The Human Sciences Research Council (HRSC) in collaboration with Women in Science Africa (WINS) will next week Monday host a public lecture to commemorate the 2021 Women’s Month. The objective of the lecture is to pay tribute to the more than 20 000 multi-racial women who dare the apartheid government by marching to its citadel of power – the Union Building – in 1956 to protest the pass laws for black women.
Billed: ‘Women’s Equality in the era of artificial intelligence’, the discourse is aimed to inspire debate around AI and technology advancement issues in relation to gender and race with a view to conscientising humanity about the place of AI and technology in society. In addition, it also encourages mindfulness about the historical development of women’s place in society, particularly black women.
Nthabiseng Mokake, WINS managing director said: “discrimination against women and exclusion of women is still part of our lives.” Other key partners of the public lecture include the Department of Science and Innovation, Durban University of Technology (DUT). The Conversation Africa and the University of Pretoria.
Advancement of AI and technology
According to the event organisers, it is vital to be mindful of the fact that AI and technology advancements do not exist in a vacuum – they are introduced into spaces of contestation wherein axiological considerations of women necessitate recognition of their subjectivity, which is central to their deontological core.
In short, the women’s struggle has evolved from physical interaction that is governed by political, legal and economic principles to struggles of access and representation in the technological, digital and 4th Industrial advancement spaces. It is diffusing into an artificially mediated environment that is created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution(4IR).
The technological advancements that come with the 4IR inspire us to rethink what it means to be a woman. Womanhood in relation to AI necessitates debates about how women contend with their consciousness toward AI. Within an environment that already excludes women on many fronts, how should black women relate to and engage with AI in the context of sustained oppressive systems?
The 1956 courageous march spearheaded by women represented a historical milestone in the struggle for women’s emancipation in South Africa. The pass laws were initially applied to men but were later extended to women towards the end of the 1950 to severely restrict their ability of black citizens to move freely in their own country.
Undermining personhood of women
The laws not only segregated the South African population but also required them to carry passbooks when they moved outside designated areas. The month of August has also been declared Women’s Month in honour of these and other women’s brave efforts to fight apartheid and discrimination. In essence, the 1956 women’s march signified the beckoning of women as deserving of recognition, dignity and respect, and not subordination and exclusion. The apartheid regime undermined the personhood of women in ways that diminished their sense of selfhood.
It enabled unspeakable moral and legal violations, leaving women with very limited human rights. Scholarship continues to perpetuate the idea of women as non-persons, which has resulted in the detrimental subtraction of women’s value in society. Even in the post-apartheid years, the political context was premised on and perpetuated a gendered environment with regards to the formulation of policies and interpretations of women’s defiance campaigns.
As such, women have remained objects of practice or test, rather than practitioners in the shaping of inclusive developmental environment, cognisant of the past and favouring corrective actions and redress – strategically or directly. The imperative of achieving women’s emancipation and promoting women to participate in non-discriminatory spaces lies in persistently pursuing equality.
Reinforcing female stereotypes
Discrimination against and exclusion of women is not merely a tragedy of the past. It is still part of our daily lives, most evident in the continued gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa, and the exclusion of women from economic opportunities. In a modern world, increasingly dominated by technological advancement, some forms of discrimination and exclusion may seem more subtle but need to be explored.
Even AI systems, such as Alexa, Cortana and Siri, have been criticised for being created with female voices responding in provocative tones, reinforcing female stereotypes. Although AI is not conceptually designed to exclude black women, when entering gender and race debates that bring together the sciences and the humanities, it becomes necessary to consider how what something is, does not always coincide with how it ought to be used in institutions and society as a whole.
The public lecture is scheduled to proceed as follows:
Date: 23 August 2021