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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 34
Gender equality

Can digital technology be an equality machine?

8 March 2023

Digital technology and artificial intelligence present important challenges to equality in the workplace and in society. As workplaces transition towards a digital future, we are already seeing that existing gender equality gaps are being reproduced in the digital realm. However, does this have to be the case?

In the first of our Future of Work podcast mini-series on artificial intelligence and the world of work - and to mark International Women’s Day - we ask whether digital technology can be harnessed to be a force for good, for positive change and more inclusion. We explore the important role digital technologies can play in creating a brighter and more inclusive future of work, and some of the surprising ways they are already being used in workplaces today.


Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Future of Work podcast,

coming to you from the International Labour Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

I'm Anders Johnsson, and I'm proud to join you on the occasion

of International Women's Day, whose theme this year is DigitALL:

Innovation and technology for gender equality.

As I'm sure you know, women have faced gender-based discrimination

in the workforce throughout history,

and as workplaces transition towards a digital future,

we're already seeing this gender gap perpetuating itself

in the digital realm as well.

How can digital technology be a force for good,

for positive change, and more inclusion?

To answer this question,

I'm extremely pleased to introduce Dr. Orly Lobel,

who's the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law

and Director of the Center for Employment

and Labor Policy at the University of San Diego,

and author of an extraordinary book, The Equality Machine:

Harnessing Digital Technology for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future.

Dr. Orly, welcome to the World of Work Show.

Thank you so much for having me.

I'm excited to be on it.

It's great to have you.

I've been having a real blast reading your book

and not least because it gave me

a much more hopeful outlook on digital technology.

Just to jump right in there,

there's a lot of negative discussion about the way

in which digital technology is contributing

to many of the problems in the world.

What brought you to write this book from, I would say,

a much more hopeful perspective?

That's exactly part of the motivation

to write the book was that we are bombarded

with a lot of alarmist discussions about

what's happening with digital technology, with artificial intelligence,

and how we're automating inequality,

we're adopting algorithms that are biased, so there's a lot out there.

Some of that is correct.

We should be cautious and careful and discerning

in the ways that we are automating and going online

and engaging with digital platforms.

Really, when I wrote The Equality Machine, I set out to, I guess,

decipher between the things that are really reason to be concerned

and things that have been misconstrued in the public debates.

This is also my nature.

I wanted to really find a throughway between utopian and dystopian,

between alarmist, and just accepting as technology is out of our control,

and we're just going along on the ride.

I wanted to really find the positive examples

and to have all of us, particularly women and people

who have historically been excluded from the conversation,

to become much more empowered to be part of the conversation

and to think constructively and design

our future in a way that's really informed.

Your book, one thing I rather enjoyed was that all the chapters

give very concrete examples of the ways in which technology

is already being harnessed to create much more inclusion.

One of those that really draw my attention was looking

at how it can help shrink the gender wage gap in terms of negotiations.

Could you unpack that a little bit for me?

Yes, absolutely.

The gender pay gap, and also, the racial pay gap

has been part of my research for some years now,

understanding both the sources

of why we have these really stagnant wage gaps,

inequality in the way that we're paid and our earnings,

but also thinking about technology in ways that are really positive.

For example, women around the world earning less than men, some of it,

not all of it, is driven

or is sourced by the fact that women don't know that they're underpaid.

They find out way too late that they are underpaid.

They don't know their worth.

They don't know where they can

and how they can negotiate better salaries.

I looked at all sorts of new examples

where digital platforms, think LinkedIn 3.0,

apps that are called "Know Your Worth," are crowdsourcing knowledge

about what people are making in a comparable work

that are really empowering women to go back to their employer and say,"

Look, this is what I should be paid.

This is what my co-worker is paid."

It's really this potential of digital technology to educate

and democratize knowledge that is really crucial in the market.

That's one aspect of it.

The other aspect is that we've seen this during COVID

and have seen this actually for some years, that technology, again,

it can be a double-edged sword.

Sometimes there's problems with the way that we're implementing it.

Certainly, for thinking about work-life balance,

the fact that we can work remotely, we can work more flexibly,

the fact that there is a potential to put more emphasis on performance

and actual outputs of whatever you are doing rather

than counting the physical face time you are putting in

at an office without really thinking whether that makes

sense that somebody's staying for long hours

and whether that's really useful,

technology has this real force for good of helping us

understand what we should really care about.

We should think about knowing more as a source of empowerment

and a force for equality.

Now, there's something you refer to as well,

which I was thought was very struck by,

what's called the negotiation penalty, this idea that women even

when they do negotiate for themselves are seen as being too pushy,

for example, compared to men, and will be negatively affected by that.

How do you see technology being able to mediate that?

The negotiation gaps are really problematic.

It's exactly like you said, there's a negotiation penalty

where women are often perceived in the workplace as pushy

and overly aggressive if they ask for what they're worth,

versus men are thought of as assertive

and given this positive boost if they are lobbying

for themselves as they should be, so there is that gap.

There's also a gap that, well, women don't ask.

The research shows, even when they do know that they're underpaid,

they are less, on average, inclined to negotiate,

more risk-averse or other-looking,

not thinking just for their own personal gain.

I see these tools giving women a little bit more of a boost

of how to negotiate in ways

that will be effective, how to, perhaps,

remove the human negotiation.

I envision a bot negotiating for people

On their behalf, as it were.

-on their behalf and really learning about the culture of a specific company

and a specific supervisor or executive,

so there's different negotiating styles.

Again, it's not just gender.

There's cultural differences between how people negotiate.

I think that we can understand the potential here

of a smart agent really being our buddy that can say,

"This will be the best way to ask your future employer for what you need.

Don't forget to do this."

The technology will also embrace game theory

and sequencing of the right strategies.

There's so much there to be hopeful about,

where if we are really empowering

and teaching people to use these tools for equality,

for focusing on how it can correct

past wrongs rather than exacerbate them,

I think there's a lot to be optimistic about.

Do you also then see,

I think you've touched on this a little bit before,

but this whole idea of digital technology and AI,

perhaps more specifically,

also being able to help create a better corporate culture, then?

Again, it's something that's been so much part of my concern.

I've written reports to the federal administration here,

saying we really can't have this pattern of a woman

complaining about being sexually harassed

and just getting a pay with her attorney

signing a non-disclosure agreement,

and then the next person doesn't know about this culture,

nobody knows about the patterns that are happening,

and there's not really a consistent, sustainable change that happens.

That's why we've had these years of cultures

that have really been problematic.

There's not been enough transparency, then?

Not enough transparency but also,

not enough ways to allow women to be comfortable with reporting.

Again, I mentioned this term "game theory,"

reporting in a way that they feel safe

enough that they're not at it alone.

There's a prisoner's dilemma

when women want to speak up about harassment.

When anybody wants to speak up about anything that's wrong,

become a whistleblower about financial improprieties

or environmental wrongdoings that a company's engaged with,

there's a real question there of how do you become

the David against the Goliath, the one against the many,

without just exposing yourself to these problems.

I set out to discover, and I really uncovered

all these startups that were really fueled

by this mission at post-MeToo to help companies

and organizations, labour organizations,

and movements to have these ways to report

that keep your information quite secret

as an employee until, one neat way to do it.

There's several companies that specialize in this.

You report something about your supervisor that he's a harasser,

for example, but you're promised that all your information is anonymized

and secure within the application until there's another complaint.

That's kind of this idea of prisoners dilemma.

You're not the first one to step forwards?

You're not the first one, you're not the only one,

and it's only like looking for the patterns.

Another promising thing--

I actually recognize that this is a dilemma

that we have to think about collectively as societies

because there's a tension here between privacy

and our strive for better work cultures

but because AI is becoming so strong, so powerful,

so predictive in understanding personalities and knowing in advance

when someone might become a harasser

or a situation might become bad before it, in fact, is unlawful,

there's again, already technologies that can flag a person that very soon

will reach that tipping point of becoming a harasser and flagging that.

Again, I think the technology allows us to balance those dilemmas and say,

"Well, we can flag something that's indecent communication

or inappropriate communication,"

by just saying very softly, it's kind of these soft nudges of,

"Well, this is inappropriate."

Thinking about preventative, not even reaching that point

where a culture becomes so rotten that it's a big expose.

I think it's a good thing for corporations, too.

A lot of what I've been thinking about is how,

from the perspective of gender equality,

I think the research is so strong.

This is so much of my research but so many around the world,

and the ILO shows this, too,

gender equality is not just a moral mandate that we have,

but it's something that is also good for business.

It's also good for corporations.

Diversity fuels investment, productivity, and innovation,

and it's something that it's a win-win.

I think that really, companies should embrace

this kind of more forward-looking, transparency,

accountability that comes with these kinds of tools.

I have one more example for you, but--

No, go ahead.

Well, just in terms of diversity and hiring, again,

it's been this real challenge.

One of the things that I got really excited

when I researched these new companies that are supporting human capital,

like diversity hiring for companies, for Fortune 500 companies, and beyond,

is that we have so many unconscious biases,

and we don't know what affects our decision.

If I'm a woman who's looking for a new job,

and I'm looking online on all kinds of ads for applications,

I don't know exactly what makes me excited about something.

AI is actually teaching us things that we didn't even think

and shouldn't really matter like the formatting.

It turns out that even bullet points,

rather than kind of more prose like a full paragraph,

has differences in how many women will actually apply for this job or not.

Using military terms or sports references like

"coding ninjas," or "we want warriors,"

whatever, that is a turnoff for women.

I wouldn't know that when I'm looking for a job, but AI discovered it.

If companies are serious about getting the best applicant pool,

the richest applicant pool, they need to actually use technology to show,

to illuminate what is happening.

Now, isn't there, in a way, a risk, if I can put it that way,

that if we outsource fixing gender equality

to machines and to technology and assume that,

therefore, we don't need to change ourselves,

I'm thinking, don't we have a responsibility

to also do better.


I never want to be read as saying this is replacing decision-making

and human responsibility.

What I really want us to--

This is why it's so important for me for all of us to have this informed

and visionary thinking, forward-thinking that contributes

to the way that we're designing technology.

I want us to take responsibility for the technology that is there

and think about it as something

that supplements, that compliments, that is a tool.

This is the whole story of human progress, right?

Gender equality was actually very much aided

by the inventions of laundry and vacuum cleaners.

If you told me 20 years ago that I would send my--

I have three girls, three daughters,

if I would allow them to go into a car with a stranger, like an Uber,

a taxi when they're teenagers, I would be very, very nervous about that.

Now that we have much more of this tracking ability to monitor,

we really should think about it as a strength,

particularly to the vulnerable.

One of the things that's really important to me

in having this conversation is that we have,

I mentioned these fallacies that I was resisting

when I set out to talk about equality machines

rather than algorithmic bias, which we hear about all the time.

There is some of that, and privacy is important,

but there's also a lot of ways in which privacy has, throughout history,

served as a pretext of concealing things

that more powerful parties do.

I think that shedding light, tracking,

and monitoring can do a lot of good

when we're trying to equalize and correct historic wrongs.

One last thing I'm really quite curious

to bring up with you, you touched on it before.

You talk about how gender equality makes good business sense,

and bringing women and other marginalized groups into technology results

in more creative solutions to the problems of the world

and the problems that women face.

At the same time, their lack of inclusion comes with a massive cost as well.

According to the UN, women's exclusion from the digital world

has shaved about $1 trillion from the GDP of low

and middle-income countries in the last decade alone.

That's supposed to grow to about $1.5 trillion by 2025 without any action.

I'm curious, how do you see, or what are ways in which more women

and girls can be brought into technology

and to using technology in that more positive way?

I love that you gave us all these statistics.

They're so powerful.

I think that perhaps the single most important thing

that we can do for so many of our wicked problems

around the world with climate and poverty of alleviation will be aided

by really tackling the gender gaps in education,

in financial stability and security, digital literacy, and digital inclusion.

Girls and women around the world, especially in the developing world,

once they have autonomous access,

they have more independence to connectivity,

they have access to information, to knowledge,

to education, but also to financial opportunities.

They can start small businesses.

They can talk to each other.

That's empowering. They can organize.

I think in the public conversations, again,

because we're so focused on the harms of being online,

and we worry about girls being online on Instagram,

and it's not that we shouldn't worry about it.

I mentioned I have three girls.

I worry about everything.

I think that it's at least an important goal

to connect for women and girls,

and not just educate them about staying off

the social networks, which it's important.

If we're really thinking systemically about poverty and gender gaps,

this is an important aspect.

Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

That's all we have time for today,

but I know that we could have kept this conversation

going for much longer as there's so much to cover.

It was my pleasure as well. [laughs]

For our listeners, that was Dr. Orly Lobel,

author of the book, The Equality Machine: Harnessing Digital Technology

for a Brighter, More Inclusive Future.

Now, if you'd like to know more about the ILO's work

on gender equality or about Dr. Lobel,

as well as checking out other episodes of this podcast,

I invite you to visit our website at voices.ilo.org

for many more inspiring stories about the world of work.

For now, that's goodbye from Geneva.

I hope you'll join us again for the next episode

of the Future of Work podcast.