Will the workplace be fairer in the age of AI?

An event for London Tech Week brought up some of the, sometimes contradictory, issues around diversity and tech.


3d rendering robot working with virtual display

Is the future going to be fairer for women? An event for London Tech Week last week rammed home some of the, often contradictory, problems.

On the one hand there was a lot of talk about ‘soft’ skills – communication, adaptability to change, creativity, etc. On the other the lack of women coming out of university with the kind of degrees that get them into the high paid tech jobs of the future. On top of that was the use of Artificial Intelligence in recruiting. While it helps to narrow down the search if you are a big company inundated with hundreds of cvs, could it mean the non-traditional candidate, the one with less niche skills and more ‘soft’ ones, gets thrown out the window?

This is no doubt what happens at the moment and cvs are sifted according to specific criteria which limit the range of candidates. Of course, those criteria may be vital for many jobs, but how do you programme AI to pick up non-traditional candidates when it is drawing on what may be biased algorithms and data based on qualifications and past experience, rather than potential; when it is unable to think creatively because this is precisely one of the qualities we say separates humans from machines? It does seem sometimes that every time we make progress the goalposts move.

Then you have SMEs. Will they spend the extra time looking creatively for candidates who do not have the usual criteria or will they just hire the person who is easiest and quickest? Given the amount of uncertainty facing businesses at the current time and how stretched many are, it is extremely difficult for them to take a step back and think more strategically.

Some of the bigger employers are able to think creatively – there are several initiatives, for instance, where people are being moved from non-tech and trained to do tech-jobs within organisations. There is also a lot of outreach work going on with schools and colleges to encourage girls into STEM – a very eloquent 16 year old at the event thanked organisations for this kind of vital work, but it is not available everywhere in the UK and it tends to rely on children volunteering to do it.

What about all those who don’t know they might like tech, who are put off by the stereotypes and lack of role models? Surely, schools need to begin at a much earlier age to integrate tech skills into every part of the curriculum, whether that means compulsory classes in coding languages at primary school or projects done using technology. The problem is ensuring access to the necessary tools and training teachers – and parents – need to keep up to date with fast-moving developments.

Technology skills have to become something everyone has, not something they have to opt into. Training – and retraining – needs to become a much bigger part of what employers do as a matter of course. No one should be left behind, but too many already are going to have a lot of catch-up work to do.

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