Gender, AI and automation: How will the next part of the digital revolution affect women?

Automation and AI are already changing the way we work, and there is no shortage of concern expressed in the media, businesses, governments, labour organisations and many others about the resulting displacement of millions of jobs over the next decade.

However, much of the focus has been at the macro level, and on the medium and long-term effects of automation and AI.  Meanwhile, the revolution is already well underway, and its impact on jobs is being felt now by a growing number of people.

The wave of automation and AI that is happening now is most readily seen in call centres, among customer services, and in administrative and back-office functions.  Much of what we used to do was by phone – talking directly to a person. We can now use not only companies’ websites in self-serve platforms, but interact with bots in chat windows and text messages. Cashiers and administrative assistants are being replaced by self-service check-outs and robot PA’s. The processing of payroll and benefits, and so much of finance and accounting has also been automated, eliminating the need for many people to do the work…

…eliminating the need for many women to do the work, in many cases.

A World Economic Forum report, Towards a Reskilling Revolution, estimated that 57% of the 1.4 million jobs that will be lost to automation belong to women. This displacement is not only a problem for these women and their families, but could also have wider negative ramifications for the economy.  We know that greater economic participation by women, not less, is what the economy needs: it could contribute $250b to the UK’s GDP .

Both the economic and ethical solution is in reskilling our workers. Businesses and economies benefit from a more highly skilled workforce. Society is enriched by diversity and inclusion.  Individuals moving to new jobs (those that exist now and those that we haven’t yet imagined) may even be more fulfilled in work that could be more interesting and challenging.  Moreover, the WEF report suggests that many of the new jobs will come with higher pay.

But there are two things we need to bear in mind as we do the work of moving to the jobs of tomorrow:

  1. Our uniquely human skills: Humans are still better at creative problem solving and complex interactions where sensitivity, compassion and good judgment play a role, and these skills are used all the time in the kinds of roles being displaced. In business processes, humans are still needed to identify problems before they spread too far (an automated process based on bad programming will spread a problem faster than a human-led process; speed is not always an advantage).  AI will get better at some of this, but the most successful operators in the digital world of the future will be the ones who put people at the centre of their digital strategies.  Valuing the (too-long undervalued) so-called soft skills that these workers are adept at, and making sure these are built in to the jobs of the future, will pay dividends down the road.
  2. Employment reimagined: To keep these women in the workforce, contributing to society and the economy, we must expand the number of roles that offer part-time and flexible working options. One reason there are so many women doing these jobs is because they are offered these options. And with women still taking on most of the domestic and caring responsibilities, the need for a range of working arrangements is not going away anytime soon.  The digital revolution is already opening discussion of different models of working, with everything from providing people with a Universal Basic Income, to the in-built flexibility of the Gig Economy, but simpler solutions on smaller scales can be embraced immediately.  For example, Sopra Steria offers a range of flexible working arrangements and is making full use of digital technology to support remote and home working options.

Women are not the only people affected by the current wave of automation and AI technology.  Many of the jobs discussed here are also undertaken by people in developing countries, and those where wages are lower, such as India and Poland.  The jobs that economies in those countries have relied on, at least in part,may not be around much longer in their current form.

Furthermore, automation and AI will impact a much wider range of people in the longer term.  For example, men will be disproportionately impacted by the introduction of driverless cars and lorries, because most taxi and lorry drivers are men.

Today, on International Women’s Day 2018, though, I encourage all of us in technology to tune in to the immediate and short-term impacts and respond with innovative actions, perhaps drawing inspiration from previous technological disruptions.   Let’s use the encouraging increased urgency – as seen through movements such as #Time’sUp and #MeToo – to address gender inequality while also working on technology-driven changes to employment.  Let us speed up our efforts to offer more jobs with unconventional working arrangements, and to prepare our workers for the jobs of tomorrow.  Tomorrow is not that far off, after all.

Jen Rodvold is Head of Sustainability & Social Value Solutions.  She founded the Sopra Steria UK Women’s Network in 2017 and is its Chair.  She has been a member of the techUK Women in Tech Council and the APPG for Women & Enterprise.  She recently led the development of the techUK paper on the importance of Returners Programmes to business, which can be found here.  Jen is interested in how business and technology can be used as forces for good.

Want more girls in tech? Show them they can make a difference in the world

Last year I organised a Raspberry Pi workshop and competition for 13-year-old girls at Barnwood Park Arts College in Gloucester.  In discussing the events with their Computer Science teacher, Mr. Holland, I mentioned that the original concept was to get the students to create Pi projects that could help vulnerable people or the social workers and family members who look after them.  I offered him the chance to change that objective and do something that he thought would be more interesting to the girls, but he said, “No, that’s it; making it about helping people will get them interested.”

In the months since the competition, I’ve been trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the conversation that has taken off around gender diversity, and, in our industry, particularly, the question, “how do we get more girls interested in STEM?” and one of the things that is emerging for me is that Mr. Holland’s insight into his own students might well apply more generally: many girls want to do things that help others.

In her Entrepreneur.com article entitled “I Belong Here: 3 Ways to Attract More Women to STEM”, Harvard graduate and Head of Business Operations at biotech firm Illumina Merrilyn Datta notes that many of her female colleagues also working in STEM came to it because they saw a problem they wanted to solve and then that science and technology was the route to solving it.  She also points to research that backs this up: the ICRW has found that an effective STEM education programme encouraged girls to use technology to solve problems in their communities, and that University of Pennsylvania researchers found that “altruism has been highly linked to career choice for women.”

There is further support for the theory that women are attracted to careers that enable them to do good in the numbers of women who start social enterprises: according to a 2015 report by Social Enterprise UK, 40% of social enterprises are led by women – twice as many as run small businesses.

Given that women still comprise the vast majority of people undertaking paid and unpaid caregiving roles, from social workers to full-time mothers and carers of elderly parents, it shouldn’t be news that girls and women care about helping others.  In fact, there is an irony in this situation: one of the major reasons why gender disparity persists (e.g. in the form of lower pay, less access to finance, lower representation in leadership positions in business and politics, lower rates of entrepreneurship) is because the burden of caring falls disproportionately on women.

However, I see an opportunity here.  The fact that many girls and women want to make a positive difference in the lives of others is great news for those of us working in the parts of the tech industry that aim to use technology for good.  From fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity, to improving the lives of the elderly and curing disease, there is no shortage of opportunity to use a STEM career to make a positive difference.

So the next question is, “how can we ensure girls know that there is such opportunity?”  We can bring this out more in the outreach work we’re doing as a sector.  We’ve learned a lot in the last decade about the importance of female role models and having higher numbers of other girls in STEM courses so girls can see others like themselves.  Research from the WISE campaign found that girls need to see the context of STEM in the bigger picture, and be shown its application in real life situations and careers.  When we do these things, we have the perfect opportunity to also bring in messages about the careers in tech that have positive impacts.  We should also run our technology workshops for girls with this in mind: can we make these initiatives more exciting and relevant to girls by setting the focus on issues in their community and in their everyday lives?

…which brings me back to Mr. Holland’s students.  When we caught up after the events, Mr. Holland told me that in response to the challenge we set to create a Raspberry Pi project focused on helping vulnerable people all immediately thought of people in their lives their projects could help (usually grandparents).  That got them excited and opened their eyes to the potential of technology to do good.  After a one-day workshop with Sopra Steria mentors, the girls, in teams of four, set to work building Pi projects ranging from alarms that went off when medication hadn’t been taken on time to alerts sent to caregivers if an elderly person living independently had an accident in his or her home.  Many of the students conducted extra research related to the problem they were trying to solve (for example, dementia), so they could improve their Pi solution.  They did this of their own volition, because having been set a challenge they could personally relate to, they were engaged, curious, motivated.

Ensuring girls know about these opportunities is important, but it isn’t the only thing of course.  We also need to continue to contribute to the efforts being made by businesses in all sectors to make work more attractive to people with caring responsibilities, and to welcome people back to work after a career break (a good example of this is the new Returners’ Hub, which is supported by Sopra Steria and being launched on International Women’s Day).  There is a lot of work to be done to ensure more women have equal access to finance so they can start and scale-up new businesses.  As a society, we can do more to ensure both men and women can participate in caring duties, and that we value these duties more highly.

After this year’s International Women’s Day has come and gone, I hope we’ll ride the wave of momentum and redouble our efforts to make our sector more diverse now and in the future by getting out and talking to girls and young women and inviting them to be a part of the movement towards sustainable development in tech.

For more information about the People Like Me initiative that has emerged from the WISE campaign research mentioned above, and the new Returners’ Hub, go to www.techuk.org/returners on or after 8 March.

What are your thoughts about encouraging more girls into STEM careers? leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Photo used with the permission of Barnwood Park Arts College

Why we need to encourage more women-owned businesses

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meeting for Women & Enterprise, along with my colleague Graham Roberts. It was exciting and inspiring to be surrounded by so many women leaders and entrepreneurs, even more so because we were brought together to contribute to an important challenge: how to unlock the estimated £10.1bn of economic growth potential in women’s proactive participation in our economy. More on that in a moment. First, a pop quiz:

Name five well-known female entrepreneurs

If you’re like me, you’ll find that difficult. The names we tend to hear about most – Zuckerberg, Musk, Jobs, Gates, Brin, Page – all men. Where are the women?

These men in Tech are inspiring. We admire them. We hold them up, along with sports, movie and rock stars, as aspirational figures in society. And some of us, especially kids and young adults, might be dreaming of becoming like them some day. But what happens if you’re a girl or young woman and you don’t see very many women in business or tech to aspire to? I think it puts you at a disadvantage. People tend to believe they can do things if others like them have already done them.

Of course, women entrepreneurs are out there. Arianna Huffington, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce Knowles…and in our (Tech) industry Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, Ann Budge and Alison Newell (all of who form part of the Sopra Steria story, by the way). We just tend to hear less about them.

Visibility matters

Just as with the number of women in top executive positions, the number of women-owned businesses is still too small, and those that do exist don’t seem to get the same visibility and attention. I love chocolate and have been a fan of Montezuma brand chocolate for a while. But I didn’t know Montezuma was co-founded by a woman, Helen Patterson, until she got up to speak at the APPG reception about her experience starting the company.

Does it matter that my chocolate is made by a company co-founded by a woman? Not when I’m eating it, no; but in the background, somewhere in my subconscious mind, it does. It contributes to the unconscious ideas and beliefs I have about women. The concept of unconscious bias is an area of study that’s getting a lot of attention, and focus from corporate diversity programmes. It suggests that we all develop beliefs about the world we live in that we may not even be aware of on a conscious level: what certain groups of people are like, what people who look like that are like, what people like us and what people who are not like us are capable of. For example, if someone tells you they have been to see their GP, you are likely to imagine that they saw a man, not a woman, even though there are many women GPs. So knowing that my chocolate comes from a woman-owned business might help me chip away at the unconscious biases I have and build up a picture of women running businesses.

Sopra Steria is an example of a company that has seen real business benefits to increasing the number of women in more senior positions, and improving their visibility. In the last few years, the number of women on our UK board has jumped to just under 40%. At the same time, many of our senior women are getting involved in gender equality initiatives within and outside the company, raising awareness of the issue and seeking to improve it. And we have noticed something occurring simultaneously: more women are coming forward, asking for career advice from the women they can now see at the top, and joining in the conversation about diversity in tech and business; many are saying,

“I have something to offer and I’m ready to do more.”

Women entrepreneurs – and would-be entrepreneurs – would benefit from a similar increase in visibility of role models. Right now in the UK, women start new businesses at half the rate that men do, and the gap widens as businesses grow. There are a lot of reasons for this – unequal access to finance, the persistent cultural expectation that women will continue to bear more caring and domestic responsibilities than men are but two. Giving women more entrepreneurial role models that look like them will not solve everything, but it’s worth including it in the mix of initiatives that we need to start on now.

The UK economy is missing out on over £10bn by not addressing the challenges women face in starting their own businesses, according to a recent study by Facebook. We can’t afford to lose out on that growth. Let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can to inspire, encourage and practically support the women who will create new businesses – as well as the next generation, the girls in school and college. Shouting about the examples of successful women entrepreneurs already out there is a good start.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me  by email.


The meeting of the APPG for Women & Enterprise took place on 12 September 2016.