Symposium on barriers to Black women in tech kicks off in Vancouver

Conference will examine the systemic and ongoing obstacles faced by Black women and youth in the tech sector

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Fewer than one in 500 Blacks in B.C. work in technology, a recent study found, sparking a symposium being held Wednesday in Vancouver to address how Black women in particular face barriers in that sector.

“One thing I’ve realized is that so many people in the tech sector have a lot of mentors, and sometimes because you don’t have mentors who look like you, the context is always different,” Ife Adebara, a panelist at the symposium, said on Tuesday. “We have different experiences, different backgrounds, different stories, and when nobody else has a similar perspective it can be quite challenging in the tech sector.

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“So we need more people who are well-connected, who understand the theory, who know the challenges that Black people see.”

The study that found so few Blacks in technology in B.C. — 0.18 per cent — was conducted by Black Women’s Business Network founder Pasime Sule and BCIT, with funding from the federal Women and Gender Equality department.

As a result, the industry will not be able to meet the workforce requirements to maintain Canada’s economic growth, the study concluded, adding: “This represents a loss to an industry generating $15 billion a year in GDP in B.C.”

The symposium is a first of its kind, more than 100 Black women known for their contributions to tech are in one place to raise awareness and promote empowerment, inclusivity and engagement in the sector.

“This event is intended to build awareness of the significant and under-acknowledged contributions of Black women in the technology field, as well as the systemic and ongoing barriers faced by Black women and youth in the technology sector,” said Dauna Jones-Simmonds, co-founder of 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women (100 ABC Women) and event organizer.

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“Although the research focused on the B.C. context, we know from our conversations with Black women in our networks that similar issues exist across the country: Black women in technology face numerous barriers based on their race and gender.”

The keynote speakers are Claudette McGowan, CEO at protexxa and co-founder at The FireHood, who will address cybersecurity; and Sule.

Adebara’s panel discussion focuses on how Black women can shape the future of technology using data science and analytics.

She is a PhD researcher with more than seven years of experience in natural language processing, linguistics and language policy, and a member of the Deep Learning and Natural Language Processing Group at the University of B.C., which dovetails nicely with her associate membership in the African Languages Technology Initiative in Nigeria.

Adebara is busy developing deep-learning technologies and making computers “usable” for African Languages.

“Deep learning is a bunch of algorithms that are being used to develop models in artificial intelligence, leading algorithms and approaches for building artificial intelligence right now,” she said.

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“When it comes to under-represented languages, the major barrier is lack of adequate detail because deep learning technologies are very detailed, usually requiring several millions or billions of documents … using data from the whole web.

“So, when 80 per cent of the content on the web is written in English and a few other languages, there isn’t much data available for under-represented languages.”

There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, she said, and no language for them on the internet in which they feel most comfortable. So far, she’s worked on developing friendly computer language for 517 African languages.

“Diversity gives perspectives and solutions to different issues to the work I’ve been doing,” Adebara said. “I’ve been able to analyze how the understanding of certain languages brings a bigger picture … so diversity is actually really important for ensuring we solve our problems in addressing the needs of multiple people.”

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