I choose to challenge

On the 8th of March we celebrated International Women’s Day. #ChooseToChallenge was the UN’s call for action, which I decided to heed with the following three challenges:

  1. My challenge to myself:
    1. Share a story of algorithmic gender bias by creating a video story
  2. My challenge to decision-makers controlling translation algorithms
    1. Give us gender-neutral results when translating from gender-neutral languages to gender-specific languages by April 30th this year
  3. My challenge to people who care about gender parity
    1. Share this video story to your social networks using the UN hashtag #ChooseToChallenge

The backstory to these challenges

As I wrote congratulatory messages to female friends on International Women’s Day, I also found myself being sad that we live in 2021 and still need a day to celebrate women’s achievement.

But unfortunately, the sad fact is that we still need to do so. Gender inequality is very much with us today. A quick look at the latest World Economic Forum’s report on the gender gap leads with the headline that it will be a 100 years before gender parity is achieved. I quote:

“None of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children. That’s the sobering finding of the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, which reveals that gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years.”

One thing you will notice if you click on the link to the 2020 report is that it was published on December 16th 2019, not in 2020. Googling the WEF Gender Gap Report 2021 yields nothing… no explanation as to why a 2021 has not yet been published. I can understand that 2020 was an exceptional year due to the pandemic, but from what I have read about how the pandemic is disproportionally negatively impacting women, I would have thought that the need for an updated report at the end of 2020 would have been even more necessary.

I understand that reports, like International Days, are no surrogate for action, but even so, I believe they play an important part in raising awareness and keeping the issue on the on the mind of the general public, as well as on the agenda of decision-makers.

My googling for the 2021 Gender Gap report did eventually lead me to a page on the WEF website talking about a project called the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators. I quote from that page:

“Pre-COVID-19 crisis the World Economic Forum predicted that at current rates of progress it will take 257 years to close the economic gender gap”

A call for action if ever there was one. However, since the announcement about this project was first made, a grey box has been added to the webpage informing us that:

“This project is part of the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society Platform”

I will leave to someone wiser and more informed than me to explain whether this is a good or a bad thing when it comes to gender equality, but perhaps the fact that no report on the gender gap was issued in 2020 (after 14 consecutive years) tells us that the issue might have become moved to a back-burner?


So, moving back from the World Economic Forum to the United Nations. The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge. I quote:

“A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.
So let’s all choose to challenge.

How will you help forge a gender equal world?
Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.”

This call to action inspired me to consider what I can do to help forge a gender equal world.

When doing so, I recalled an algorithmic gender bias I stumbled upon a few years ago. Namely, how a translation program I use dealt with translating from Finnish (which uses a gender neutral pronoun ‘hän’) to English (with its gender specific he/she pronouns).

So, I decided to repeat the test and I found out that the same bias still exists in 2021. The program translates hän to he, for example, in relation to dinosaurs, football, work and Prime Minister, which it translates hän to she, for example, in relation to soft toys, dancing, looking after children and being a cleaner. Here are the screenshots I took:

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that stories can change the world, so I decided to create a little video story to tell this story about this example of algorithmic gender inequality:

My #ChooseToChallenge

So, I found my Choose to Challenge. In fact, I found three:

Firstly I choose to challenge myself to:

Share the story of this gender bias by creating and sharing this video story

Secondly, I  challenge the decision-makers in charge of algorithms to take gender bias seriously. Specifically, I challenge the leaders of companies responsible for translation algorithms to evaluate, and where necessary change, their algorithms without delay. Even more specifically, I challenge these leaders to:

Give us gender-neutral results when translating from gender-neutral languages to gender-specific languages by April 30th this year

I appreciate it’s a tight deadline for large corporations, but tech companies pride themselves on being agile, so it should not be impossible, right? Here is one example of how the search results could look in May:

Thirdly, I am very aware that I cannot make the above challenge come true on my own, but I do believe that small streams can become mighty rivers, and therefore, I believe that if enough of us raise our voices about this issue, the decision-makers will hear us and be moved to action. So, my third challenge is to everyone who cares about gender equality. My challenge to you is to:

Share this video story to your social networks using the hashtag #ChooseToChallenge

If enough people share the video, then perhaps, just maybe, we’ll succeed in making this small, but very visible step towards gender equality happen.

I, for one, say we CAN make gender equality a reality in our lifetime, so let’s do it.

Andrew Cannon

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