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Barbie or Ken, No Perfect Ten- For my Students


Are we Going Backwards?

It was disturbing to read the recent Economist article about the hardening of conservative and chauvinistic viewpoints among the youth in the developed world. It states,

Young men also seem more anti-feminist than older men, bucking the trend for each generation to be more liberal than its predecessor. Polls from 27 European countries found that men under 30 were more likely than those over 65 to agree that “advancing women’s and girls’ rights has gone too far because it threatens men’s and boys’ opportunities”. Similar results can be found in Britain, South Korea and China. Young women were likely to believe the opposite.’

Delving into the reasons for this regressive phenomenon, the Economist highlights the giant strides made by women in education significantly higher education. One of the solutions proposed interestingly is to allow boys to start school later in acknowledgement of the biological edge females have when it comes to learning to read and write. As the French say, “Vive la difference.”  It is good to acknowledge differences objectively and fairly. Perhaps not all boys need this exemption.

Some Things Don’t Change Fast Enough

I teach technology policy at premier public policy institutes. At the end of my current course, many of my female students shared how impressed they were to find that they were to study technology policy with a female professor. They were eager to learn from my journey as an ex-civil servant and public policy expert. When I talk to these accomplished and intelligent young people, I am struck by the resurfacing of an old theme: the quest to be taken seriously regardless of gender and appearance. Funnily, what comes to mind is a recent hit from the movie Barbie. When the good-looking Ryan Gosling belts out,

 “I’m just Ken / Anywhere else I’d be a 10 / Is it my destiny to live and die a life of blond fragility?”

It appears to allude to both male and female stereotypes. Is it just a tad more charming when a man sings it? I suspect a female version may have been perceived as vain and whining. After all, women are constantly reminded (this is an old patronising advertisement dating back to the nineteen seventies),’ You’ve come a long way, baby,” Clearly not far enough. In the movie, Barbie seems to tell Ken ‘not to define himself by his possessions, his relationship or his job of just “beach.” He’s just Ken, and he’s Kenough.’ How many women at work get to feel that or be told that?

Women still seem pressured to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. Women still worry about their clothes and the message their appearance sends to colleagues. Women still need to be ‘nice’ to be liked at work (as noted by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In?). It is acknowledged that even competent and powerful women tend to over-prepare, and women tend to speak up only when they are almost 100 per cent sure. Even when they do, they may face mixed reactions. An article from Harvard is particularly insightful. It explains what male colleagues perceive. It also states a viewpoint many of my female colleagues share,

“Men have a way to neatly repackage ideas,” says Lynne Ford, executive vice president and head of distribution at Calvert Investments. “They restate and amplify what you just said.” Even as she acknowledges that she has seen this tactic used very effectively, she adds, “It’s gamesmanship.”

As a professor and mentor, I can do my bit by sharing my experiences and encouraging my students to step away from stereotypes and my female students to speak up. Parents, educational systems, and, last but not least, social media must address the pressure both genders feel to conform. Perhaps only when men no longer feel societal pressure will women be allowed to express themselves fully without a backlash.

Gender and Our Digital Lives

In the meanwhile, commentaries on the impact of AI and deep fakes underline the increasing targeting of women and the  “linkages between anti-feminism, democratic backsliding, and digital-authoritarianism. New developments in domestic and international norms must take into consideration these intertwined threats.” Do we want to move forward or backwards?

I firmly believe that we need a more inclusive internet on the demand and supply sides. As per the International Telecommunications Union, only 64.7% of women have access to ICTs globally compared to 70.1% of men. In Asia Pacific, this difference is 62.9% for women and 68.8% for men; in Africa, it is 32.1% for women and 42.2% for men. In Europe, it is 89.5 per cent and 91.6 per cent. Supply-side issues exacerbate the less-than-proportionate representation of women on the demand side of the internet. The supply side and the demand side are connected. The relatively nominal presence of women online would imply that data available to train Artificial Intelligence today would probably not represent women sufficiently. If not corrected today, this anomaly would perpetuate and magnify existing inequities and stereotypes due to the self-learning nature of AI.

The gender imbalance also impacts the design of technology and the choices we make while deploying technology, which will shape how digital technologies influence our future. Women are less likely to pursue STEM careers or be a part of technology design and development worldwide. What about the governance of digital technologies? It is heartening that the current head of the International Telecommunications Union is a woman. It is gratifying that a senior regulator and ITU office bearer has created RIFEN to encourage women to participate in global digital governance. This has brought sharper emphasis on women’s participation in ICTs.

As artificial intelligence is a technology that will dictate how ICTs are used and will impact human beings, the absence of women on both sides of the equation could mean a digital future whose foundations would not be diverse and representative. It could instead be biased and consequently harmful to all of society globally. Currently, both the supply and demand sides of gaming and AI are dominated by men, and our online experience validates this anomaly. It shows up in what we see and experience online. We must address inclusion online before it worsens, including gender equality.

A Human Problem.

‘According to UN Women, gender equality “refers to the equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys…. Gender equality implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration, recognising the diversity of different groups of women and men. Gender equality is not a women’s issue but should concern and fully engage men’s as well as women. Equality between women and men is seen both as a human rights issue and as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable people-centred development” (UN Women, 2022)[1].

Way Forward

Finally, we need more women leaders in technology governance and education. When women lead and speak up, they often bring a much-needed diversity of perspective. This would include rapidly upping inclusivity on both sides of digital markets.

[1] UNESCO, OECD, IDB (2022). The Effects of AI on the Working Lives of Women, p.15