics and public affairs… a widely circulated video depicting former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern purportedly smoking cannabis exemplifies this trend".

An Oxford University researcher asked AI to provide five names of doctors and nurses. All doctors were male, while all nurses were female.

These videos tend to proliferate during election periods due to "a confluence of sexist social biases that manipulate perceptions based on gender".

It all contributes to women's reluctance to step out of caregiving roles at home, bypass the urge to self-censor and explore unconventional or leadership roles.

The digital divide 

A 2019 UNESCO report found that women account for less than a third of all research and development (R&D) roles globally.

Hammoud calls for "the integration of women into the AI industry and related fields such as engineering, solution programming, and marketing" up to the board level to assist with the balanced representation of women.

Warning of a resurgence in historical workplace disparities, Shbaro notes the alarming potential for a digital divide between women and men and another divide among women themselves. Citing a 2023 McKinsey study, she says women are 1.5 times more likely than men to transition into new careers due to the impact of AI, given that industries predominantly employing women, such as office support services, are at higher risk of job displacement.

Figures from the World Bank show that in the Middle East and North Africa, 22.1% of men pay their phone and internet bills through an app, yet only 13.5% of women in the region do the same, even though 31.8% of women do so globally.

"Institutional systems in our region are still lagging in training and preparing their workforce for digital transformation," she says.

"This uncertainty fuels women's fears, reinforcing the perception that they are the most vulnerable and at risk of losing paid employment, possibly being relegated to home duties," she adds. "This is a misconception."

A 2023 McKinsey study shows that women are 1.5 times more likely than men to transition into new careers due to the impact of AI.

"It perpetuates a reluctance to embrace change. Women can adapt to these changes, with ample opportunity for self-learning. The upcoming competition will centre on who can effectively harness AI, rather than entire job elimination."

A chance to redefine

AI is not a recent development; it has been employed in aviation, space exploration, and medicine for decades, says Shbaro. "Tasks now seen as routine, like managing water and heating systems, or operating electrical appliances, were once predominantly carried out by women."

Affordable electrical appliances began appearing in Arab homes in the 1960s. This mass modernisation ushered in a form of equality across social classes and genders. In a sense, it was revolutionary insofar as it greatly changed roles, processes, and priorities. AI is a similar revolution.

"When we advocate for gender justice, we advocate for broader social justice and the wellbeing of human society," says Shbaro. "It is crucial to distinguish between undermining traditional caregiving roles assigned to women and those ingrained in their biological makeup."

Shbaro cites the difficulty of a machine replacing the innate physical, loving, and tender communication between a mother and her child as an example.

For Hammoud, the positive impacts of AI on women in business are worth exploring further, such as promoting gender equity in employment practices through systems like the CV tracking system (ATS). Virtual spaces have also translated into global campaigns, including hashtags supporting women facing oppressive political regimes and movements against harassment and sexual assault.

Maciejewska wanted AI to "do my laundry and dishes so that I can do art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so that I can do my laundry and dishes". Women in traditional home environments, including in the Arab world, most certainly agree.

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