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AI in the workplace - a female perspective

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett December 4, 2017
If the introduction of AI in the workplace means that demand for soft skills will rise, and soft skills have traditionally been associated with women, just where does that leave men?

It is a widely accepted irony that the more we move to a machine-driven, Artificial Intelligence-based world, the more demand there will be for so-called soft skills and the human touch.

In fact, according to a report by management consultancy Deloitte entitled ‘Talent for survival: Essential skills for humans working in the machine age’, cognitive and social skills such as complex problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are already more than twice as important as manual skills to the economy.

But by 2030, demand for soft skills will have jumped by another 5%, creating 8.9 million new jobs. Mariel Brown, director of futures at design consultancy Seymourpowell, says:

Soft skills will undoubtedly be more important in the age of AI. AI’s strength is in undertaking repetitive, predictable tasks at scale and velocity - so mining big data speedily. But human strengths are about being creative in an original way. The way our brains are wired means that no two humans are the same so AI will never be able to create the associations and nuances that humans bring to a challenge – and that will be a really important differentiator.

Other important differentiators will also be the ability to communicate effectively and to empathise, in other words, using people skills that enable individuals to read complex human emotions quickly when undertaking negotiations, for instance.

Interestingly though, such aptitudes, which have historically been undervalued in the workplace but are now in the ascendancy, have traditionally been associated with women. Manual skills whose value is now in decline, on the other hand, have traditionally been considered the domain of men.

So does this mean that the time for females has now come and AI will herald a new age for women in the workplace? And if so, where does this situation leave the average male? Mohammed Ahmed, head of IT at Yolk Recruitment, believes that, in future:

We’ll see more gender parity, less gender bias and a more equitable workplace where women get to take on more leadership roles. As more technical and operational roles are automated, employers will look to see where there are skills gaps in the business and they’ll lean more towards acquiring the soft skills they need. It won’t necessarily be about replacing men – it’ll be about employing people with the right skills.

Nonetheless, he is not expecting to see a resultant “huge surge’ in women in tech on the back of this situation as he believes it will take more than AI to make that happen - including changes to government policy and the educational system.

Fundamental shifts

But Emma Kendrew, AI lead at management consultancy Accenture Technology, is not so sure. She believes that a raft of new roles and jobs will emerge as the technology takes hold that could well appeal to Generation Z, the first generation of digital natives who are just now starting to enter the workforce. She explains:

The girls that I’m meeting have grown up with technology and smartphones so for them tech is exciting and they’re not switched off by it. They want to work in this area and be part of shaping and forming how it affects our lives and work. At graduate recruitment events, I’m seeing large numbers of female graduates asking about careers in engineering and coding and they want to be at the heart of development and design. And the more this happens, the more we start to rebalance diversity in the tech industry itself and ensure it reflects the people and society that created it.

Although Kendrew believes society is still a long way from redressing current gender imbalances, interestingly she believes AI could help to free women’s time up by taking over repetitive domestic duties such as cleaning and booking holidays, thereby liberating them to focus on higher value things such as their career. She explains:

Technology has always been good for women in the workplace. Whenever there’s been a fundamental societal shift like in the 1800s, the early 20th century or the 1950s and 1960s, the growth of technology has always been good for accelerating women’s role in the workforce. It opens up new roles and new demand and women have always been able to fill that. So I think AI will accelerate the rebalancing of the workforce from a gender point of view – although how that levels out will depend on a lot of factors and it’s a bit of an unknown.

Seymourpowell’s Brown does not expect men to be automated out any time soon, however - although she expects traditional “male” jobs in areas such as taxi driving to be hit hard. Moreover, whatever their gender, people who are currently in manual and admin jobs are likely to find the reality of AI automation much more difficult to deal with than the “highly educated” or “jobs where soft skills are implicit” she warns. But Brown continues:

My hope is that AI will bring about more balance. It’s not about the feminisation of the workplace – it’s about both men and women exploring workplace skills and questioning norms. Soft skills such as building unity in a team are traditionally associated with women, but a lot of men have these qualities too so you have to approach stereotypes with a bit of caution. When you think of what will be valued going forward, in the past the qualities traditionally associated with women were dismissed, but it seems the scales are now starting to tip.

But believes Yolk Recruitment’s Ahmed, marked cultural shifts will start making themselves felt in the workplace over the next decade or so as women start working their way up the ladder. He says:

We’ll see more men demonstrating skills like emotional intelligence and listening and hearing, and some of the macho-ness and bravado will start to disappear. Men are going to have to step up to the mark whether they like it or not or they’re going to find themselves outperformed by women. Unless they start to adapt they’ll become dinosaurs and find themselves out of work or failing to get that promotion.

My take

AI has the potential to transform women’s lives by liberating their free time and creating new job opportunities that are more appealing and suited to their skills than may have been the case in the past. But while tech can undoubtedly help in this shift, people – both men and women - will always be key to creating an inclusive workplace that works for everybody. It is something that AI will never be able to do.

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