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Beijing + 25: New systems and norms – now

Beijing + 25: New systems and norms – now

2020 is a critical year for women’s rights – it will mark 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action and 5 years since the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Commission on the Status of Women at its 64th session (CSW64), will undertake a review and appraisal of progress made in its implementation and of the outcomes of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA).

The BPfA envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life setting strategic objectives and actions for the achievement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern: women and poverty; education and training of women; women and health; violence against women; women and armed conflict; women and the economy; women in power and decision making; institutional mechanisms; human rights of women; women and the media; women and the environment; and the girl child. Yet at the 25 year mark no country has achieved this agenda – according the WEF’s most recent Global Gender Gap report, at the current rate of progress, it will take another 108 years to reach gender equality. Gender equality is both an issue of fundamental human rights and key driving force for global progress and stable democracies.

Domestically countries have made progress and there has been some progress at the international institutional institutional level including: a standalone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality and gender equality has been recognised as integral in the achievement of all 17 SDGs; the international community voted to adopt a new ILO Convention and Recommendation to end violence and harassment in the world of work; and the United Nations agreed on the landmark UN System-wide Action Plan (UN-SWAP) on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (GEEW).

While some progress has been made we still face many, if not most, of the same challenges with the BPfA’s visionary aspirations left mostly unfulfilled with regression in some areas. And we now also face significant additional emerging global challenges. Can we really celebrate when our systems continue to exclude women?

The “standardized male” is the default of flawed systems and cultural standards that currently control how we live and work – defaults so normalized we don’t even notice. From 20th century drug trials, international standards and global trading rules, to 21st century algorithmic decision making and machine learning systems, this default has proven to harm people, particularly women – and the bottom line. We must establish new norms, be innovative and change the pattern and structures of the system to address the root causes of gender inequality and realise the commitments made in the BPfA.

Beijing +25 needs to be a space where there is frank and open discussions both about achievements, failures and ways forward. We need our commitments in Beijing to deliver results by 2030 and in order to innovate and thrive in a rapidly changing global environment, new norms are needed.

At the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review meeting and civil society forum on 28, 29 and 30 October in Geneva, Women@theTable will shine a spotlight on the multiple and intersecting challenges faced day-to-day by everyday women and advocate for lasting institutional and cultural systems changes that galvanize women’s influence particularly in sectors that have key structural impact: technology; democracy and governance; the economy; and sustainability. In order for the BPfA commitments to be made a reality in the 21st century we must act now.

Technology

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automated Decision-Making (ADM) in machine learning offer new opportunities but also profoundly threaten women’s full participation and human rights, if left unchecked, unaccountable and uncorrected.

The fact is that women have remained largely under-represented and / or excluded from the technology sector and in particular in AI and ADM leadership. This gender gap is replicated at large technology firms like Facebook and Google and the situation is far worse for black and Latinx people. There is mounting evidence that gender bias and sexism is pervasive in ADM.

All of this has resulted in gender biases, slowly being removed from the analog world, now being baked into new digital ADM with old stereotypical conceptions and associations of gender, race and class. The entrenched divides are so ingrained in us that they are unconscious, and are not only being passed onto the next generation, but they’re becoming intractable as machines begin to learn from one another.

We are at a critical turning point – particularly urgent given the scale at which ADM systems are being deployed around the world in private and public sector systems. For this reason Women@theTable have created a global alliance that can leverage International Geneva's unique vantage point. Women@theTable is leading in partnership with Ciudadania Inteligente, a global alliance of concerned technology leaders, government agencies, nonprofits, and academics committed to addressing gender bias in ADM, while it’s still possible. The <A+> Alliance has developed a number of resources and algorithms for individuals and organisations to use to support gender equality in ADM and to correct for gender bias in machine learning systems. Join the <A+> Alliance.

Standards

A first preliminary estimate of the participation of women in the bodies tasked with developing national and international standards, which are behind almost every product and increasingly behind most traded services, averages between 10-30%. The representation for women in standards development is well below parity and the outcomes for women in standards development are not explicitly addressed during the standards development process. As, or more importantly, the standards themselves long thought to be ‘gender neutral’ are now known to be unconsciously biased resulting in equipment that does not function for women (from spacesuits to seatbelts to safety equipment and bullet proof vests) to default thermostat settings set to the male metabolism to medicines that kill because research on efficacy and dosage has only been investigated on the male.

We must recognise the pervasive and influential role of standards in society. Building on the historical Declaration on Gender Responsive Standards, co-conceived by Women@theTable and signed by 50+ Standards Bodies in May 2019 and which makes strides in integrating gender in standards, Women@theTable is championing gender responsive standards and gender responsive standards development.

Economy

No country has managed to close the gender gap on economic participation and opportunity – women worldwide continue to stand on the sidelines of the economy. Women who comprise half the world’s population generate only 37% of gross domestic product (GDP) and run only about a third of small and medium-sized enterprises. In more than 155 countries, there is at least one law impeding economic opportunities for women.

The economy is where power is wielded and despite some progress, obstacles to women’s full and equal participation, including the lack of an enabling environment persist. This is clearly evidenced within international trade and trade agreements which affect women and men differently – and has only recently been formally acknowledged. The Buenos Aires Declaration at the WTO in 2017, co-conceived by Women@theTable, was the first time in the history of the World Trade Organization, that 120+ WTO members and observers endorsed a collective initiative to increase the participation of women in trade. The Declaration institutionally encourages countries to identify the impact of trade on women and to take this into consideration in their trade agreements, which can ultimately have an enormous impact on women’s economic status globally.

WTO Director-General Azevêdo recently credited the Declaration with shifting attitudes and real momentum at the WTO. It is imperative now that the Declaration be more widely shared, understood and implemented so that we can achieve the aspirations of the BPfA by 2030.

It is crystal clear that an urgent and profound shift is needed to fully realise the BPfA. In the lead up to Beijing +25 and beyond, Women@theTable will continue highlight the systematic exclusion of women in defining the rules – and pinpoint strategic changes to laws, regulations and norms to achieve gender equality and strengthen democracy. By connecting the right people, at the right place at the right time, women are influentially involved in all levels of decision-making, so change can happen now.

We must seize the momentum on the 25th anniversary of the BPfA and utilize the largest untapped intellectual resource on the planet – women and girls. We must continue to galvanise women’s influence and reshape our society’s systems and address one of the most defining and urgent challenges of this century .

Women@theTable written submission to the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW64) Beijing+25 (2020)

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life – yet at the 25 year mark no country has achieved this agenda in the economy, in institutional or national mechanisms, or women’s full participation in decision-making processes and access to power (to name 3 of the 12 critical areas of concern). We still face many of the same challenges with the Declaration’s visionary aspirations left mostly unfulfilled. 25 years after the Declaration was penned the world has forged on although cultural and institutional bias remains largely the same. However, we face newly significant and additional global challenges. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automated Decision-Making (ADM) in machine learning offer new opportunities but also profoundly threaten women’s full participation and human rights, if left unchecked, unaccountable and uncorrected.

We must seize the momentum on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and utilize the largest untapped intellectual resource on the planet – women and girls. We must continue to galvanise women’s influence and reshape our society’s systems.

The fact is that women have remained largely under-represented and / or excluded from the technology sector and in particular in AI and ADM leadership. The World Economic Forum reports a significant gender gap among AI professionals: 22% of AI professionals globally are female, compared to 78% male. This accounts for a gender gap of 72% to close. And only 12% of researchers who contributed to the three leading machine learning conferences in 2017 were women. This gender gap is replicated at large technology firms like Facebook and Google – where only 15% and 10% respectively of their AI research staff are women. The situation is worse for black people, only 2.5% of Google’s workforce is black while Facebook and Microsoft are each at 4% and 3.6% of Google’s workforce is Latinx, Microsofts is 6% and Facebook reported 5% Hispanic workers – has resulted in gender biases that are slowly being removed from the analog world being baked into new digital ADM with old, stereotypical conceptions and associations of gender, race and class.

There is mounting evidence that gender bias and sexism is pervasive in ADM. From inherent bias in hiring; selection bias and stereotypes in the delivery of ads to women; and entrenched implicit stereotypes and unconscious bias translated into explicit misogyny through feminised machines like Alexa – women continue to be excluded and left behind.

The entrenched divides so ingrained in us that they are unconscious, are not only being passed onto the next generation, but they’re becoming intractable as machines begin to learn from one another.

We are at a critical turning point – particularly urgent given the scale at which ADM systems are being deployed around the world in private and public sector systems.

The solution is straightforward: include the women who have been consciously or unconsciously excluded throughout the ADM product life cycle of funding, design, adoption. Gender equality in ADM, what we call Affirmative Action for Algorithms, is needed in order to correct real life bias and barriers that prevent women from achieving full participation and rights in the present, and in the future we invent.

Women@theTable makes the following recommendations in order that the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action’s commitments with regards to women in power and decision-making can be made a reality in the 21st century.

Specifically, we need to ensure an intersectional variety and equal number of women and girls in positions of power and decision making in the creation, design and coding of ADM so that machine learning does not embed an already gender biased system into all our futures.

We recommend

  • Gender balance in AI decision-making:  Put on the official agenda of all involved with the funding, design, adoption and evaluation of ADM.
  • Gender balance in design teams: Employment of a robust range of intersectional feminists in the design of ADM systems to trigger and assist greater innovation and creativity, as well detect and mitigate  bias and harmful effects on women, girls and the traditionally excluded. 
  • Require companies to proactively disclose and report on gender balance targets in design teams. Incentivize companies with balanced teams.  
  • Require universities and start-ups to proactively disclose and report on gender balance targets in research and design teams, including upstream when applying for grants. Incentivize teams that are balanced and multi-disciplinary.  
  • Create  research funds to explore the impacts of gender and AI, machine learning, bias and fairness, with a multi-disciplinary approach beyond the computer science and engineering lens to include new ways of embedding digital literacy, and study the economic, political and social effects of ADM on the lives of women and those traditionally excluded from rules making and decision-taking. 
  • A UN agencies-wide review of the application of existing international human rights law and standards for ADM and gender. This can guide and provoke the creative thinking for an approach grounded in human rights fit for purpose in the fast-changing digital age.
  • Development of a set of metrics for digital inclusiveness urgently agreed, measured worldwide and detailed with sex disaggregated data in the annual reports of institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the International Telecommunication Union, the World Bank, the multilateral development banks and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
  • Public institutions to Pilot and Lead: Affirmative Action for Algorithms deployed when public institutions pilot ADM. Base pilots on longstanding and new social science research that allocate social incentives, subsidies, or scholarships where women have traditionally been left behind by prior systems. This is a positive agenda to advance values of equality we have long embraced, to correct for the visibility, quality and influence of women proportionate to the population.
  • Public and Private sector uptake of Algorithmic Impact Assessments (AIA): A self-assessment framework designed to respect the public’s right to know the AI systems that impact their lives in terms of principles of accountability and fairness.
  • Rigorous testing across the lifecycle of AI systems: Testing should account for the origins and use of training data, test data, models, Application Program Interfaces (APIs) and other components over a product life cycle. Testing should cover pre-release trials, independent auditing, certification and ongoing monitoring to test for bias and other harms. ADM should improve the quality of, not control, the human experience.
  • Strong legal frameworks to promote accountability including potential expansion of powers for sector specific agencies, or creation of new terms of reference to oversee, audit and monitor ADM systems for regulatory oversight and legal liability on the private and public sector.
  • Gender-responsive procurement guidelines for organizations and at all levels of government to develop ADM gender equality procurement guidelines with hard targets; and outline roles and responsibilities of those organisations required to apply these principles.  
  • Improve datasets – Open gender disaggregated data, data collection and inclusive quality datasets. Actively produce open gender disaggregated datasets; this better enables an understanding of the sources of bias in AI to ultimately improve the performance of machine learning systems. Invest in controls to oversee data collection processes and human-in-the-loop verification, so that data is not collected at the expense of women and other traditionally excluded groups. Engage in more inclusive data collection processes that focus not only on quantity but also on the quality of datasets.

The time to act is now – we are delighted to share that Women@theTable based in Geneva is leading a global alliance for gender equality in ADM with Ciudadania Inteligente, based in Santiago and Rio de Janeiro. The A+ Alliance is comprised of concerned technology leaders, civil society organizations, cities and academics committed to addressing gender inequality in ADM while it’s still possible.

It is crystal clear that an urgent and profound shift is needed. To fully realise the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action gender equality in ADM is critical to guaranteeing women’s human rights and full participation. Reiterating the 2030 Agenda, gender equality is a fundamental human right and a driver of progress across all development goals.

Women must have a seat at the decision making table as we invent the future – then everyone can thrive and no one is left behind.

This statement is supported by Ciudadania Inteligente.

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