Could AI Be the Cure for Workplace Gender Inequality?
Artificial intelligence is beginning to replace many of the workplace roles that men dominate. The parts of those jobs that will have staying power are those that rely more heavily on emotional intelligence — skills in which women typically excel.
Artificial Intelligence and Business Strategy
In collaboration withBCG
Many researchers are reporting, and our research confirms, that artificial intelligence (AI) will reshape our economy — and the roles of workers and leaders along with it. Jobs that don’t disappear will see a significant shift as the tasks that are easily and inexpensively accomplished by robots become automated. The work that remains will very likely focus on relating. To adapt and prosper, the smart worker will invest in “human relating” skills — empathy, compassion, influence, and engagement. For simplicity, let’s call these emotional quotient (EQ) skills. These are skills in which women commonly excel.
Gender differences are a sensitive topic and we address them in this article with trepidation. There is a fine line between understanding commonalities and stereotyping, and the debate about nature versus nurture is robust. But whether you believe that men and women, on average, have different types of brains (as Simon Baron-Cohen, a British clinical psychologist and professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, has theorized) or that gender differences are a result of cultural norms and conditioning (as numerous other studies have explored), the real-world results are similar: Men and women, on average, excel in different dimensions and take on different roles in the workforce. By no means does that suggest that men and women are not equal — just different.
It is clear that men have quite an advantage in the working world — just check out the latest research by McKinsey & Co. on gender equality in the workplace. Men have greater representation among leadership roles, greater presence in higher-paid industries, hold nearly 80% of board seats, and earn higher compensation on average, even for the same jobs.
We believe that AI has the ability to help level the playing field. It will do so, we think, by replacing many roles and functions where men typically dominate.
Jobs That Currently Demand High EQ Are Dominated by Women
An examination of common occupations by gender in the U.S. by the Department of Labor reveals some unsurprising data. Women predominate in jobs that involve relating, caretaking, and providing services, making up more than 80% of the country’s school teachers, nurses and home health aides, social workers, and secretaries and administrative assistants. Men outweigh women in fields that tend to be physical, STEM- and finance- related, and more isolated rather than relational, such as truck drivers, janitors, laborers, and software developers. Men are also better represented in higher-paying, often analytical fields, such as law, medicine, and engineering.
One perspective on the ways that different skill sets play out at work is the empathizing-systemizing theory, which measures people’s inclinations to empathize (identify, understand, and respond to the mental states of others) and to systemize (analyze, understand, and predict system). According to Baron-Cohen, the theory’s author, women score higher on empathizing and men higher on systemizing. A recent Korn Ferry report aligns with this point of view: It found that women score higher than men on 11 out of 12 key emotional intelligence competencies. These include demonstrating empathy, conflict management, and coaching/mentoring.
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EQ Is Likely to Become a Critical Job Differentiator in More Roles
Differences in current skills and roles mean that the evolving AI economy is going to affect men and women differently.
We all know that changes due to AI are imminent, and that some roles will likely disappear over the next decade. This will not be limited to any particular industry or pay grade. Robots will replace not only truck drivers and stock pickers, but also radiologists, consultants, and financial planners (all of which are traditionally male-dominated roles).
The jobs, or the parts of jobs, likely to have more staying power in the AI economy are those that rely more heavily on EQ — abilities such as empathy, persuasion, and inspiration. AI may determine that your radiology scans indicate cancer, but a human will likely sit down with you and help create a treatment plan that suits your goals and lifestyle. AI may suggest operational improvements within a company, but a human will be more effective at persuading the leadership team to tackle the problem. Chinese technologist Kal-Fu Lee predicts that AI will probably wipe out 50% of jobs within a decade, but adds that nothing can replace human-to-human interaction: “Touching one’s heart with your heart is something that machines, I believe, will never be good at,” he told CNBC.
Research has suggested that these relating skills, where men lag women, will put men at a workplace disadvantage in the AI economy. They won’t be as successful as women unless they embrace these differentiator skills of empathizing, mentoring, and engagement.
Three Steps to Prepare for the EQ Revolution
Given this prognosis, all of us — men, women, and the organizations we work with — need to pay real attention to these often-neglected EQ skills.
Although we tend to think of relating skills as innate and static, this is incorrect. Just like any job skill, a person’s emotional intelligence can be improved with some effort. Here are three steps to get started:
- Figure out what you’re working with. What is your EQ baseline? Many sharp, effective people have low EQ but have no idea they need to improve because they simply haven’t paid attention to the subtle indicators from their peers. Most of us are very hesitant to criticize someone’s interpersonal skills directly because such feedback can be perceived as an unwelcome critique. This means that you should pay attention to couched feedback you’ve been given, especially comments along the lines of, “You are difficult to work with,” “You are too argumentative,” “You need to do a better job ‘reading the room.’”
- Admit to yourself the importance of EQ. Emotional intelligence has been undervalued in the marketplace since…forever. Although every job has an EQ component, employees and managers are more often trained and assessed on “systemizing” skills — perhaps because they are simpler to measure. For example, doctors are well trained on identifying and treating disease. But they are not well trained on personalizing treatment to suit a patient’s preference and lifestyle, nor on influencing patients to take steps such as changing diet or exercise. If you want to grow your EQ, you must first change your mental model about what is important in your work. Is getting the diagnosis right the most important measure of success? Or is it actually improving someone’s health? Recognize that making an impact on the world almost always involves human interaction.
- Practice and train your EQ. Research shows that attention and training programs can affect one’s emotional intelligence. Identify the parts of your job that allow you to practice understanding, coaching, encouraging, and influencing others — these are the parts of your role likely to persist over the next decade — and direct your energy to these interpersonal opportunities. Find a coach who will give you honest feedback and mentoring, or find a training program. We naturally take these steps with many job skills, but are hesitant to do so with EQ for two reasons: None of us want to admit our EQ needs work, and we have the idea that our EQ is inborn and unchangeable. We are wrong on both accounts.
Whether it is genes or training that inclines women to empathize, relate, and engage more than men is irrelevant. As AI-based tools become integrated into roles across levels and industries, these “soft” skills will become more important for earning hard dollars.
Companies and organizations need to be aware of this shift in job skills, as it will affect hiring, managing, and training employees. Those who can’t adjust will see their skills become irrelevant, from the boardroom to the manufacturing floor. There are many things that people will not be able to do as effectively as the robots that are moving into our workplaces, so it’s time to focus on what people can do best — understanding and relating to each other.