Q&A  | 

Hala Hanna from Solve (MIT), on the Digital Gender Gap

"In the everyday workforce, AI is also being used to surface bias in hiring and promotion practices".

Tags: 'algorith bias' 'digital gender gap' 'gender equality' 'Hala Hanna' 'MIT' 'Solve'


Hala Hanna is Managing Director, Community at Solve, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a mission to solve world challenges. She oversees Solve’s work advancing tech solutions to economic, social, and environmental global Challenges through open innovation and partnership. This work has included a public-private initiative for employment in the Middle East at the World Economic Forum, advising governments on public sector reform and donor engagement through her work at the World Bank and the UN, and building strategies and business models for nonprofits. Hala holds two Master's degrees—one in Public Policy from Harvard University, and one in Development Economics from American University, DC, and a Bachelor's degree in Economics from the American University of Beirut.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

Solve is an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a mission to solve world challenges.

Through open innovation Challenges, we find incredible tech-based social entrepreneurs all around the world.

As a marketplace for social impact innovation, Solve then brings together MIT’s innovation ecosystem and a community of Members to fund and support these entrepreneurs to help them drive lasting, transformational impact.

As Managing Director for Community, I manage the team that builds, engages, and supports Solve’s cross-sector community. This includes the annual Solve Global Challenges—designing Challenge themes and dimensions; getting startups and innovators to apply through Solve’s open innovation platform; recruiting and managing expert judging panels of industry leaders and MIT faculty; and managing the selection, assessment, and judging process to select the 30-35 most promising solutions each year.

In 2019, we received nearly 1,400 applications from 110 countries and selected 32 outstanding innovators from 16 countries as Solver teams. Solver teams impact 16 million lives.

Once they are selected, my team also runs a support program for the Solver teams. The program starts with a needs assessment, includes mentorship matching, facilitates partnerships between Solver teams and cross-sector leaders to provide funding and in-kind support to help them scale, and measures Solver progress periodically for the next several years. To date, Solve has facilitated over $20 million in funding to entrepreneurs and Solver teams.

Additionally, each year, we run 50+ community activities around the world with Solve and MIT communities. These activities include Solveathon and Challenge Design Workshops, Solver Brain Trusts, and other moderated conversations.


What's the digital gender gap?

It is no secret that women have unequal access to economic opportunities, and as digital technologies dramatically reshape our economies, they can either worsen or help fix this problem.

Most job growth will come from STEM fields, yet women make up only 12 percent of engineering students (however at MIT, undergrads are 50% women). Much of our day-to-day life is dictated by digital gadgets, especially as so many of us are working remotely due to COVID-19, yet few women are involved in developing them.

Still today, fewer women than men own mobile phones or have basic internet access – this is particularly true in lower income countries. Furthermore, the gender gap is closely linked to the digital divide. If we double the pace at which women become frequent users of digital technologies, the workplace could reach gender equality by 2040 in developed nations and 2060 in developing nations—much earlier than current projections.

Digital and STEM skills are the hottest in town, and job openings in computer, AI, data, and engineering-related fields will continue to grow. Encouraging girls’ STEM education from an early age, and teaching digital literacy to women and girls, are the first steps for closing future gaps. Also necessary: creating the systems and cultures that help women and girls remain and thrive in those fields.

Experts are warning about gender biases coded into AI developments. Do you agree?

Yes, AI bias is very real. Algorithms that feed on available data perpetuate gender stereotypes. A researcher at the MIT Media Lab, Joy Buolamwini, has built the Algorithmic Justice League to fight against these biases.

In the everyday workforce, AI is also being used to surface bias in hiring and promotion practices. One common example is automated screeners highlighting “male” adjectives in job descriptions that discourage women from applying to leadership positions.

Can you give us a particular case of genderization in technology?

One simple, but oft-used example is seatbelts and car safety measures. Cars are usually designed to fit and protect men.

Even crash-test dummies are typically the size and shape of the average male.This means that when a woman is in a car accident, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 17% more likely to die.

If we design technology for men, it will never truly work for women. However, when we keep women’s interests and needs in mind, technology can level the gender playing field.

What are its consequences at a social and economic level?

The financial services industry is one example.

Worldwide, 42 percent of women and girls—a total of 1.1 billion—are unbanked.

Women are more likely than men to lack credit history and the mobility to go to the bank. But financial technology (fintech) can play a powerful role in equalizing access and how financial products and services are designed.

For example, fintech products that are more adapted to women’s risk preferences can help close the wealth and investment gap between genders.

Or consider women’s mobility and new income streams. In contexts where women’s movements are limited due to cultural or security concerns, tech can play a role in either facilitating or directly providing income-generating opportunities. For example, where harassment remains one of the main deterrents for engaging in the workforce, location-reporting tools can give women more confidence to go to work. Working remotely thanks to online micro-jobs platforms can provide a whole new set of opportunities. But, tech companies need to put in the extra effort so that the gig economy provides dignified standards of living in ways that are equally attractive to men and women.

What are the cornerstones for bridging the gap?

There are many innovators on the ground building solutions to bridge the digital gender gap and support women more broadly. The trick is to find these solutions and help them scale.

Of the 130 startups in Solve’s portfolio, 52% are women-led, and several are building solutions that address these issues.

Take Digital Citizen Fund, a program that helps women and girls access the technology and obtain the skills needed to succeed in today’s expanding global markets. Digital Citizen Fund provides women with digital literacy skills and tools like computers and smartphones; teaches subjects such as International Computer Driving License (ICDL) modules, web design, and blockchain technology; and helps women start, manage, and scale their businesses through the use of cryptocurrency.

Or Erase All Kittens, a game that transforms the way girls perceive code education and software engineering. Erase All Kittens is designed from the ground up to teach girls practical, real-world coding skills via highly gamified, story-driven gameplay.

Or consider AnnieCannons, a strartup that transforms survivors of human trafficking—the majority of whom are women and girls—into thriving software professionals.

Its holistic coding bootcamp teaches in-demand technical skills, and its development shop helps graduates find project-based work to build a sustainable source of income. Survivors gain the economic opportunity they need to maintain a lifetime of freedom in a supportive, trauma-informed work environment.

This year, two of Solve’s five 2020 Global Challenges focus on women: Maternal & Newborn Health, Learning for Girls & Women, Sustainable Food Systems, Good Jobs & Inclusive Entrepreneurship, and Health Security & Pandemics. There are two ways to get involved with these Challenges. Cross-sector organizations can support Solver teams with resources, funding, and exposure by joining the Solve community as a Member. And anyone, anywhere with a relevant solution can apply by the June 18 deadline.