The need for diversity in tech and ethical AI development is springing up frequently as an area of concern, and Dr. Alina Gales is always ready to discuss. Not only is she a diversity manager at Technical University of Munich (TUM), she also holds a PhD in Gender Studies in Science and Engineering. She’s an incredibly inspirational woman, and we’re excited to share her insight, values, and opinions with our community.
Can you elaborate a little bit about what prompted you to get into the world of diversity in tech?
I’ve always been curious to understand (and sometimes frustrated) to learn why people not only perceive, but also judge each other based on categorizations. I became passionate to dive into the area of diversity in tech because it’s one of the areas with the greatest potential to improve the situation for women and minorities. In addition, so much creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit become lost because these groups don’t have the same chances and privileges as others.
What do you perceive to be some of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to equality?
One of the biggest misconceptions of equality is to replace it with neutrality. In many of the discussions that happen after I give a talk, presentation, or workshop, someone voices their opinion that people can be neutral in how they perceive others, independent of gender, age, race, etc. And they believe that this is how we’d achieve equality for all. However, the (realistic) goal of equality is not neutrality, because human beings are essentially biased and always will be. When it comes to the interpretation of someone’s perceived characteristics, this is where we can improve as intellectual beings; by getting informed on long-learned judgments and biases and then reducing them – while still acknowledging and hopefully also appreciating how someone identifies.
In this case, equality would mean people can freely express their authentic selves without their gender, age, race, ethnicity - anything - ultimately being connected to a judgmental and hierarchical characterization by their environment.
Your work covers a lot of integral areas of diversity and equality: what do you believe is the best way for enterprises and organizations to incorporate these values into their company culture?
Diversity and equality should not fall prey to tokenism: these values need to be ingrained in company culture. Also, employees and leaders need to come together for change: employees should be involved in the development of new diversity initiatives to get as many people motivated as possible, and leadership needs to visibly act out on equality.
One of the biggest drivers for equality is offering initiatives that support employees in combining their private life with their job in order to be fully present and give their best at work. And this can mean something different for everyone: like caring for family (children or elderly), identifying as LGBTQAI+, needing mobility assistance, or having a chronic disease.
You’ve done some work on the topic of ageism in tech. Do you think this is something that is being addressed quickly enough?
In my opinion, it was and is unfortunate for the tech industry to primarily focus on young(er) people – tech being created by young(er) people for young(er) people. More and more social processes rely heavily on digital accessibility and usage skills. The recent pandemic was an extreme example of utter reliance on digital technology to participate in any social connectedness. Now, in many places (specifically Germany), older people make up a huge percentage of society. Therefore, it raises ethical concerns if a large proportion of people do not have access or training to common tools of connection and communication simply because they have been left out of the conception, design, and marketing area of digital technology.
Luckily, there is a growing interest in addressing ageism in tech by the start-up scene with recent entrepreneurial endeavors focusing on old(er) people as their target group.
What advice would you give to a woman in tech?
Through my conversations with women in tech – in academia and in the industry – I’ve learned of the many obstacles they have to encounter: being the only woman in the room, getting mansplained, and needing to prove their competence twice as much. My advice to women in tech is: grow resilience, network with others, and talk about your work – in personal conversations but also, if you can, publicly: Female role models are crucial for young women deciding for or against a tech-related career path and as a woman in tech, by being your authentic tech-interested and tech-experienced self, you indirectly reduce stereotypes of women and tech in society.
You give a lot of talks on the topic of discrimination in AI. In what ways do you see it being addressed for improvement?
I am happy to see that the topic of the discriminatory influences of AI is getting more and more attention: there are research institutes, professorships, and NGOs that work on responsible AI as well as many podcasts, documentaries, papers, books, reports, and news outlets covering ethical AI topics. The next very important step is politics and everyone in the field is eager to await the finalized “Artificial Intelligence Act” by the European Union, which would be the first law on AI by such an institution and which targets the potential risk of an AI system.
And finally, who are the women in your life that have inspired you?
Personally, it’s the women in my closest circle, my family and my friends, who inspire me because I get an insight into their story, which, of course, as it is for all of us, is full of challenges they had to overcome and still surmount today. Witnessing their strength, endurance, passion, ambition, and love inspires me tremendously.
But it’s also women in the public eye who do not shy away to be unapologetically themselves, which is something I continuously work on – here, I’m thinking about Megan Thee Stallion, Janis Joplin, or Peggy Guggenheim. There are also other women I aspire to be like whom I describe as empathetic intellectuals: Esther Perel, Brené Brown, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example. And: women who live in places where they have to face unimaginable consequences for their fight for equality, such as women in Afghanistan or Iran.
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