Women talk AI and gender equality in Iceland | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 27.11.2018
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Women talk AI and gender equality in Iceland

This week, more than 500 female leaders from around the world are meeting in Reykjavik for the Women Leaders Global Forum to discuss how to get more women into leadership positions. DW's Manuela Kasper-Claridge reports.

The wind is freezing cold, but the sky is beaming in a clear blue. Here and there, grayish-black jagged clouds drift by, of the kind you only find in Iceland. Sarah is the descendant of Vikings and in her element.

"We are the most feminist country in the world," she says and swings her arms wide as if wanting to embrace the women standing in front of her. They have come from places such as Uganda, Argentina, Pakistan, India, Germany and China.

"Gender Equality Walk" is the name of the tour, which was organized specifically for this cold day in Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. What the participants get to hear right outside of Iceland's parliament leaves them stunned. In 1975, Iceland's women came down here banging pots and pans to send a clear message to their elected officials. Ninety percent of Iceland's women went on strike at the time to demand equal pay for equal work.

Read more: Gender equality: 'Battle for fundamental human rights'

Iceland's capital seems an ideal setting for the Women Leaders Global Forum because gender equality takes top priority in the small Nordic country. Iceland's president, Gudni Johannesson, has invited the participants, and they are later joined by Iceland's first female president.

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, first president of Iceland

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, first president of Iceland

In 1975, Vigdis Finnbogadottir led the march of Iceland's women and later became the first democratically elected female president in the world. Back in 1981, that was a sensation.

Bob, the voice assistant

But it's 2018, and Julie Linn Teigland is concerned about very different things. She is managing partner at EY for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, putting her in charge of more than 14,000 employees. EY is a world-renowned accounting and consulting firm, among many other things.

Julie Teigland, EY managing partner

Julie Teigland, EY managing partner

Teigland has come to Iceland to talk about digitalization. "Women should not just talk about diversity. We have to discuss topics like artificial intelligence, because it is changing our lives," she says with determination.

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The American is surprised that many people seem to think that artificial intelligence has nothing to do with their lives. "AI is already everywhere, whether it helps you navigate or your cell phone learns what you want to write," she says.

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But many products are gender-driven.

"Why is a voice assistant never called Bob?" Teigland wonders, visibly irritated and wishes that more women were involved in the design and development of artificial intelligence. She wants to use this forum to discuss with other women how this could be achieved.

Built-in bias

Ann Cairns agrees wholeheartedly. The woman with a degree in mathematics is executive vice chairman of Mastercard, a company with revenues of more than $12 billion (€10.6 billion) in 2017. Cairns is one of the top managers and has worked for the company for more than 30 years. She sees growing digitalization as a great opportunity for women, but also a danger.

"Artificial intelligence nowadays often means that men are doing the programming, they are creating the algorithm. They create the values for AI."

Read more: Female representation lagging on German public boards

Cairns wants more women to actively participate in the development of artificial intelligence. "We have to constantly test for built-in biases," she stresses.

Cairns is convinced that Iceland in winter is the perfect setting to discuss these hot topics. This event could send a signal for how the digital future will be shaped, for women as well as for men. "One has to make the most of the possibilities the digital revolution offers," she laughs, and heads out into the freezing wind, off to the next meeting.

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