The article is contributed by Minal Sonawane - Software Test Solution Architect, AFour Technologies.
As businesses build back after the disruptions of the pandemic, there is considerable interest in transforming work structures to be more robust and more dynamic than they were before. Precisely, businesses are endeavoring to build more equitable workplaces for women, who have historically been excluded from advancing as much as their male peers. As AI enters and alters business processes in myriad ways, upskilling will emerge as a crucial tool in addressing gender inequality in the tech space. Here, we briefly examine how this can come about.
Gender Disparity in Tech
Research consistently shows that diverse teams perform better, have higher satisfaction rates, and stay on longer. And yet, industries like manufacturing or IT remain heavily male-dominated. According to a joint study by LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum, women make up only 25% of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) workforce. Moreover, only 22% of artificial intelligence (AI) professionals and 12% of machine-learning (ML) experts are women. Even if they have the same qualifications, men frequently reach executive positions faster than women in the workplace. Many companies also hesitate to help women earn senior tech positions because of preconceived notions about their skills or assumptions about marriage and family coming first for women.
These issues were exacerbated when Covid-19 struck, and everyone was forced to stay at home. As primary caregivers, the duty of looking after children during the lockdown fell mainly on women, many of whom had to deal with burnout owing to the difficulty of balancing work commitments with family obligations. In particular, a 2021 Women@Work study by Deloitte revealed that 83% of women in tech had an increase in workload along with household duties, while only 38% felt that their organization had given them adequate support. Overall, a recent Citigroup study concluded that about 44 million people would lose their jobs due to the pandemic, of which 31 million would be women - a highly concerning disparity.
With the advent of AI into everyday business tasks, the respective roles of humans and machines are undergoing significant shifts. Routine tasks are being delegated to software, while advanced skills like machine learning and deep learning are highly demanded. Partly because of the educational gaps between the genders (traditionally, boys are encouraged to take up science while girls are pushed towards the arts and domestic studies) and partly because of male-centric preferences at work, it is women who mostly hold the administrative, clerical and routine job positions that are now being routed to AI. Moreover, there are no clear pathways to help women transition from these routine jobs and towards more complex and lucrative ones related to tech and its applications. As a result, they either end up quitting the workforce or staying on in low-paying jobs that do not let them reach their potential.
Upskilling as an Equalizer
Online learning has expanded considerably since the pandemic, which means that accessing high-quality educational content and insight from experts is easier than ever. Upskilling through online courses allows employees to stay up-to-date on rapidly evolving tech trends and pick up valuable new skills from scratch. For women employees, upskilling safeguards them against redundancy and helps them become more valuable assets in terms of the ideas and creative approaches they can bring to the table. In particular, online learning allows them to pick up skills at their own pace and at affordable rates, which is a boon for women juggling household duties and/or those in less lucrative jobs. This way, they can aim for positions that men have traditionally occupied and come into their own as creative contributors.
Upskilling, indeed, makes employees of all genders more effective and for an emerging and nuanced field like AI, one needs as many talented team members as possible. It is thus in the company’s interest to offer AI-related upskilling opportunities, from online learning pathways to live projects to shadowing opportunities with senior experts. In particular, leaders should invest in training programmes for women in tech with special technical courses and mentorship from senior women leaders. There should also be exceptional support for women compelled to take time off during the pandemic so that dedicated workers can feel like they are valued regardless of their setbacks.
The Way Forward
It is still early days in the “AI-fication” of industries, and effective intervention on a company’s part can go a long way toward reversing gender disparity trends. Comprehensive upskilling opportunities and career transition pathways can help women pick up the skills they may have been traditionally denied and contribute side-by-side with male peers. Companies have already seen the efficacy of flexible work models and should invest in similarly inflexible growth models that help employees - especially women - move upwards into tech roles where talent and interest count for more than background or work history. Thoughtful efforts in this regard will help redress gender disparity and exclusion at work, not just post-pandemic but for all time.