Diversity in Tech
4 min read
April 21, 2021

Co-Founder Caroline Lair Wants More Women in AI


Nadja Sayej

In the face of the increased inclusion of women in tech, there continues to be an apparent disconnect in the participation of women in artificial intelligence. Caroline Lear has co-founded Women in AI to combat this trend.

In 2017, Amazon created an artificial intelligence algorithm. Its purpose as an experimental hiring tool was to help recruit new employees. For example, the AI tool would use the data Amazon had—who they recruited over the past ten years. Then, it would collect 100 resumes and produce the top five candidates.

What happened, though, was this algorithm only led to the recruitment of men. The AI followed what appeared to be company protocol. Since the majority of hires were men, the algorithm automatically assumed women weren’t hirable. 

This project was canned, of course, but this exemplifies so well why we need advocates like Women in AI. The World Economic Forum’s survey found that only 22% of women are AI professionals. This organization is all about closing the gender gap–and the leadership gap in AI. 

Women in AI’s gender-inclusive approach aims to increase diversity. Their community-driven approach aims to empower women with education, research resources, and events that nurture women working in the Artificial Intelligence field.

It all started in Paris back in 2018 when the group’s co-founder Caroline Lair worked in AI at a French startup called Snips.

“It was clear there was a serious lack of women in AI,” said Lair. “There are women in tech, but in AI, even less. When it comes to AI, it’s crucial to have women because just as algorithms mirror the ideas of humans, they mirror our biases too. One of the greatest biases we have is a gender bias. If you translate it to tech, you have a sexist AI.”

The Continued Need for Women in AI

Since the organization started in France in 2018, it quickly grew to include over 6,000 members in over 20 countries. “It’s open to everyone,” said Lair. “AI will touch every industry, from law to health care, so that’s why it’s open for anyone to join for free.”

Women in AI has a successful accelerator program called WaiACCELERATE. The program aims to be “the first ethical leadership and business acceleration program” for women in the fields of AI, machine learning, and data science. These women are ready to start a venture, and WaiACCELERATE nurtures the next generation of women role models and leaders.

Some of the participants who graduated from the program include Jeanet Lin Lin, the founder of Food for Gut, an AI-empowered digital health app. The app uses data to drive solutions that learn from behavior and offers real-time, personally tailored recommendations to those suffering from gut issues.

Another product of this program is Nina Space, a space tech project created by Ekaterina Stambolieva. They use AI-powered solutions to help local governments implement their wildfire mitigation measures.

“We started Women in AI because we felt we needed a strong community of women in the field of artificial intelligence,” said Lair. “It could be helpful and help inspire the younger generation of women to embrace STEM and a career in the tech industry.”

Women in AI recently hosted an international women’s day event to help combat domestic violence with data and AI. Their next accelerator, called the WaiDATATHON, focuses on our sustainable future, which claims to be “the first-ever ‘datathon’” organized in VR to solve real-world problems with the power of data.” It kicks off on October 9, 2021.

“When you create an algorithm, you do it at a large scale, it’s hard to stop it after its launch,” said Lair. “You don’t know how it’s working, that’s why you call AI a ‘black box,’ you don’t know what’s inside.”

“It’s important to have enough diversity on the team, to have women, so you can always raise the alarm and say, ‘there’s something wrong here,’” she said. “We need AI that isn’t biased.”

Lair is also part of Good in AI. This company aims to build AI that will automate cognitive processes in science, tech, business, and beyond, as quickly as possible, but also as safely as possible to do what its founder Marek Rosa calls “to help humanity and understand the universe.”

Roughly 40 different contributors are part of Good in AI, showing the different aspects of the industry, including Lair’s perspective as a woman. “I’m a huge AI enthusiast, but it needs to be done right,” she said. “So, it can help us accelerate.”

Lair most recently delivered a Ted Talk about the bias in AI in Berlin and further explored how to improve AI. “My deep conviction is that we can build a bias-free AI, we can code quality into algorithms,” said Lair. “Robots don’t have feelings; they’re not supposed to be biased. They’re not supposed to discriminate based on race, gender, orientation or age. It needs to be done responsibly.”

We need to make sure women will choose STEM studies.

Yet, stepping onstage, Lair knew the lack of representation women have in taking the spotlight in tech. Mentorship remains critical for women. “The biggest work is at schools [for] young women between the ages of 17 and 23 years old,” said Lair. “We need to make sure women will choose STEM studies.”

Caroline Lair, Cofounder of Women in AI
Caroline Lair, Cofounder of Women in AI

Creating Space for Women

Being on stage makes her question those speaking spots at Ted Talks, for example. “Why don’t we see more tech women onstage?” she asks. “It’s why we need a support system for women, there’s a lack of role models for women in AI.”

That led Women in AI to put as many women experts onstage as possible, focusing on AI topics as part of their accelerator programs, as well as their ongoing digital talk series.

“We started events, like WaiTalk events, putting a spotlight on women AI talent in the US, Australia, and South Africa. Great to show there may be few role models but they’re there and are inspiring. We have WaiCamp [for] teens 13-16 into the world of AI, building robots [and] Wai Accelerate for older women.”

While healthcare will see a massive change in the years to come with AI, cybersecurity will also, says Lair. She hopes that there will be a way AI can help with climate change, too. The most exciting part is entrepreneurs who work on reducing the carbon footprint with AI. “We have 40% of women entrepreneurs working with Good in AI,” she says.

Awareness grows, so emerge similar initiative to support women in AI. There are initiatives supported by IBM and Microsoft and groups like Women of AI, founded in 2018 by Erica Lee. A Microsoft survey in 2018 showed that women role models in science and engineering helped encourage young girls and women into STEM careers, increasing their interest from 32% to 52%.

This emergence is just the beginning for Lair. “Our mission is to increase female representation and participation in AI,” she said. “The best is yet to come.”


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