In India, gender disparity at the workplace is a fact. Though more and more employers are taking conscious steps to encourage women to join and stay on the job—like flexible work hours, work from home options, crèche facilities, etc—the country has seen little progress in the matter. India ranked 120 out of 131 countries when it came to female participation in the workforce, according to a 2017 World Bank report.
Now experts say that technology can be the catalyst that will expedite change. Speaking at conference in Mumbai on Friday, several industry representatives and researchers stressed the need to harness the power of technology to build a more inclusive workforce and discussed methods some of them have adopted to analyse the problem and effect change.
“We’re using AI at Accenture to look at patterns and build algorithms to see if we’re biasing some of our decisions—whether entry decisions or promotional decisions against women,” said Rekha M. Menon, chairman and senior managing director, Accenture in India. Menon went on to say that with increased availability of digital tools other positive impacts are starting to become visible that can aid the ultimately boosting women’s workforce participation. “Women healthcare workers are now able to extend several benefits into their communities… Similarly, we’re in the early stages, but technology is democratising education. It is no longer necessary to be in big schools; you could be in rural areas but learn skills,” she said.
Accenture is aiming to be gender neutral across all levels globally by 2025. “We’re already at 40% women in our workforce globally. But we can do more at the leadership level,” Menon said, drawing attention to the need for concerted efforts to increase female presence at C-suite level.
A recent Mckinsey Global Institute study shows that in Asia Pacific, there is only one woman in leadership positions for every four men. The same study also mentioned that in India, of the total men and women at the entry-level stage, only 25% were women; when it came to senior management level, the figure was a paltry 4%.
Work culture plays a major role in restricting the progress of women at the workplace. “Indian women tend to drop out of the workforce much earlier than in other countries,” said Anu Madgavkar, partner with Mckinsey Global Institute. “When we ask women why this is so, they come back and say there are challenges around the work culture. And there is this big barrier that the evaluation system is based on time spent; that you’re evaluated on how much time you spend at work as opposed to what output you generate.”
If things are to change, there must be an enabling environment for women at the workplace. Premanshu Singh, CEO of Coverfox.com, an online insurance aggregator said, “The whole hiring funnel needs to change… You cannot have 10 male candidates and one woman candidate applying for a job,” adding that job descriptions too need to be adapted for women, with the years of experience required being reduced or flexible.
Flexible working hours and ‘work from home’ facilities too can go a long way he said. “How do you allow a woman to work from home but still ensure that her data is secure? These are questions that can be answered using technology.”
Paul Roehrig, chief strategy officer, Cognizant Digital Business, pointed out that it was necessary to ensure that biases don’t find a way to creep into the technology and tools we build. “It is up to us to make sure that our human biases are not encoded in the system… Some will say the technology we use is actually neutral, but I would say it’s not because how we build these tools absolutely shapes how the AI works,” he said, quoting Microsoft’s “Tay” debacle as an example. (Tay was a chatbot developed by Microsoft which picked up hateful messages from other human users on social media platforms and started putting out messages like “Hitler was right”.)
Roehrig suggested that putting humans in the loop of the AI’s process, training it like human train their children and teaming up social scientists and philosophers with coders and engineers can help build a more inclusive system.