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Give a man a fishing rod and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime, they say. For women around the world today, regular access to Wi-Fi and a smartphone would prove much more useful to achieving economic security.
A recent Accenture report found that boosting women’s “digital fluency” — their access to the web and basic mobile devices that most Westerners take for granted — is among the most effective ways to close the global gender gap. Globally, women benefit when they can get online to find information on better-paid work and more successful careers. And leveling the digital playing field this way helps to make the world’s workplaces more equitable for all employees.
Across the globe, women are still paid less than men, and they are often excluded from the formal workforce altogether. But doubling the rate at which women can use digital tools would cut in half the time needed to reach global gender parity, Accenture found, and bring almost 100 million additional women into the workforce.
So, what does a worldwide information revolution for working women look like? Here are a few possibilities.
Big Impact in the Developing World
Most of the benefits to come from boosting digital fluency would be in the developing world, as women there face more pressing challenges and have less overall access to digital tools than women in Europe or America, says Barbara Harvey, managing director at Accenture Research. “The potential there is so much greater, so you affect so many more people,” she says.
Gains are already being felt as cheaper telecommunication technologies filter into poor, rural areas. In Tanzania, for instance, women in remote villages are using smartphones to map property boundaries and secure land-ownership rights, while midwives are sending text messages to order birth certificates for young girls, which helps them access schooling, health care and basic financial services.
In Bangladesh, many female factory workers are now paid through mobile-app-based money-transfer services, giving them more control over earnings that have been traditionally often confiscated by their husbands or mothers-in-law.
And in Nigeria, female entrepreneurs are using mobile devices to build customer bases in areas they can’t travel to safely in person, and to develop professional relationships with men, with whom it can be socially inappropriate for them to meet one-on-one.
Making Work More Accessible
In the developed world, of course, most people already have phones and web access, so reaping the benefits of new technologies is a more complex notion, and the gains aren’t always as clear-cut. Still, having basic digital gadgets like a phone or a laptop can make a big difference to women, Harvey says.
Consider a woman who has a 90-minute commute to her office: Give her the tools to work remotely, and you’ve dramatically boosted her productivity and her earning potential. “Suddenly she can work from home, and that hour and half can become paid work,” Harvey says. “Her working day increases by three hours.”
For working mothers, especially, the flexibility offered by new technologies can open more opportunities. One recent morning, PowerToFly founder Katharine Zaleski took her week-old baby to the pediatrician, came home, settled him down quietly at her side — then grabbed her phone and called a journalist to discuss her diversity-in-hiring startup.
That kind of gear-crunching change in roles — from new mom to president of a company with $7.5 million in early stage funding — is all in a day’s work for the modern woman, Zaleski says. Thanks to teleconferencing systems, Google Docs, Skype and other staples of the digital workplace, it’s possible for women to work more flexibly, participate more fully in the labor force and successfully juggle work and family life in ways that previous generations could not.
Even just a few decades ago, most women left the workforce after having children or saw their careers take a backseat to raising them, Zaleski says. “There was no way my mother, back in the 1980s, could have stayed connected to her job without email or a [mobile] phone,” she says. “The tools we have today are huge drivers for gender diversity and inclusion.”
The Benefits Aren’t Distributed Equally
Of course, it’s easy enough for a woman who runs her own company to use technology to improve her working life. As her own boss, Zaleski didn’t have to persuade anyone to let her work from home, or ask permission to stay connected during her maternity leave.
Many women aren’t so lucky: Big companies like Yahoo, Bank of America and IBM are all walking back their remote-working policies. There’s little benefit to having technologies that allow flexible working if your bosses are philosophically opposed to telecommuting.
There’s also a risk that the benefits of increased flexibility will accrue to the employer, not the employee. Flexibility made possible by the gig economy might be a lifeline for some workers, but it can leave others scrambling from one poorly paid gig to another, living without benefits or a steady paycheck — a situation plenty of mothers are already familiar with around the world.
That’s especially bad news for women, with a growing body of data showing that the biases women face in the conventional workplace are amplified in the gig economy. Bosses who lack a continuing relationship with workers often default to instinctive judgements — including gender stereotypes — when making decisions about who to hire and how much to pay them.
“An increasingly freelance workforce may make the problem of male privilege even worse,” warns Hernán Galperin, Research Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Just a Band-Aid?
For conventional employers, there’s a risk that new technologies can serve as a kind of Band-Aid, allowing companies to present themselves as champions of gender equity without actually doing much to change the status quo.
The increasing use of digital tools across workplaces is creating a firehose of data that companies can use to monitor diversity and inclusion, identify problems and develop creative solutions, says Patti Fletcher, a leadership futurist with SAP SuccessFactors.
That’s a good thing, Fletcher says, but measurement alone doesn’t change anything. Organizations can make grandiose public statements about their values, collect swaths of data about their diversity practices — and then fail to convert those insights into any kind of meaningful action.
That’s rather like publicly announcing that you’ll run a marathon, ostentatiously mapping out a diet and exercise regime, then slumping onto a couch and never actually hitting the pavement. “If you focus on analytics but don’t change anything about what you’re doing, you’re really missing the boat,” Fletcher warns.
Walking the Walk
For companies that genuinely want to make a difference for women, there are plenty of ways to use technology to drive gender equity — and many are much more sophisticated than simply giving your female employees company laptops.
One promising option is to use tech such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to disrupt existing decision-making processes in ways that can nudge managers into making more equitable decisions.
That can be as simple as using automated CV-sorting tools that highlight the best candidates for a job, regardless of their gender. But it can also involve thoughtfully baking AI tools into the processes of mid-level managers whose evaluations often determine which employees are given a chance to progress into more senior roles.
While AI systems certainly aren’t immune from bias, companies like SAP are creating machine-learning platforms that can spot a manager inadvertently penalizing a female employee for taking time out for family, for instance, and prompt them to reconsider their decision. “Ultimately, what you’re doing is giving your people the ability to make critical, informed decisions,” Fletcher says. “We have the technology, and it really feels like a tipping point.”
Finding Power in Numbers
New technologies are also making it easier for female employees to share information, whether through internal social networks or third-party websites and services.
As the #MeToo movement has shown, it’s easier than ever for women to support one another, to speak out against unjust or abusive workplace behavior and to find strategies for coping with challenges. “There’s nothing like power in numbers,” Fletcher says. “The voice we have if we all come together? That’s powerful.”
It’s especially important when it comes to combating the pay gap. Overall, women currently earn just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, with three quarters of U.S. companies paying male employees more.
Making it easier for workers to share salary information — as companies like Whole Foods and CrowdFunder now routinely do, and as younger workers are increasingly willing to do — makes it harder for unequal pay practices to continue, and gives women (and their male allies) the information they need to advocate for change. “If you know what you’re being paid and what your coworkers are being paid, it allows the conversation to at least begin,” University of Baltimore law professor Nancy Modessit told CNN.
Technology Alone Isn’t Enough
At the end of the day, however, technology only brings the tools; you still need a supportive culture and strong leadership to use them to impact gender equity positively. It doesn’t matter how much access to tech a woman has if her supervisors aren’t willing to let her work remotely. And flashy AI tools won’t bring about change unless there’s a genuine commitment from senior leaders to make inclusion a priority.
Part of the issue is that, while a company’s commitment to diversity needs to be driven by the C-suite, the solutions themselves need to be aligned to the actual needs of female employees. That can only happen if managers ask women what they want and need, then work to understand their answers, says Rohini Anand, senior vice president and global diversity officer at Sodexo.
On a recent trip to India, Anand met with a group of female middle-managers. She walked in full of ideas about how to help them climb the career ladder, but the conversation soon took an unexpected turn.
“I thought I knew all the answers, and I went in with fancy notions of development for women. But when I sat down and had conversations with women in entry-level management roles and asked what they wanted, I was stunned by their answers,” Anand says.
It turned out that many of the women lived with their husband’s parents — a common arrangement in India — and, after working all day, were expected to cook and clean for the whole family. These women didn’t want AI recruitment tools or a fancier smartphone; they wanted a way to show their mothers-in-law that they were doing important work outside the home.
Anand threw a lavish awards ceremony to honor the young women. “We made a big deal out of it, so that the mothers-in-law could see that their daughters-in-law were respected and well-regarded,” she says. “It shifted some of that dynamic at home.”
Listen to Your Employees
Zaleski recalls that, after the birth of her first child, she felt sidelined by colleagues who — thinking they were protecting her — wound up excluding her from conversations and decisions she would have preferred to be a part of.
“Overnight, I went from an executive at a company to someone whose job was changing diapers, and it was terrible,” she says.
Some women prefer to unplug from their working lives during maternity leave, and that’s perfectly OK, Zaleski says. But it’s a decision that each woman should be allowed to make for herself. And when women decide they want to stay involved, they should be given the technological resources and institutional support to make that happen.
The key, she says, is to recognize that the current workplace was designed by and for men. While technology can be an important enabler for working women, it needs to be accompanied by cultural changes in order to create environments where women can thrive on their own terms. “So many women have to pretend they aren’t women at work, and they end up leaving because they’re trying to conform to workplaces that were never set up for women in the first place,” she says.
As the boss of her own company, Zaleski has been able to design her second maternity leave according to her own needs. She says she’s modeling her time off on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s parental leave — taking a break from the office and focusing on her new baby, but not disengaging or walking away from her leadership responsibilities.
“This time around I’m working from home. I’m staying engaged with my team, and they’re sending me stuff to look at,” she says. “I’m so much happier than last time.”
People are at the heart of every business, but many HR teams only recently started to shift away from focusing on processes to focusing on employees.
“There’s a whole series of underlying drivers, which are forcing organizations and HR teams in particular to focus less on HR processes and what we might call transactional HR,” says Paul Burrin, vice president of Sage People. “Instead, we’re focusing more towards really figuring out how HR leads and champions the conversation around their employees and their workforce experiences, and really doing what’s necessary to build better employer brands, so that you’re in a better position compete in the global skills crisis.”
Creating a people-based HR system can help your business grow. It will give you the time to focus on designing and delivering better experiences that not only attract and retain the skilled workers your organization needs, but drives a high-performance culture to remain competitive at a time when U.S. productivity remains at its lowest for years.
Driving Meaningful Performance Conversations
“Employees have expectations — they want to get feedback, they want to know how they’re doing, they want to feel valued,” Burrin says. In order to accomplish this, companies need to have continuous conversations about performance. “Don’t wait for half a year or a year for that biannual or annual performance review.”
Waiting to give employee reviews is inefficient. Managers end up spending hours going through information, digging up specific examples of things employees did well and things they didn’t. “It becomes quite hard to do, and let’s be honest, many managers don’t like doing performance reviews and aren’t very good at it — either because they’re not very good at coaching and helping people, because that’s not necessarily a core skill that they have, or more frequently they don’t have the supporting data to actually do a good performance review,” Burrin says.
Instead of a bi-annual or annual performance review, continuous performance conversations allow companies to constantly adjust and change things as needed, allowing them to be more effective at listening to and getting the best out of their people. Burrin says using peer recognition, social shout-outs and other means gives a more helpful and useful understanding as to how people in an organization are performing.
Leveraging the Science of People
Data is crucial for driving better decisions, but we often fail in the execution of what we learn from that data. Burrin says Sage People’s surveys have found that about 83 percent of HR leaders agree that they should be making people decisions based on data, but that only 37 percent actually do that. “There’s a desire to do the right thing with people, and to use information and data in the right way, but the fact is, it’s still an ongoing challenge.”
Within the next five or 10 years, Burrin says the introduction of augmented intelligence and artificial intelligence will help HR teams make better use of data by focusing on people. As augmented systems become more widespread, they’ll gain more data, and as the machines get smarter they’ll help make HR processes more effective.
“Augmented intelligence is really machines working with people to help them get better outcomes. A good example could be in recruitment, where you can you use AI or augmented intelligence to actually help deal with bias in interviewing techniques, and trying to make sure you’re not asking questions or you’re not in a position where you’re introducing more bias into the conversation,” Burrin notes.
Supporting HR Teams with Diverse Skills
Traditional HR skills are being supplemented by a whole range of very different skills, Burrin says. “We’re now seeing the emergence of people scientists, who actually focus on employee information, employee data, and start looking for trends and patterns, and help businesses make better decisions around their people based on people science,” he says.
To successfully create a people-based system, Burrin says HR departments will need people who:
Are from different disciplines or with different backgrounds.
Have strong data and analytical skills.
Understand the importance of marketing and communications.
Most HR leaders in the U.S. don’t even have a traditional HR background now, Burrin notes. “They’ve been bringing people in from different disciplines or from different backgrounds, which are not your traditional HR background, in order to deal with the very real shift from HR to People and their ultimate quest to become People Companies,” Burrin said.
Automation and artificial intelligence are already starting to transform recruiting and talent development — and Amber Grewal, the vice president of global talent acquisition at IBM, is at the forefront of that revolution.
Grewal has two decades of experience in the art and science of talent attraction and management, serving in several leadership roles at General Electric, Microsoft, Symantec and KPMG, where she led the transformation of talent acquisition in the digital era.
At IBM, Grewal oversees the strategic vision for talent acquisition. She also leads numerous activities supporting diversity, inclusion and gender equality. She’ll be talking about all that and more in her presentation this spring at UNLEASH America in Las Vegas.
What are you going to be talking about during your UNLEASH presentation?
I will be discussing AI and the future of recruiting, as well as how the era of machine learning is changing the talent acquisition function. AI has become a buzzword recently, however, AI has been in the market for a very long time, since 1960. It was associated with automation during that time. What makes AI different now in the current market, as well as the future, is the major role it plays in the era of machine learning. Some key questions TA professionals must ask themselves are how do you introduce AI into systems that predict, systems that think, and systems that listen, as well as how do you use machine learning to drive outcomes and predictions? This is where I think many functions of HR will change, specifically talent acquisition. I want to walk people through how to use AI to enable a talent acquisition function to provide better experiences, be more productive, have more speed and really create a new era.
What is ‘cognitive talent management’?
Cognitive talent management is a way to look at the end-to-end HR transformation – all the way from attracting to growing – and figuring out how to build an AI-enabled talent-management function. When we say it’s “cognitively connected,” we mean you’re using AI in every interaction, including attracting, engaging, retaining, developing and growing talent. In the past, HR has been very siloed. You have recruiting has its own set of processes and strategies, learning and development has separate ways of accomplishing their goals, workforce planning and retention teams follow their own plan and so on. In this common scenario, you don’t have any systems connecting all of this together. So how do you build a talent-management system that has a digital thread across all functions? You do it with AI. You connect it by personalizing every single experience and every moment of impact for candidates and employees, and as they’re developing their careers.
What’s an example of personalization in recruiting that you’ve implemented at IBM?
There are multiple examples, but let’s start with attraction and how IBM has personalized the candidate experience. Think about recruiting in the past: Candidates would go to a career site and look through thousands and thousands of jobs, and many times it’s the same job. They do a keyword search, they look by location, or any other filter available to them. There’s no personalization to any of this. But now, what we’ve done is integrated Watson into the career experience for candidates. Watson is engaging with applicants, having a conversation with them, learning from that conversation to understand what that applicant is truly looking for, and then making recommendations on a personalized job for them. Whether candidates have a conversation with Watson, or upload a resume, Watson will match a personalized job for them.
I have tested this out, so I’ll give you an example. If you look at my career or my background, you’ll see there’s a lot of transformation, reinvention, work in AI, and change management. The common theme in all of this has been talent acquisition. If I do a typical search and just say jobs in HR or jobs in talent acquisition, I get various results like payroll or a recruiter — things for which I would not be a good fit. But when I followed the same steps with Watson-enabled career site, for example, Watson not only gave me more senior jobs in talent acquisition that were open, but also broader jobs I wouldn’t have considered, such as a transformation change-management consultant or an agile innovation lead. It gave me the opportunity to consider jobs I would not have even considered by personalizing the job search to my experience.
What kind of results have you seen so far?
We’ve seen great results with this — 86 percent of candidates that use our career site engage with Watson, with 96 percent of those candidates looking at the recommended jobs by Watson. From this, 35 percent have applied to a job they never would have thought about applying to if not for Watson’s personalized recommendation. This is providing us a much more diverse talent pool than we’ve ever had before.
In terms of career engagement, for IBM, it has been all about creating an AI-enabled HR function to help employees have a more personalized experience. It’s about having proactive retention insights, cognitive talent alerts that keep track of the time an employee is ready to be considered for a promotion, and having readily available sentiment analysis to ensure employees are getting offered personalized learning and development opportunities. We have taken many measures to embody AI in our full talent life cycle.
Is this type of technology something you see being adopted broadly by companies of all sizes?
I think we’re going to need it everywhere. I think you need to start by looking at what’s happening in the industry and the market — and that’s not just for a big company or a small company. Think about what’s happening in the industry. There is so much demand for talent. In the U.S. alone, by 2020, a million more software jobs will be needed. By 2022, over 2 million cybersecurity jobs will be vacant. If you’re a big company, a midsize company or a small company, you still need talent.
In addition, there’s fierce competition for talent in today’s market; every company is a tech company and the disruptors are disrupting every type of company, big and small. I think companies will need to ensure a first-rate, personalized experience in the way people apply, how companies engage with people, how you onboard people, how candidates and employee receive feedback, and how you collaborate with one another. That experience will need to be real and will need to be personalized for every individual. Otherwise, companies don’t have a chance.
Then, at the same time, once you attract and build these relationships with these people, and once they’re on board, companies need to think about how to retain them so another company doesn’t entice them to join their company, or lose them to a startup. Engagement needs to be very personalized. When you think about where we’re headed, you need to solve for problems now, before they occur, and that needs to be a focus for any company because we are living through an outcome-solution era.
Organizations across multiple sectors are increasingly exploring how the principles of behavioral science can help them better understand what drives employee behaviors and motivations. Among those at the forefront of that effort is UNLEASH America speaker Chris Dobyns, a human capital strategic consultant and former chief of staff for the National Security Agency.
Dobyns has worked in the area of compensation for more than 30 years and has held various compensation-related positions with a number of large organizations. More recently, he has emerged as a leading voice in applied behavioral science in human capital management, exploring the possibilities of behavior-shaping initiatives while also urging organizations to take a thoughtful and transparent approach to their implementation.
Our presentation is going to be a brief overview of some of the recent advances in the area of applied behavioral science in the workforce, both to enhance the elements of human capital management as well as the area of compensation and total rewards. When we talk about behavioral sciences, we’re really talking about three different areas: We’re talking about applied cognitive psychology — the way in which people think and feel and emotions, social neuroscience — how the brain mediates social processes and behavior, and behavioral economics — which deals with financial and resource-related decision-making and judgments in people.
What’s an example of how behavioral science can be applied in human capital management?
One of the things that we’ve tried to operationalize is the concept of the bandwagon effect. The idea is you try to influence your peers by telling them a little bit about factually what the behavior of their peers has been.
Typically what I’ve seen in the private sector is where the organization maybe has some reservations that its workforce isn’t saving enough and preparing for retirement. In order to influence people to save more, they effectively will go and canvas their existing workforce and then they’ll put out a publication for everyone to read about the average contribution rates for the 401(k) by their respective grade level. Jack looks at that and says, “Here’s some data in terms of what my peers are doing and it says that my peers are contributing to the 401(k) at an average of 12.5 percent,” and “Oh, wait a minute I’m only contributing at 8.25 percent.” So now I’m motivated and now I’ve been influenced behaviorally to say, “Well, maybe I should be contributing more.”
That’s effectively how you operationalize that bandwagon effect with your employees. That one is obviously in all of their best interests, as well as the employer’s, to have your workforce as prepared for the next career stage as they move through your workforce and eventually to retirement.
How do you approach concerns over the use of behavioral science in the workplace?
Specifically in the intelligence business when we talk about behavioral science, people get a little bit sketchy about the differentiation between shaping people’s behavior and manipulating people’s behavior. When it comes to this area of applied behavioral research, we need to think long and hard about whether or not just because we can do something, whether we should do something.
When we’re doing behavioral shaping either with individuals or large scale with our workforce, those shapings should be both in the interests of the employer and the employee. They can’t be just be unidirectional. They can’t benefit one party. They need to benefit both parties, which is what I read in most of the literature. In the things that we’ve done, we’ve tried to walk down that line to make sure that if we were trying to encourage employees to make a better choice, that those choices were potentially both in the interest of the organization and the employee in a fully transparent way.
When you’re implementing a program that’s based on something new, such as applied behavioral science, how do you get buy-in?
The very candid answer is applied behavioral science is still an emerging area, specifically for human capital management. The guys that are in advertising and marketing have been doing this for years, but unfortunately HR, as a general statement, has a tendency to be a little bit more conservative. They’re not known for being early adopters of brand-new types of interventions. And government, which the National Security Agency is part of, is an incredibly conservative organization. Government by design is very risk averse, so making headway in this area has been slow-going. Some things we’ve done in such a light-handed way that we’ve been able to do it almost unilaterally and haven’t had to get a lot of senior management buy-in. But they’re around the very edges of the things that we could be doing.
When you implement a rewards program, or some other new workforce initiative, how do you gather feedback from your employees?
It’s principally in three areas: recruiting, retention or the satisfaction, commitment and engagement areas. In recruiting, after we’ve put a new program in place we try to put as much of a marketing face on that as possible. The demonstrated metrics of that would be increased or easier recruiting of talent in the hard-to-recruit areas — potentially a greater proportion or number of individuals coming from some of the top-tier schools or our ability to effectively attract talent from other top-tier employers.
On the retention piece, we mostly look at our ability to hang on to our existing workforce. We look at mostly attrition statistics and the stated reasons why people are leaving, and any specific patterns in particular talent, discipline or domain areas where we see greater or lesser loss of employees.
The last one would be more of the attitudinal piece, and we measure that in two dimensions. We do have an annual employee climate survey that we distribute, which captures and in the aggregate gives us a sense of how the workforce is perceiving their pay relative to others. We can do some cutting and slicing to gauge how our STEM and cybersecurity workforce is responding.
Additionally, we have our own internal social network. The NSA exists on its own separate classified computer system, so we’re not hooked into the internet in any way, but we actually have our own social network platform. Employees will provide input into that platform from which we can collect and glean what the relative response of the workforce is in reaction to any particular human capital event that’s going on — whether that’s a new pay program, or the most recent hiring freeze, or the most near-miss employee furlough, or any of those kind of good or bad things.