Where are the Women AI Specialists?

The crazy genius, the child prodigy, the inventor of fantastical but super effective AI (Artificial Intelligence) systems depicted in the movie you watch will most likely be a man. The computer geek the hero (rarely heroine) goes to for help to solve some world saving challenge – will be a man 92% of the time.

Dr Susan Calvin in the film I Robot

You might think – well so what? In Western societies , over 50% of the population is female. In professions like medicine, where women were once barred from taking qualifications, women are now the majority in graduations. Universities: Student Numbers High But Warnings Over Staff Inequalities

  • In veterinary sciences, psychology and subjects allied to medicine close to 4 in every 5 students are female and the proportion of students within each of these subject areas who are female has increased in 2021/22. 
  •  Engineering and technology and computing had the highest proportion of male enrolments at 79% and 77% respectively. The proportion of male students enrolling in these subjects decreased in 2021/22.

Overall, 57% of students are female (UK), 59% Scotland , 43% male (UK) 40% Scotland.

A team from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (LCFI) looked at 1,400 films and chose the 142 most influential cinematic works featuring artificial intelligence between 1920 and 2020. In that selection in over 100 years of cinematic history, they identified 116 characters they classed as “AI professionals”.

92% of all AI scientists and engineers on screen were men, with representations of women consisting of a total of eight scientists and one CEO. This is higher than the percentage of men in the current AI workforce (78%).

And of the 8 females – 4 of them were still depicted in the movie as being inferior or subservient to a male.

Dr Kanta Dihal from LCFI at Cambridge, explained:

“Mainstream films are an enormously influential source and amplifier of the cultural stereotypes that help dictate who is suited to a career in AI.

“Our cinematic stock-take shows that women are grossly underrepresented as AI scientists on screen. We need to be careful that these cultural stereotypes do not become a self-fulfilling prophecy as we enter the age of artificial intelligence.”

The eight female AI scientists and engineers (and one CEO) from a century of cinema:

  • Quintessa, the female alien in Transformers: the Last Knight (2017)
  • Shuri in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
  • Evelyn Caster in Transcendence (2014)
  • Ava in The Machine (2013)
  • Dr Brenda Bradford in Inspector Gadget (1999)
  • Dr Susan Calvin in I, Robot (2004)
  • Dr Dahlin in Ghost in the Shell (2017)
  • Frau Farbissina in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
  • Smiler, a female emoji in The Emoji Movie (2017)

There is the popular character of Abby Sciuto (played by Pauley Perrette) in the highly successful TV series NCIS and her replacement character Kasie Hines (played by Diona Reasonover). Kasie ticked the box of an even more under represented group – black women scientist. Abby whizzed around her lab using forensic science, computers and incredible speed on the keyboard to pinpoint evidence that no one else could find.

photo of female engineer looking through wires
Photo by ThisIsEngineering on

The Cambridge researchers also pointed out the lack of women in the AI industry as a whole. Worldwide only 22% of AI professionals are women.

Dr Eleanor Drage, LCFI said:

“This is not just about inequality in one industry. The marginalisation of women could contribute to AI products that actively discriminate against women – as we have seen with past technologies. Given that science fiction shapes reality, this imbalance has the potential to be dangerous as well as unfair.”

Click on this link to access the study, Who makes AI? Gender and portrayals of AI scientists in popular film, 1920–2020, published in Public Understanding of Sceince.

Fiona Grahame