Leadership   //   March 7, 2024

Why AI advancement demands more women in boardrooms and C-suite roles

Sophia Velastegui is part of a small but growing group of women who are paving their own paths in artificial intelligence and technology.

She serves on the National Science Foundation’s AI advisory committee and is the board director and chair of the technology and cybersecurity committee for global cloud software provider BlackLine. She’s also in the C-suite at global technology company Aptiv. But she’s still a minority. And having a more even gender split in boardrooms will be critical as AI advancement takes hold if AI bias is to be avoided, experts say.

Today, women account for an average of just 29% of the board seats of investment-grade companies (those that typically boast strong financials) and an average of 24% of the board seats of speculative-grade companies (deemed high-risk companies,) according to new research from financial services company Moody. 

While these numbers are up from last year, they’re still a way off the halfway mark. However, Moody’s data shows that higher-rated companies tend to have a higher proportion of women on their boards. 

But there are still a woefully small number of female CEOs and chairs. According to a report from finance firm MSCI, only 6.5% of CEO roles are held by women. It projects an equal 50-50 gender representation on boards by 2040 – at the earliest. 

So where does that leave women like Velastegui who rise to become the lone female in C-suites? It’s an issue in any industry, but one that deepens when it comes to AI and technology. According to a 2021 Stanford study, just 16% of tenure-track faculty focused on AI are women. In a separate study released the same year by the World Economic Forum, the co-authors find that women only hold 26% of analytics-related and AI positions.

In a New York Times piece from December, “Who’s Who Behind the Dawn of the Modern Artificial Intelligence Movement” 12 men were highlighted but not one woman was mentioned. It’s one of the reasons why organizations like Women in AI exist – to help create safe spaces for women to meet others in the industry and for employers to better understand how to attract and retain women in AI. 

“Women may not be historically in the C-suite, but I think with all of these new opportunities, women can change the story around that,” said Velastegui.

The domino effect women in leadership roles is creating

Ten years ago, Velastegui was the only female in meetings. “Things have improved, but I’m still the minority,” she said. At BlackLine, 50% of the board directors are women. “That was a very conscious effort that the board and female CEO requested,” she said.

Having women in leadership helps create a domino effect. In addition to BlackLine, Saidot is a female-led AI governance company based in Finland that prides itself on its commitment to amplifying expert female voices in AI. Finland ranked third in the world for closing its gender gap, right behind Norway and New Zealand. Recently Bruna de Castro e Silva was appointed as AI governance specialist. 

“Women may not be historically in the C-suite, but I think with all of these new opportunities, women can change the story around that."
Sophia Velastegui, chief product officer at Aptiv.

“It’s important to have this strong, improved presence of women in more important positions,” said de Castro e Silva. “It creates more role models for future generations. For our little girls, and for future generations, it’s important to focus on this right now.”

In other companies that means highlighting the success that women have contributed to the tech industry, especially beyond Women’s History Month in March. That’s what U.K. robotics startup Dexory set out to do. Its chief of staff, head of culture, people and talent, and electronic technician are all women who actively try and inspire other women to join the industry. 

Oana Jinga, CCO and co-founder of Dexory, has made it a mission to continue to highlight women in AI. “Having seen the barriers that still exist, it is vitally important that women get involved in AI-related technologies,” said Jinga. 

When a company isn’t proactive about equality between men and women, it can quickly seep into many other parts of a business. “The initial problem of inequality between men and women replicates in different ways in this industry,” said de Castro e Silva. “It starts from education and the access to this specific type of expertise and training all the way to how organizations are built, how women receive funding to innovate, how they receive support, how they are included in positions of power in their current jobs.”

Another spot, that directly impacts consumers, is bias.

Avoiding AI biases

With anything that is being built, we know that it’s important for there to be more than just one kind of person reviewing it. Diverse backgrounds and perspectives help shed light on something that another person might have missed.

“The industry is at a stage of achieving several milestones and it is important to have varied perspectives and experiences that contribute to growth, spur creativity and enhance problem-solving,” said Jinga. “As the sector and the products within it are still evolving, diversity is more important than ever to ensure the technology can operate without biases.”

That’s a leading issue. “If we’re not part of the creation, then some of our concerns will not be addressed,” said Velastegui. 

Velastegui shared an example: the Nest thermostat didn’t take into account originally that comfortable temperatures for men and women are five degrees different. If the default is set for men, then women will frequently be uncomfortable. Another example is that an in-home camera she was working on reported there was a dog in the room. When they looked at the picture, it was a baby crawling and not a dog.

“AI is exploding and has an impact,” said Velastegui. “You can flip the bias to be more equitable because things are changing, but we have to partake.”

Advice for other women paving their own path in AI

Women who sit in boardroom seats or C-suite roles currently have another job that men don’t: letting other women know how they got there and what they can do to pave their own path. “There is a need for women in the tech industry at large to be as visible as possible and share what they are doing so they enable and inspire others to reach similar heights,” said Jinga. 

At the same time, women who do sit in these positions are also still trying to prove they’re meant to be there. “As a woman who entered the technology industry from a non-technical background, I’ve experienced the constant need to prove myself. The AI and robotics sector is going through such a boom at the moment that everyone wants a piece of it and everyone has an opinion on things. The challenge therefore is getting through the noise and getting visibility for good ideas.”

So is advice-sharing something that women want to take on as another task? It’s time that could be used to keep growing their own careers in AI and tech, especially if that’s what men are doing at that time. Jinga believes it’s a must, as does Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, vp of technology at Amazon Web Services.

"I have this whole philosophy that if not me, then who? Every woman in technology has the potential to be a leader in it and I think we should.”
Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, vp of technology at Amazon Web Services.

“I am 100% into this,” said Tomsen Bukovec. “I have this whole philosophy that if not me, then who? Every woman in technology has the potential to be a leader in it and I think we should.”

Aside from having a woman in AI to look up to, take classes to continue learning in the field, bring on more AI-related projects, even if it’s not your entire field, and continue growing your network. Tomsen Bukovec has joined her company’s women-based ERGs to continue those conversations, something she says has been particularly effective. When she’s not doing that, she meets with women in different parts of the company who she’s never met before but have reached out to her when they saw her name and title. Additionally, she is a mentor outside of Amazon for young women of Vietnamese backgrounds. Her biggest piece of advice? Take up space. When you finally do make it into those boardrooms, and if they are still male-dominated, don’t sit back quietly in your chair, but instead fill up your space and make yourself heard. 

“The thing that I would tell any young woman who’s going into any STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] profession, is that the world is out there for you, you just have to take your space,” said Tomsen Bukovec. “When you’re entering the workforce, or a few years into a new job, explore every inch of this new space you’ve created for yourself and wonderful things will happen when you do that. It will propel you in whatever STEM profession you’re in.”

That advice chimes with Kathryn Ullrich, managing partner – technology, private equity and diversity at executive search company DHR Global. Getting more women in tech and AI specifically will require a lift from that candidate, especially when so many people associate the technology industry with men still, she stressed.

“Women have to show that they’re really good at what they’re doing,” said Ullrich. “That’s counter to how women usually are – humble about what they are doing and saying. It comes out in both the hiring and promotion process. What I tell women when they are going into interviews, is they have to remember that bias and have to start with the positive. Show them right off the bat that you’re technical. Start with that first so they can put that fear or bias aside.”

And sometimes that means putting your foot down too. A vp at a major tech company Ullrich recently worked with was interviewing for an important role and asked if there were any women on the hiring panel. If the hiring panel wasn’t 50% women, she said she wouldn’t proceed with that interview process. “You need to make sure that there is a diverse panel,” said Ullrich. That requires having diversity across the organization, up into leadership roles. Another vp-level person that she worked with said that she wouldn’t speak at a tech event unless the organizers had other women speakers and additional invites to get more women to the program.

“They’re unabashed about helping women forward,” said Ullrich. “I think the women that are helping out, it’s their purpose in life, trying to make it better for everyone.”