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How AI could make the tech industry more inclusive | Interview with Ultimate

According to a recent UNESCO Science report, women remain a minority in both STEM education and careers, representing only 28% of engineering graduates, 22% of artificial intelligence workers and less than one-third of tech sector employees globally. When it comes to reaching the top tier of tech roles, women account for just 27% of FTSE 100 CIO positions.

However, with new tech developments comes new opportunities. AI development is soaring right now, and, there’s space for women to become leaders in this rapidly emerging sector. As conversational AI and support automation continue to develop, new technical roles for women are opening up.

Many women who have been working as CS agents have been able to grab new opportunities that automation presented to move up in their careers. They’ve created new roles like CS Automation Manager and Director of Chatbots Operations from scratch, opening up new technical paths that women can lead and change the status quo.

Headquartered in Berlin, with global hubs in New York, London and Helsinki, Ultimate experienced record growth in 2022. The startup offers a powerful virtual agent platform and has helped brands like Zalando, Finnair and Gorillas to scale their digital support. About 40% of the company’s staff represent as women.

We chatted with Kimberley Wood, the VP for Customer Success to learn more about how conversational AI is opening up new tech roles for women.

What is the outlook for women in tech?

The big names in tech are all men: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. That means theres a lack of female role models for young women who are interested in tech. Unconscious biases also push women in certain directions from such a young age. Girls are given dolls to play with instead of Meccano sets, and in school were encouraged into arts and humanities instead of sciences, which in turn means fewer women graduate with degrees in tech or computer sciences. Women make up only one third of all STEM graduates in Europe.

Sexism still very much exists in the startup world. Women account for 20% of the tech workforce in Europe and this lack of diversity gets worse the higher up you go. In Germany, only 9% of startup CEOs are female and women make up just 3% of CTOs.

Women generally have to try harder to prove themselves. Men benefit from an underlying assumption of competence, whereas women have to overperform to succeed. A 2021 report found that 78% of women in tech feel they have to work harder than male colleagues to prove their worth. Characteristics applauded in men are often taken as negative traits in women: if youre assertive, youre seen as pushy. This can make it more difficult for women to progress, even once weve got a foot in the door.

Gender inequality extends beyond hiring and performing too. Women in tech are often underpaid compared with their male counterparts. And many women experience discrimination at work — whether through microaggressions, sexually inappropriate behaviour, or being overlooked for promotion. This workplace discrimination is even more common for women living under multiple intersecting systems of oppression.

On top of this, women who want to have a family might be discouraged from seeking out leadership roles, or even from re-entering the workforce, by things like childcare costs and other family duties.

In terms of wider implications, when women are denied a voice this limits the diversity of thought. People from different backgrounds bring different perspectives, experiences, and approaches to the table. And inclusivity isnt just about ethics: diversity is good for business — theres plenty of data that proves this time and time again.

Are there any women that stand out as pioneers or particularly inspirational?

Women have helped shape the history of tech from the very beginning. The foundational technology behind WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth was developed by Austrian-American actress Hedy Lamarr in the 1940s. In the 1950s Grace Hoppers work helped create COBOL, one of the first programming languages. And there are plenty of other examples of female pioneers in tech — we just dont hear about them.

In terms of women who are making an impact today: Joy Buolamwini is doing really valuable research around embedded racial and gender bias in artificial intelligence. Mathilde Collin, the CEO of SaaS company Front also comes to mind. 50% of Fronts managers and 80% of its leadership team is female — so its really inspiring to see what can be achieved when gender equality is prioritized.

In what ways is Artificial Intelligence opening up new roles within the tech space where women can forge careers?

AI is undoubtedly changing the way we work — just look at the waves made by ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot released by OpenAI in late 2022. This bot can create poetry, draft essays, and write code, and has shown how fluent and human-like interacting with artificial intelligence can be. As with almost every new technology, the launch of ChatGPT and other generative AI technology has raised concerns about job losses — not only amongst writers and creatives, but also developers. But while AI will affect the nature of these jobs, it wont replace people in them. With the advanced ability of these AI models to produce text, code, and images, people might take on a more editorial role, using AI-generated output as a first draft to iterate from.

Customer support is a space traditionally dominated by women, and the adoption of AI and automation is giving more of these women the opportunity to develop technical skills and progress their careers.

Ive witnessed this first hand. As the VP of Customer Success at Ultimate, I have the privilege of working closely with our customers throughout their automation journeys. Ive seen brands create entirely new roles — like conversation designers, automation managers, and bot builders — and specialist teams to manage their automations.

How can we encourage more women to take on roles in tech?

Representation is key: seeing women in leadership roles will in turn attract more women. At Ultimate were proud partners of Women in Tech — a trailblazing organization driving greater diversity and inclusion in the tech space. Our solidarity and support for their mission help women know that they belong at Ultimate. And organisations like Girls Who Code are doing incredible work to break down stereotypes around who can be a developer or an engineer from a young age. Im hopeful this will encourage more women to get excited about tech and pursue careers in this field.

In terms of personal experience, I had some pivotal managers who really advocated for me and other women around me, which made a huge difference in my career. I was lucky to have a Customer Service Leader who understood the importance of diversity and went above and beyond in hiring and supporting women across his teams. He ensured I had executive level exposure within the business to showcase the value we were delivering, trusted me in building out a new function, invested in us through learning and development programmes, and built confidence when navigating a hugely male-dominated environment.

We need to champion our women — and this commitment to inclusivity needs to come from everyone. Often when I have conversations with male colleagues around gender I get the response well Im not sexist” but thats not enough. We need men to be allies, to speak up on behalf of women, to advocate for us, and demonstrate allyship through their actions.

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Patricia Allen
Patricia Allen
is the Head of Content at EU-Startups. With a background in politics, Patricia has a real passion for how shared ideas across communities and cultures can bring new initiatives and innovations for the future. She spends her time bringing you the latest news and updates of startups across Europe, and curating our social media.

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