On the week when Irish ambassadors are in the global spotlight, it is fitting to hear from Dr Begüm Genç who recently became the Ireland ambassador for the global organisation Women in AI. Dr Genç prepared the piece below about the importance of the role. She writes:
Having been raised by a family of engineers, mathematicians, and academics, I had a natural inclination towards science. I hadn’t questioned being a woman in science until I started studying computer engineering in college. The male-female percentage that was 50-50 until college was visibly unbalanced. Very often I was the only female taking elective courses on AI. I started noticing that some of the very successful women in my class had no interest in working as an engineer after graduation. The percentage continued to decline throughout my masters and PhD studies. When I started working as a postdoctoral researcher, I was the only woman researcher in my lab for months. At some stage, there was only one female lecturer in the school. Needless to say, there are still no female professors. The problem was evident and the feeling of being different was real.
The Ireland chapter of Women in AI has been founded by Alessandra Sala in September 2019. I joined the Women in AI team as the Cork Lead in 2020, shortly after the global pandemic was annonunced. Over the course of two years, the team has grown rapidly. Today, we are operating with more than 15 volunteers from all across Ireland. We offer a wide range of opportunities, such as a chance to gain practice on data science projects; a certiciate program on the fundamentals of AI for the women who wish to transition into AI field or to go back to work; great networking opportunities through our events, and visibility of technical talent. The Women in AI activities were presented in the National AI Strategy of Ireland as examples of good practice.
My main goal as the Ireland ambassador of WAI is to increase the number of women and other underrepresented groups in the AI field in the Irish ecosystem by either providing them more opportunities (i.e. positions, education, practice) or by bringing awareness to the underlying issues that prevent women to pursue career in AI. Some people believe that talking about the gender inequality in AI is only causing more inequality, and if we stop talking about it there will not be any issue. I strongly disagree with this perspective. The gender inequality in the AI field is evident and it will not change if people don’t take action. Not talking will only lead to acceptance of the current circumstances, will not lead to change. We need more diversity at all levels of the workforce.
Funding bodies and organisations have started taking steps towards this direction by setting diversity and inclusion targets. As volunteers, I believe, we can best support our community by providing more opportunities to them to gain more skills, creating a support system to boost self-confidence, providing better networking, promoting role models and mentors. We must actively question the reasons behind the low number of women in AI and especially in senior positions, and discuss today’s unfair hiring processes. CV building is not necessarily an exponential or a linear process for many people, especially those who are parents or those who have caring responsibilities. The current hiring models do not accommodate these very natural life events. As Women in AI Ireland members, we shall actively question, produce, provide, and support others in our ecosystem to address inequalities in AI.