Women Founders of AI Startups Take Aim at Gender Bias

When Rana el Kaliouby was pitching investors in 2009 on her artificial-intelligence startup, Affectiva, she and her co-founder tried to steer clear of what she calls the “e-word”—emotion.

They were both women, and though their startup was designed to detect emotion in technology, they were sensitive to how they would be perceived. They feared they might not be taken seriously because “emotion” wasn’t in the traditional lexicon of many companies and funders—and because it carried female connotations in a largely male industry.

“We danced around it,” she says, adding that they called themselves a “sentiment” company instead. “Investors invest in what they know, and we were so different from what they were used to.”

A decade later, that is changing. Though the field of artificial intelligence remains heavily male-dominated, female leaders have made noticeable inroads. Some say they want to build workplaces that are more inviting to diverse workforces, and help promote women in tech more broadly. Others say they want to try to address concerns with the technology, rooting out what they see as its potential biases against marginalized communities.

“Technology won’t function well unless it is built by a diverse team,” says Dr. el Kaliouby, adding that the lack of gender diversity in Silicon Valley came as a contrast to what she had seen as a computer-science student in college in Egypt, where the gender breakdown was almost even. “My biggest concern in AI today isn’t that robots are going to take over, it’s that we’re unintentionally building bias into these systems.”

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