A recent investigation by Checkatrade, the leading UK online directory of tradespeople, has revealed an unsettling gender and ethnic bias in Generative AI tools, shedding light on the portrayal of traditional trades in digital content.
The research, carried out in the wake of Checkatrade’s Trade Skills Index report, paints a stark picture of how these AI-driven technologies almost exclusively depict tradespeople as white men.
Also, the findings, which expose a concerning lack of diversity in AI-generated depictions of trade professionals, come at a pivotal moment as the industry prepares for the launch of the Get In campaign, aimed at enhancing gender and ethnic diversity within traditional trades.
Generative AI’s Gender and Ethnic Bias
The research focused on several language processing apps, including Midjourney and ChatGPT, which were repeatedly prompted to create images and stories about tradespeople. Astonishingly, 98 percent of the results depicted a white man as the default representation of a builder, electrician, or plumber.
For example, the text-to-image AI system Midjourney, known for generating diverse images from the same prompt, repeatedly failed to do so in this case. When asked to depict “a builder” or “an electrician,” the tool consistently produced images of white males. Even after 40 repetitions of the request, the outcome remained consistent, reinforcing the striking bias.
ChatGPT, a widely used text-to-text prompt app with over 100 million users, yielded similarly biased results. When asked to “tell me a short story” about trade jobs, the AI predominantly narrated stories about men, with 9 out of 10 of the stories focusing on male tradespeople.
Gender bias: The Context of Checkatrade’s Trade Skills Index Report
This in-depth examination of AI bias comes in the wake of Checkatrade’s Trade Skills Index 2023, which provided valuable insights into the ongoing diversity issue within the traditional trades. The report uncovered that nine out of ten trade apprenticeships are currently occupied by young men, and males continue to make up the majority of the industry’s workforce.
Also, the report highlighted the lack of diversity in the construction sector, with over 90 percent of construction apprentices identified as white in the latest data, a figure that has grown from 84 percent in the previous year. This glaring disparity underscores the urgent need for change.
Addressing the Skills Gap and Encouraging Diversity
Checkatrade’s research and the Trade Skills Index report emphasise the pressing need for the industry to tackle the skills gap and increase diversity among its workforce. The skills gap is driven by factors such as the departure of EU nationals post-Brexit, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an ageing workforce.
To address this challenge, Checkatrade has launched the Get In program, designed to encourage young people, including girls and individuals from ethnic minorities, to consider careers in traditional trades. The initiative is led by Melanie Waters, Managing Director of Get In and Trade-Up, and supported by Richard Harpin, Founder of HomeServe and Chair of Checkatrade.
How can we bridge the gender and ethnic gap?
Melanie Waters emphasised the importance of bridging the gender and ethnic gap in the industry, stating, “The fact that these AI tools favour depicting tradespeople as white men encapsulates the problem our industry faces as effectively as any statistic could. As AI is based upon gathering current and past content, it is never going to change unless the whole industry changes dramatically.”
Waters added, “The industry must now put boosting diversity among its workforce right at the top of its priority list, and that means asking difficult questions and looking outside the traditional recruitment methods. Through our Get In program, we’re aiming to bridge that gap by providing opportunities to young people, regardless of their age or race. These jobs are in huge demand in a stable industry offering superb security. They’re also rewarding, well-paid, and come with great benefits.”
The research by Checkatrade serves as a significant wake-up call, highlighting the importance of addressing bias in AI technologies and pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity within traditional trades. The industry’s success and ability to meet its growing demands depend on embracing change and welcoming a more diverse workforce. The launch of the Get In campaign marks a pivotal step toward this vital transformation.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.