The robots are coming – but will they be gender neutral?

Photo by Franck Veschi on Unsplash

Today is a watershed day in the march for equality – it’s when all UK companies over 250 employees have to declare their gender pay gap. It will again expose the reality of the (lack of) gender equality in our workplaces, both across the UK and closer to home in our industry.

At 23red we are proud champions of gender equality and diversity in the wider sense. While we don’t have to declare our gender pay gap because we have fewer than 250 employees, we are happy to declare it anyway. Our own median gender pay gap is zero. This is in stark contrast to the 77% of companies reported so far as having a median gender pay gap biased towards males. We are also proud of having a management team made up equally of men and women. Not many companies can make this kind of statement. Certainly not many in our industry. We believe the commitment to inclusivity and diversity needs to start from the top and be nurtured throughout organisations.

The worldwide movement to create a more inclusive and diverse society comes with calls for technology and innovation to play its part. But in virtual life as in real life, we need diverse inputs and diverse teams driving technology and innovation. Off the back of the strong diversity and inclusion themes at SXSW, Fei Fei Li, director of AI at Stanford, flagged the theme of ‘Diverse people. Diverse thoughts.’ In her recent op-ed in the New York Times she voiced her concern that the enthusiasm for AI is preventing us from reckoning with its looming effects of society. “So if we want [AI] to play a positive role in tomorrow’s world, it must be guided by human concerns."

Automation is becoming increasingly entwined with our day-to-day lives, so ensuring the robots also have a diverse view is key. Teams developing AI, and any indeed any other tech innovation, need to be more diverse than the current bias towards white, male and middle class. Encouraging a more diverse group of people to enter technology and engineering is vital. And by that, I mean diverse in gender, race, and background. We need young people who might not normally follow that path to be inspired and encouraged into STEM careers. Initiatives like the Year of Engineering spearheaded by our client the Department for Transport are working towards exactly that. The Year of Engineering is a campaign running through 2018 to tackle the engineering skills gap and widen the pool of young people who join the profession.

To do this, the preconception of what an engineer is must be addressed at a young age. Babies aren’t born with pre-conceptions, they are taught who they should be or how they should behave. If you ask a child to draw an engineer, they are more than likely to pencil a man in an overall and hard hat. Yet technology and engineering touch every aspect of our lives, from spaceships to ice skates, the bubbles in chocolate bars to lifesaving cancer treatment. Inaccurate perceptions of engineering are holding women back. By showing the next generation that engineering is so much more than hard hats and making the connection between the practical aptitudes and interests of girls and breadth of future careers in engineering, we can create a more diverse pool of engineers and hopefully give our AI robots female intuition, not just a female voice!

At SXSW there was also a call to open up innovation to those beyond tech teams. There was a recognition that in order for technology to be guided by human concerns and play a positive role in tomorrow’s world there also needs to be input from the social sciences like psychology, behavioural science, cognitive science and sociology. This is needed to create a richer foundation for the innovation that will meet human needs. Some fear input from areas outside of their direct team’s experience, but if we don’t change our ways of working, wider change won’t happen. Collaborative working is essential to help create the more inclusive society we all crave. We see the value in learning from behavioural science to help people to make better decisions in the real world. Our ‘Power to the Bump’ campaign for example sets out to tackle gender inequality by empowering young mums in the workplace to find out about and stand up for their rights.

Many companies are expected to miss the gender pay gap reporting deadline tomorrow. Even the threat of unlimited fines by EHRC wasn’t enough for some to take this small step towards change. Perhaps a public backlash against those who didn’t comply will encourage them take these responsibilities more seriously?

And if, at some point, we can have a gender neutral, unconscious biased-trained collaborative robot in charge of compliance – then maybe we all stand a better chance of achieving equality.

Jane Asscher is chief executive and founding partner of 23red

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