• Organizations are turning to AI to help make hiring decisions, but digital rights experts warn that algorithms can perpetuate biases.
  • Women's rights groups and digital experts say well-designed tech aimed at targeting bias can 'shine a light' on the hidden factors holding women back.
  • Quality-focused technology firms are using AI to bypass or review decisions such as scanning CVs or deciding pay rises, and offer personalized, data-based advice.

Is it because she is a mother? Or perhaps she is perceived as lacking ambition, or leadership qualities?

Gender stereotypes continue to hold women back at work, but a handful of tech firms say they have developed artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can help break biases in hiring and promotion to give female candidates a fairer chance.

Employers and the wider economy could stand to gain, too.

"We are at this moment in artificial intelligence, that we either have the ability to hardwire our biases into the future or ... to hardwire equity," said Katica Roy, chief executive of Colorado-based software firm Pipeline Equity.

"A lot of the time that we talk about equity, we talk about it as a social issue or the right thing to do, which it is, but it's actually a massive economic opportunity."

Organisations are increasingly turning to AI to help make hiring decisions, prompting concern among digital rights experts who warn that algorithms can perpetuate biases.

An AI hiring tool developed by Amazon had to be scrapped after it taught itself male candidates were preferable to women.

But women's rights groups and digital experts said well-designed tech aimed at targeting bias can "shine a light" on the hidden factors holding women back.

"Bias is as old as human nature, and traditional hiring practices have been shot through with a number of different biases," said Monideepa Tarafdar, a professor in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"I think AI can be part of the solution. Definitely. But I do not think it can be the only solution."

a chart showing the gender gap in AI
A firm that has historically hired male candidates will find that their AI rejects female candidates.
Image: WEF
AI, machine learning, technology

How is the World Economic Forum ensuring that artificial intelligence is developed to benefit all stakeholders?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is impacting all aspects of society — homes, businesses, schools and even public spaces. But as the technology rapidly advances, multistakeholder collaboration is required to optimize accountability, transparency, privacy and impartiality.

The World Economic Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of Technology Governance: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is bringing together diverse perspectives to drive innovation and create trust.

  • One area of work that is well-positioned to take advantage of AI is Human Resources — including hiring, retaining talent, training, benefits and employee satisfaction. The Forum has created a toolkit Human-Centred Artificial Intelligence for Human Resources to promote positive and ethical human-centred use of AI for organizations, workers and society.
  • Children and young people today grow up in an increasingly digital age in which technology pervades every aspect of their lives. From robotic toys and social media to the classroom and home, AI is part of life. By developing AI standards for children, the Forum is working with a range of stakeholders to create actionable guidelines to educate, empower and protect children and youth in the age of AI.
  • The potential dangers of AI could also impact wider society. To mitigate the risks, the Forum is bringing together over 100 companies, governments, civil society organizations and academic institutions in the Global AI Action Alliance to accelerate the adoption of responsible AI in the global public interest.
  • AI is one of the most important technologies for business. To ensure C-suite executives understand its possibilities and risks, the Forum created the Empowering AI Leadership: AI C-Suite Toolkit, which provides practical tools to help them comprehend AI’s impact on their roles and make informed decisions on AI strategy, projects and implementations.
  • Shaping the way AI is integrated into procurement processes in the public sector will help define best practice which can be applied throughout the private sector. The Forum has created a set of recommendations designed to encourage wide adoption, which will evolve with insights from a range of trials.
  • The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Rwanda worked with the Ministry of Information, Communication Technology and Innovation to promote the adoption of new technologies in the country, driving innovation on data policy and AI – particularly in healthcare.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

Inclusive alternatives

These equality-focused technology firms are using AI to bypass or review decisions such as scanning CVs or deciding pay rises, and offer personalised, data-based advice.

Software developed by Pipeline Equity, a startup founded in 2017, has a number of human resource uses - from checking for biased language in performance reviews to offering advice on hiring and promotions.

Textio also uses AI to analyse companies' corporate statements and job postings to identify whether they are adopting a masculine tone that will alienate women or members of minority groups, and suggesting more inclusive alternatives.

Pymetrics, another leading firm in the space, offers gamified assessments that it says evaluate potential hires more fairly than reading CVs.

Studies have found that businesses led by diverse teams tend to be more profitable, while boosting women's presence and role in the workplace could be worth billions of dollars to national economies.

"We have heaps and binders full of this business case, and it has shifted some mindsets," said Henriette Kolb, head of the Gender and Economic Inclusion Group at the World Bank's private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.

But much more needs to be done to improve women's financial inclusion worldwide, from increasing corporate representation to widening their access to banking, she told the Trust Conference, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual flagship event.

COVID-19 has spurred a "shecession" that has seen a disproportionate number of women pushed out of the labour force. The International Labour Organization found gender gaps have widened and women's employment is set to recover more slowly.

Meanwhile, companies are struggling to fill open positions with record numbers quitting in the United States in what has been dubbed "the great resignation".

"Businesses have so many roles that they're unable to fill, I mean, empty seats can't do your work for you," said Kieran Snyder, chief executive of Textio.

"You need to hire great people if you're going to have any kind of success."

Helping or spying?

But AI will not be a silver bullet in creating fairer workplaces, women's rights advocates and researchers said, warning that the technology could raise as many problems as it solves.

The idea that technology offers some kind of unbiased factual truth or objectivity is an illusion, said Manish Raghavan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Center for Research on Computation and Society.

"All AI has to learn from data in some way; it has to learn from past decisions," he said.

"That's not to say it's impossible to use technology to mitigate your own implicit biases, I think it just has to be very, very carefully designed. And I honestly just don't think we're at that point yet where we're able to do that."

A lack of transparency about how most commercial algorithms work makes it hard to scrutinise their performance, he added.

Tarafdar, who is leading a research project to analyse how AI can lead to unintentional workplace bias, said effective solutions cannot just pinpoint key hiring decisions but must also look at the wider workplace culture.

Bosses should also carefully consider how much data they can gather on workers before their actions slip from helping towards surveillance, she added.

The real key to change is opening difficult, honest, conversations about bias that can challenge misconceptions, said Allyson Zimmermann, a director of women's workplace rights organisation Catalyst.

But AI tech can help to upend those preconceptions and open opportunities, she added, citing the case of a young woman who got an interview after being selected using technology that "blinded" recruiters as to her gender and age.

"When she showed up for the interview, they just burst out laughing. And it wasn't, you know, a rude kind of laughing. They were so shocked that she was this young woman," she said.

"It really opened their eyes; they thought they would have a middle-aged man coming in ... She went into the interview, she got the job. She told me it was an extremely positive experience."