Hanan Salam: Promoting Diversity in the AI Field

Women in Tech



AI is a disruptive technology that is transforming various industries in our world. It is the concept of endowing machines with intelligence similar to the intelligence of humans. To do so, humans train and design the systems to mirror human intelligence and to allow them to make predictions and decisions in particular tasks. However there’s a common belief that algorithms built are without any of the bias or prejudices that color human decision making, the truth is that an algorithm can unintentionally learn bias. As humans tend to have biased opinions and make biased decisions. So, there is a big risk that the data humans use to train AI algorithms and their design choices that shape AI systems may reflect and amplify existing cultural bias and prejudices which can affect the lives of people who use it to a big extent. Going from being a researcher to the lecturer to joining a robotic startup to an entrepreneur, struck Women in AI (WAI) co-founder Hanan Salam with this realization (a serious problem) of women under-representation in the field of AI.  “I realized that to solve this problem of AI bias it is necessary to have more women working in the field and participating in shaping the future, especially that AI industry is dominated by men and women perspective is not taken into account in the development process,” says Salam. “When the teams creating AI models, developing datasets and designing the systems are diverse, the algorithms they produce are more likely to be fit for a bias-free world.”

Since 2017 she is working with her co-founders of WAI to prevent this phenomenon, raise awareness about artificial intelligence issues, get more women involved in this industry, and create more female role models in the domain.

“When the teams creating AI models, developing datasets and designing the systems are diverse, the algorithms they produce are more likely to be fit for a bias-free world.”

Diversity Matters

WAI is an international non-profit whose aim is to close the gender gap in the domain of artificial intelligence by increasing female participation and representation in this field. To do this, they have created the first international community of women in AI. The community involves female experts as well as women interested in the field, bringing together over 1600 members from more than 80 countries. They also have ambassadors in more than 30 countries. 

They work by regularly organizing meetups & networking events; workshops; and sharing ideas through blogging; and knowledge through research & studies. Hanan is leading Wai2GO, WAI’s education program offering training and mentoring for women from all background on AI with a particular focus on the young generation. The program includes women mentors who are entrepreneurs and leaders in the field that are capable of guiding the girls in their career path. The goal is to nurture the next role models in the field, show the young what their true potential and opportunities are, encourage them and endow them with the necessary self-confidence and courage to take their destiny in their own hands. Hanan is also actively involved in organizing workshops in schools to encourage girls to do STEM studies. “There is no power bigger than the power of education,” asserts Salam. Likewise, in WaiTALK, their flagship event, they promote women role models to be an example to the youngest by inviting them to speak in the WaiTALK event as well as in international tech conferences. 

Since the creation of WAI, on one hand, Hanan feels overwhelmed in having a lot of support from many people including the government and various actors in the tech industry. However, on the other hand, she admits facing negative reactions from some people who obviously don’t realize the problem. There were few who questioned the need for women to be part of creating AI systems. Yet for others, this is just another feminist movement. “They don’t realize that all these feminist initiatives exist because there is a real problem of women under-representation in various fields and it is essential to raise awareness about it,” proclaims Salam. Although dealing with such negative reactions is tricky. Hanan takes such negative reactions and feedback as opportunities for improvement. She uses them to improve her approach and to address the group of people who have a different point of view. “In this case, I always rely on good argumentation and concrete examples,” says Salam. Whilst “seeing how much impact my initiative has made in the lives of many, I recharge my energy and I feel motivated to accomplish more and to reach more people.” All throughout her entrepreneurial journey, she recalls learning several things. And perhaps the most important lesson: “It is unavoidable to make mistakes, and the biggest mistake one can make as a leader is to be stuck on those mistakes. The right attitude is to learn from those mistakes, improve and use them to advance and grow.”

Hanan Salam, co-founder, WAI

When Hanan is not shaping our collective future, she as a big fan of sports can be found hiking and engaging in extreme sports. She finds reading, exercising and meditation very effective to stay in shape mentally and physically to carry on with her mission. Reading the right books reinforces her with positive thoughts and with the necessary strategies to keep a high mental strength. While meditation helps her have more focus and a calm attitude, and exercising helps to keep her mood up, charge her energy and trains her brain to stay positive and determined. “Being a leader is being a warrior, you have a goal and a mission and you have to fight for it with all your force. To me, there is no better force than the force of positive thinking and determination”, adds Salam. If given an opportunity she expressed her desire to have dinner with Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. “She was an English mathematician known as the first computer programmer back in 1843. She was ahead of her time. She was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. She had a passion and a vision for technology that make her a powerful symbol for modern women,” says Salam.

Make it Happen

Hanan carries on saying that though the greatest benefit being a female leader in 2019 is that we have reached an era where there is a clear will to support women leadership and entrepreneurship especially from governments and key industry actors. Nonetheless, there are still lots of stereotypes regarding women. She elaborates, “We often hear things like “women are emotional” or “women are not as good decision makers as men”. Such stereotypes doubt the capacities of women in being successful leaders and might impact eventual investments in their businesses. Another disadvantage is that there is still more expectations in society from women compared to men, especially concerning raising a family. A woman is expected to succeed in her responsibilities as a wife and a mom before her job as a businesswoman. It is like being a leader and a successful woman is secondary. Another big challenge for the next generation is to be able to achieve equal pay in a shorter period of time.”

Hanan’s advice? Have a fixed objective, be courageous, be ambitious, have a strong personality, be patient and passionate. Don’t be afraid to jump and take risks. Don’t be afraid to take the initiative. “Put in your mind that nothing is impossible when you have the determination. Whatever you desire, the universe will be there to respond,” says Salam.

As for her, she hopes to inspire others to blaze a new path and eventually close the gender gap in the field of AI, to have a society that is equally led by women and men.

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