I’ve found myself rereading Rachel M. Cohen’s essay on why millennials are dreading motherhood since it ran earlier this week. While she paints a sobering portrait of a world that’s both keenly aware of and largely indifferent to the challenges of modern motherhood, she also makes clear that her piece is “a case for optimism.” I couldn’t agree more, but for slightly different reasons. The moment we are in, with women representing over half the workforce, the majority of graduate and undergraduate degree programs, and an increasingly large proportion of public boards, presents an incredible opportunity to drive investment, research, and problem solving into improving women’s lives for the better. Of all the areas that stand to have an impact, AI holds this promise more than any – and as such, it is the one that needs women’s attention and representation most urgently.
The history of science and technology is a story of people investing in, researching, and solving problems for people like them. Throughout most of the 20th century, the National Institutes of Health, under the leadership of men, overfunded matters critical to men’s health and underfunded those critical to women’s. In fact, the NIH only mandated that drug trials should be run on both men and women starting in the 1990s. Despite recent mandates for inclusive research, the legacy of a male-centric approach lingers, with drugs approved before 1993 still stocked on shelves, their effects on women inadequately understood. Even products that are marketed to women are often designed by men, for the benefit of men. Ever wonder why handyman, landscaping, and plumbing services are more professionalized and less stigmatized than cooking, cleaning, and childcare? Gender stereotypes at play.
At the same time, after centuries of serving as the unsung architects of family life and underpaid domestic labor, women now constitute more than half of the U.S. workforce, outnumbering men in higher education, and finally – despite resistance – carving space in boardrooms. This dramatic demographic change signifies more than just a statistical shift; it is also an opportunity for new priorities, more nuanced implementation, and a reimagined future that reflects the needs and experiences of a far more diverse audience than American capitalism has historically prioritized.
How does this relate to Cohen’s piece? As I see it, dreading motherhood is about more than just diaper changes and sleepless nights. It’s about knowing that we - and our daughters - live in a world that’s still learning to value and serve women as mothers, colleagues, and people whose experiences are the norm rather than niche. But now, more than any time in history, we have a workforce who can do something about that - developing technology, services, and healthcare solutions for a population of people who have been fighting with (at least) one hand tied behind their back for centuries.
We are seeing some exciting green shoots. Founders like Sara Blakely, Reese Witherspoon, Monique Rodriguez, Trina Spear, Whitney Wolfe Herd, Sarah Paiji Yoo, Katrina Lake, and Jenn Hyman have created billions of dollars in value by creating products that women want and need. Greta Gerwig delivered the highest grossing movie of the year (and Warner Bros.’ highest grossing of all time) by speaking to women with candor and humor. And Dana Farber President and CEO Laurie Glimcher pioneered research that led to breakthrough discoveries in osteoporosis, a condition that disproportionately affects women - then implemented policies to make it easier for other researchers with primary caregiving responsibilities to remain at the bench, increasing the likelihood that these kinds of breakthroughs can continue.
These advancements, however, are just the beginning. As we turn our gaze towards AI, which promises to be the most transformative technological developments of our time, the notable lack of women in key leadership roles presents a troubling disparity. The newly reconstituted OpenAI board filled its ranks with 100% white men, and a recent New York Times "who's who" AI roster reads like a “who’s he?”, conspicuously burying female, non-white luminaries like Fei-Fei Li, and underscoring the urgent need to bring more diverse voices to the table, both as builders and beneficiaries of this technology.
AI holds significant promise to reshape how we all live our lives - for people of all identities. It is a technology with the potential to have a profound impact on human life, in both wildly positive and wildly dangerous ways. (Kara Swisher has joked that artificial general intelligence is equivalent to “boys trying to have a baby.” Let that sink in for a minute.) This area, more than perhaps any other in history, demands diverse leadership, in order to ensure its benefits and risks are shaped by the interests of our entire population - not just the privileged few.
Moreover, this innovation, with its capabilities for efficiency and customization, could play a crucial role in easing the societal and economic burdens that disproportionately affect women. Think of the power of AI brought to aid women and mothers, managing their multifaceted roles, streamlining tasks to manage our ever-present juggling acts. It’s exactly why I started Duckbill: because I believe AI can empower women by providing them with more time, resources, and opportunities to thrive both professionally and personally
Of course, in order to bring this reality to bear, we must address the reality that AI development is currently dominated by large organizations with all too homogeneous leadership. This lack of diversity in decision-making can lead to systems that mirror the biases of a limited group, potentially perpetuating or even deepening societal disparities. Addressing this gap is crucial, not just for the ethical development of AI but also for ensuring that this transformative technology truly caters to and reflects a broad spectrum of human experiences and values.
Now’s the time to pull up more chairs for more diverse perspectives at the decision-making table. It’s about more than just investing in and building for the other half of the human population; it’s about amplifying voices that have been uniquely muffled. Conceding yet another game-changing technological revolution to largely white men is simply not an option – especially when it has the potential to impact all of our lives so profoundly.
While the narrative of motherhood and women's roles in society is complex and fraught, there's an undeniable shift towards a more inclusive and equitable future. A future where the voices and experiences of women are not just heard but are instrumental in shaping the policies, innovations, and cultural attitudes of our time - and the future of life as we know it.