#AI #Technology: Excuse me, sir, but where are all the women?

[Updated to Jan 10, 2024] This is the first of a two-part conversation with former Apple audio software/hardware engineer and Stanford PhD AI grad, Dr. Timnit Gebru, on why there are not more women in STEM-related fields. And judging by her first day in a US high school, it’s no wonder.

AJ Chisling
7 min readJan 10, 2024

“Women are very much interested in STEM. They start out interested and drop off as time goes by. To stay in this field, you almost have to be like a warrior.” — Dr. Timnit Gebru.

January 10, 2024

This was the second most popular article I have published over the past 5 years. Since we spoke, Dr. Gebru has been in the news numerous times, mostly, as she states in her LinkedIn bio, “for being fired by Google […] for raising issues of discrimination in the workplace.” She is now Founder & Executive Director at The Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR).

Dr. Timnit Gebru completed her PhD at Stanford in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, studying computer vision. Timnit also worked at Apple, designing circuits and signal processing algorithms for various products, including the first iPad, and she will spend a year working at Microsoft research in the Fairness Transparency and Ethics group in NYC.

Ava Chisling: You were born in Ethiopia but came to the US as a teenager. Tell me a few things about your life that have opened your eyes.

Dr. Timnit Gebru: Many things: Death, war, travel, art. I could elaborate on each of those but it would take too long. Growing up in a country with many ethnic groups, religions and languages have really shaped how I view the world. I come from a family that has had many hurdles. My father died when I was five years old. I was raised by my mother. She came to the US at the age of 55 and completely changed her profession. My mom solves problems in life without complaining. That’s something I try to take inspiration from.

Timnit and her mother

AC: What was the transition like moving from one country to the other, especially when it comes to education?

TG: When I arrived at my high school in the US, the teachers couldn’t believe that I could do that well in math, physics and associated subjects. I was very confused as to what was going on. My mom called it from the very beginning because she had so much experience with this. She told me they just didn’t think I could do it because I was from Africa. They don’t think Africans can do math.

On my first day of high school in the US, I asked to move up to honors level chemistry because I had already covered the curriculum of the standard chemistry class. The teacher said, “I have met so many people like you who come from other countries and think that they can take the hardest classes here. If you took the exam these students take, you would fail.”

AC: So on your first day, an authority figure already set you up for failure. That can’t be easy, especially for a teenager.

AC: Do you think your experience somehow explains why there aren’t more women in STEM?

TG: There are many reasons why there are few women, but the biggest one is that women constantly get the subliminal message that they are not good enough, and that they just don’t belong there. Once you are where we are in terms of numbers, you have to aggressively try to change things. You can’t be passive, and most people right now, even the well meaning ones, are passive. And most of the “diversity” initiatives only focus on women. Well, there are many types of women. You need to consider, race, class, etc.

There is a stereotype of what type of personality, or person, is supposed to be in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. When you watch shows like The Big Bang Theory, or Silicon Valley, you see what I mean. This is actually something I never experienced in Ethiopia. I never got this message. It was very weird for me to see it in the US and I noticed the stark contrast.

I always give people this example about fitting in: Imagine that I’m running a company and you come in for an interview. My company is decorated in pink, my conversations are 100% stereotypical “female,” and I tell you that our regular activities consist of doing nails, etc. However, I am very nice to you and I tell you that we don’t discriminate by gender here. If you are a man, you walk into the space and immediately know that it’s not meant for you — the activities are not inclusive of you.

AC: I think most women have felt that way at one point in their lives, often many points.

TG: As my friend Andrea Frome says, it is a leaking bucket problem. Women are very much interested in STEM. They start out interested and drop off as time goes by. To stay in this field, you almost have to be like a warrior — and I’m not joking. It feels like that to me many times. Women’s ideas are often not taken seriously; women are many times excluded from meetings and such, and we’re just not treated as expert as our male counterparts are. There are many microaggressions that often have worse consequences than the caricatures of sexism that people talk about. And to be honest, there is a lot of talk about diversity with little action. That also creates a backlash where others think you have it made if you are a woman or a minority in this field.

AC: Where do the problems of lack of diversity and lack of access begin? I mean, girls aren’t born thinking they can only be princesses.

For me, it was very interesting seeing the difference between the countries. I didn’t get the message that I wasn’t supposed to be in STEM when I was in Ethiopia. In Iran, 70% of STEM college students are women. Computer operators were mostly women in the beginning because it was perceived to be a female job. Somehow, the western world has this culture where people with a particular type of personality are those who would be good at STEM. I noticed that people are always put in boxes. You’re either the nerdy kid or the popular kid. You’re either the artistic kid or the athlete. There doesn’t seem to be much space for overlapping boxes.

AC: You spent years at Apple. Was there diversity in the workplace? What did you learn from your time there?

TG: I was the only woman in the group for a while. Then another woman joined. It was a group of really weird people, which is why I wanted to work there. Most people had other hobbies. Kim Silverman was head of the Apple’s magician society and he came to work looking like the picture you see here. I really liked that about Apple. But at the same time, there was a lot of yelling and cursing and treating people disrespectfully. That happened at Apple, too. I think that culture came straight from the top: Steve Jobs. I think most of them hadn’t worked with women before. I have to say that to me, the machine learning community was the hardest to deal with in terms of diversity and general attitude issues.

“You are continuously given the message that you don’t belong here. You deal with racism, sexism, and isolation, in addition to the daily struggles of being a person of color in the western world.”

AC: I know these questions are complicated, but how can you explain the continued lack of diversity in the tech-related fields?

It is a similar kind of thing. You are continuously given the message that you don’t belong here. You deal with racism, sexism, and isolation, in addition to the daily struggles of being a person of color in the western world. Most black people are overloaded. They are doing their STEM work, trying to increase the number of people of color in the field, tutoring high school kids, participating in protests, etc. You feel like if you don’t do these things, no one else will. But at the same time, you can’t often talk about the challenges that people of color face with many of your colleagues.

People often feel like they don’t have a community. I know so many people of color who either dropped out of the PhD program or decided to pursue other fields (not STEM). And it was never because the work was too hard. It was because of all these other associated things.

Each STEM field has its own culture. You don’t see people like you being vocal STEM leaders. Someone told me that a freshman black woman at Stanford came to my defense. I didn’t even know her. She was a freshman and is already thinking about graduate school in AI. What happens is that again, people come in interested, and by the time they reach the end of college, they are turned off from the field.

[Originally published for ROSS Intelligence, 2017]