What Every CEO Needs to Know About AI, Gender Equity, and the Future of Work
We are standing at the crossroads of gender equity and advanced technologies, and the future of work rests in their interplay. If you want to know how gender equity and AI will change the workplace for generations to come, keep reading.
Today’s business climate is witnessing the explosive growth in companies, including their CEOs, signing gender equity pledges. To give one example, the PricewaterhouseCoopers’s CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge launched in June 2017 with 175 CEOs signing on. Inaugural signatories included CEOs from companies such as Cisco, HP, Morgan Stanley, and Walmart. Within two years the list grew to over 500 CEOs from the world’s leading companies.
Unfortunately, we don’t have much progress to show for gender equity efforts such as these. Globally, in the last two years, we’ve added 47 years to the time to close the global gender gap. Moreover, while 78 percent of CEO lists gender equity as one of their top priorities, only 22 percent of employees regularly see data on it shared and measured.
Alongside the gender equity conversations, we are also hearing the buzz of advanced technologies and their influence on the future of work. In a survey that included over 1,300 CEOs from the world’s leading businesses, over 70 percent expressed the need for a “radical digitally-led transformation of their business model.”
We are rushing toward an inflection point that will revolutionize business as we know it. CEOs must investigate the role that gender equity and advanced technologies will play in shaping their companies’ futures — our future — to safeguard success.
Gender Equity Has the CEO’s Attention
The news cycle pulses with waves of employee activism. Across the globe, we are hearing a chorus of employees pressing companies to make bona fide progress towards gender equity. If the #MeToo movement started the chorus, then (as I correctly predicted earlier this year) the Google Walkout is the movement’s next-generation verse. CEOs cannot afford to ignore it.
As more employees continue to speak up and push for change, two strategic drivers will motivate CEOs towards equitable action.
1. Better Financial Performance
Businesses will reap the economic benefits when they pursue a path of gender equity. My company’s original research across 4,161 companies in 29 countries found that for every 10 percent increase in gender equity, there is a 1 to 2 percent increase in revenue.
Firms that fail to fix their gender equity gaps are already losing out on profitable business opportunities, and complacency puts their financial performance at risk.
2. More Competitive in Tight Labor Market
Tangible progress towards gender equity makes companies more competitive in a tight labor market, too.
In a recent Glassdoor survey, 72 percent of women polled said they would not apply to work at a company where a gender pay gap exists. Another study reveals that 80% of women would leave their companies if they felt a different company offered greater gender equality. Let’s remember that women are 57 percent of all college graduates and 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. Their entrance into the U.S. labor force has added $2T to our economy since 1970, and there’s another $2T on the table.
Companies that leave women behind cannot compete for top talent. When women earn, on average, 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, makeup 22 percent of the c-suite and are 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, we have room to improve.
The smart way forward is gender equity, and advanced technologies will play a critical role in lighting the path. In fact, it’s the symbiotic relationship between these two that will lead us into the future of work. Here’s how.
Advanced Technologies Are Changing The Game
Advanced technologies won’t change the playing field. They will change the game altogether.
Take artificial intelligence. A recent report by NACD found that 47 percent of corporate directors believe AI is today’s “biggest technology disruptor.” Although businesses are starting to adopt AI, it’s nowhere near ubiquitous. In a 2018 study by McKinsey, 58 percent of respondents reported spending less than one-tenth of their digital budgets on AI. About half, 47 percent, have integrated at least one AI capability in their standard operating procedures, and only 21 percent use AI across multiple business functions. AI investments across organizations remain overwhelmingly small. Although, with 71 percent of respondents expecting their company’s AI investments to increase significantly in the coming years, and with 70 percent of organizations planning on AI to boost employee productivity, we should expect to see new applications and capabilities for the technology. So far we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.
As businesses begin to embed AI into their processes, we must stay shrew and nimble — learning from the mistakes of technologies past. One lesson comes to us from Amazon. Last year, Amazon launched a tool to analyze resumes from job applicants. The internal algorithm used to power the tool favored male job candidates and downgraded female candidates.
In another example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University discovered that three commercial facial-analysis programs committed more errors when guessing the gender of dark-skinned women. It was correct, however, when guessing the gender of light-skinned men.
The following transcript from the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on facial recognition technology tells it all:
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Are [the algorithms] most effective on women?
Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League: No.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Are they most effective on people of color?
Buolamwini: Absolutely not.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: Are they most effective on people of different gender expressions?
Buolamwini: No, in fact they exclude them.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: So what demographic is it mostly effective on?
Buolamwini: White men.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez: And who are the primary engineers and designers of these algorithms?
Buolamwini: Definitely white men.
AI fails when we program our biases into it — precisely why these two AI blunders happened. Mostly light-skinned men using historically biased data sets to train the algorithms perpetuates inequity. Gender equity could have solved for these mistakes by preventing bias from the start and correcting bias when it appeared. We have the choice to take the right steps forward to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again.
The question is, will we? Will we make the decisions necessary to develop more ethical technology? To build better businesses? To improve our world?
We are already using AI to make life-changing decisions, determine who gets a loan and how much, evaluate job applicants, and decide prison sentences. Urgency is paramount.
In a world where only 22 percent of AI professionals globally are female, where 80 percent of university professors who specialize in AI are men, when Google — a leading AI company — employees a 10 percent female AI research staff, I call on CEOs everywhere to thoughtfully consider how they plan to increase gender equity within their organizations. Signing a pledge, again, is only the tip of the iceberg. Now, CEOs must live their pledge.
The Future of Work: Gender Equity, Meet AI
Every human capital decision, across an entire organization, will either move them closer to or farther from gender equity. It’s both a massive challenge and a massive opportunity. Since we already know that solely focusing on pay will not close the gender pay gap, we need a new, integrated solution that goes beyond pay and checkbox diversity.
To close the gender equity gap (and thus close the gender pay gap) in our lifetime, we must embrace the advanced technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Pipeline platform provides one such solution, which operationalizes the business case for gender equity at a microeconomic level.
Companies can also provide more transparency, such as publishing employee compensation figures by race and gender. They could release harassment and discrimination reports to signal their determination to improve workplace conditions. Driving action requires data, so businesses should start by looking closely at their stats.
- Who is line for the CEO role?
- How do women fall out of the pipeline?
- When women break the glass ceiling, are they pushed off the glass cliff?
- Do women face penalties when they become mothers?
The digital economy will help to collect, organize and analyze this human capital data.
Finally, companies must include men in the conversation. Gender equity does not affect women exclusively. Men, who currently hold the majority of leadership positions, are the other half of the dialogue. Many of them desire a different role in the world, too: 48 percent of working fathers said they would like to stay home with their children. Men want to be included in the conversations, so let’s invite them in.
Conclusion: Who Wins in the Age of AI?
The question invokes speculation from sci-fi fans and the c-suite alike: who wins in the age of AI? My response to that question today is the same response I gave at The Atlantic’s Future of Work conference last year: “We don’t know, and the choice is ours to make.” Using tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence — we can achieve gender equity in our lifetime. It’s no longer a question of if we can achieve gender equity, it’s will we choose to do so? The choice is ours to make.