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Digitalization: the New Frontier for Equity

As the next era of digitalization and artificial intelligence approaches, HR leaders are approaching a critical juncture in their efforts towards true diversity and inclusion.

In particular, women and people of color are more likely to have their roles displaced by automation, and their lack of representation in AI and other technologies is also creating wider-reaching concerns.

For 26 years prior to entering the executive search world, my life was dedicated to coaching women’s soccer. Having observed the many roadblocks these women faced both in the sporting arena and in their lives outside, I’ve recently joined in sharing some business leaders’ growing concerns that our climb towards equality is potentially stalling in the face of technological advances.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the rising wave of AI in business appears to be poised to crash on top of narrowing wage and career gaps. Their report, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics projections,  found that for every seven men who work in occupations that are at high risk of being eliminated by technology, there are 10 women who do so. All told, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.4 million current roles may be eliminated by future technological advances.

The report also shows:

  • Of the entire AI workforce in 2018, only 22% were women.
  • Women make up just 47% of the total workforce but account for 58% of the highest risk as potential victims of automation.
  • The risk is even greater for women of color, with Hispanic women facing the greatest odds of 1:3 seeing their jobs eliminated. In addition, Hispanic women are 76% less likely to work in the evolving digital space.
  • Of the jobs with the highest risk of automation, IWPR found that 20.2 million women are in those roles, compared to only 14.4 million men. Hispanic women face the greatest odds of seeing their jobs eliminated.

Additionally, there are disparities in predictions for how automation will affect different ethnicities. A report by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, which looked at the roles most likely to be automated and the impact on different ethnicities, found that roles where Latinos held the majority of positions faced the highest automation potential of around 60 percent, followed by African Americans with 50 percent, Asians at almost 40 percent, and Caucasians at roughly 25 percent.

Certain groups are also underrepresented in AI and new technologies. This creates concerns that this new technology – which is likely to have a big impact on our lives in the future – will reflect the world view of only the smallest group of people who work in that field, and who adapted the technology in the first place.

For example, a researcher at MIT found that AI-powered facial recognition software performed better for white men with a 99 percent accuracy rate, as opposed to for black women with only a 66-80 percent accuracy rate. There are also gender concerns that service chatbots are often given a female persona, from the big bank customer services solutions platforms through to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

As certain groups fall further behind in terms of gender parity and upward economic mobility, these trends are going to become increasingly important issues for HR leaders. But what should they do? Drawing on what we are seeing within the D&I space for our most progressive clients, here are a few suggestions to help continue the progress of the past few years.

Creating New Opportunities

The HR leader of tomorrow will need to focus on creating learning and development opportunities for those workers most affected by the pending AI revolution. This must be a proactive effort with careful planning that recognizes the types of jobs that will be both affected and created within their industry. The effort to raise the level of your workforce will not only pay dividends in production but in loyalty and engagement as well.

Personalized Attention and Career Support

Proactive HR leaders will need to have very specific career mapping or pathway conversations with workers in potentially affected roles. That means you must offer them the knowledge of what is coming and the career paths you see as options for them to stay relevant. This effort shows the human connection that is so vital within today’s workforce.

Identifying and Developing Diverse AI Talent

Talent Acquisition and campus recruiting strategies should include a greater focus on identifying and attracting diverse talent pools which operate in technology and AI focused organizations an institutions. As part of the talent management and development agenda, HR leaders should also encourage the representation of women and minorities on AI related Employee Resource Groups, Leadership Councils, and lead roles in Corporate Universities.

Retaining Diversity

This diverse talent base must then be kept and fostered by assessing the types of total rewards programs and employee engagement strategies that will be most important to these workforces. The competition for talent in AI and new technologies will continue to increase as demand far outstrips supply.

Retaining diverse talent will be critical to setting your business apart from the rest and reducing the business costs of new talent acquisition and the lost investment in learning and development. Those leaders who understand the changing needs of a diverse workforce, and who build incentives like student loan forgiveness and onsite childcare into their packages, will be paid back in spades.

Embracing the Bigger Picture

Forward-thinking organizations are also realizing that a truly progressive response lies outside their own day-to-day operations, and are partnering with governments, academic institutions, and the broader community.

Vodafone runs the #CodeLikeAGirl program that encourages girls to consider STEM careers across 26 countries, as well as their Reconnect program to help women transition back into employment if they have been out of the workforce for some time.

EY has worked with the UN Women’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change to develop innovation principles to help guide companies to reduce inequality, as well as a tool so they can benchmark themselves against the principles. Many other companies and individuals are embracing the challenge through initiatives such as Women in AI and Black in AI.

There have been some tremendous strides recently made on the part of gender and ethnic diversity, but there is still a long way to go. The path forward will be much more difficult for those leaders who do not recognize how digitalization and AI will affect their demographics, and even more so for those employees who are not in an organization that recognizes the value of a diverse workforce.

The current move into the world of digitalization and AI offers us a unique opportunity to once again raise awareness of the dangers of inadvertently and unconsciously forming non-diverse and non-inclusive cultures, which may result in watching our hard-won gains on equity drain away.

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