8 minute read 8 Mar 2019
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Why AI could correct the gender imbalance right up to the boardroom

By Sharon Sutherland

EY Global Center for Board Matters Leader and Asia-Pacific Networks Leader

Global mindset. Power through diversity. Art lover. Intellectually curious. Traveler. Legacy matters. Passionate about learning initiatives.

8 minute read 8 Mar 2019

When making the case for gender-balanced boards, the argument has already been won. The ‘how’ is where organizations struggle. AI could be part of the solution.

Despite the efforts of governments and organizations, men still dominate boardrooms around the world. AI could be part of the solution – helping organizations to level the playing field and drive culture change.

It’s well documented that organizations with diverse workforces are more successful. As a result, organizations have moved beyond the ‘why’ – the economic imperative – to the ‘how’.

Unfortunately, the ‘how’ is where organizations are getting stuck. On the one hand, government quotas have brought results: all French, Italian and Norwegian companies had at least three women directors on their boards at the end of 2017. In 2018, the top 100 listed companies in Australia even managed to hit 30% without a quota.

On the other hand, only one in four board members in Fortune 100 companies were women in 2018. And FTSE 350 boards will need to appoint women to nearly half of all new available appointments if they’re to achieve the UK government’s target of one-third women by 2020.

More worryingly still, European quotas don’t seem to have increased the number of women in the pipeline: in Germany, France and the Netherlands, women hold just 10-20% of senior management jobs. This suggests that even where the numbers have changed for the better, behaviors and cultures haven’t.

What’s tech got to do with it?

The explosion in digital technologies, including AI, has added another dimension to the gender diversity debate: the notable absence of women in the tech sector.

While the number of women on boards has increased in the last 70 years, female representation in tech has gone the other way. As recently as the 1960s, women made up the biggest part of the workforce in computing; fast forward to 2019 and just 22% of AI professionals globally are female.

This problem starts in school, with girls’ interest in STEM dwindling as they get older. “Girls are discouraged from entering the industry from a young age and it’s harder to captivate them later,” says Sara Conejo Cervantes, an international speaker and campaigner for gender and AI. As a result, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women. And of the women that take up tech jobs, many leave, citing a ‘toxic’ culture that discriminates against them.

All of this can make it difficult to find qualified women for board roles, and organizational cultures can mean internal candidates get overlooked.

In this context, it’s not surprising that women make up just 12.6% of board members in the UK’s top tech firms. Or that only one of the 24 total board members at three leading Chinese tech firms is a woman.

When boards ask us, ‘Can you get us a female board member who also has a technology voice?’, the pool we’re looking at is extremely small. I also see a lot of female talent in the succession pipeline – CIOs, for example – but they don’t get promoted to boards. It’s a pretty dire picture.
Sven Petersen
Partner and UK Technology Practice Leader, Egon Zehnder

The high price of algorithmic bias

The lack of women in tech has a broader impact: the potential for bias – either conscious or unconscious – when men write the vast majority of algorithms. This bias could be embedded in an algorithm that sifts CVs, for example. Or it could lurk in an algorithm that decides which ad to show to which audience on social media. And when women still make the majority of household spending decisions, pitching to men instead could cost a company dearly.

Either way, evidence of bias isn’t going to warm women to an organization.

We’ve seen cases where companies have used biased data and produced inaccurate results, with no legal implications. As a young person, I don’t want to be going into a workforce with that bias.
Sara Conejo Cervantes
International speaker and campaigner for gender in AI

AI could be a great leveler

Boards don’t need AI to show them there’s a problem. But the data and insights it generates allows them to have conversations that are grounded in the facts.

AI also:

  • makes the issue of gender imbalance more visible
  • gives the board a rolling scorecard with which to track progress, while holding people to account
  • democratizes how the organization generates ideas

Combining AI with behavioral economics can reduce unconscious bias, as well as nudge people to think about bias in their daily work. But as Sven Petersen says, “AI in itself isn’t the solution, human behavior is. Anything that informs and drives change at that level – that’s what we need to look at.” 

Changing behaviors means changing cultures

The way organizations use AI externally can damage trust among customers and employees alike. Or it can positively influence their ability to attract women. So it’s crucial that organizations adopt tech in a quick but trusted way, while also creating a culture that supports women.

Success starts with a board that has the desire and intent to bring about change. Once that’s in place, it’s a case of putting on an activist’s hat and taking a thought-through approach.

You need a deliberate strategy to achieve your objectives; you can’t leave things to chance. If you do, you’ll fail.

Three ways boards can use AI to attract and advance women

1. Within the board
  • Define your culture and purpose. What kind of company do you want to be? What sort of people and skills will help you achieve it?
  • Look at your current expertise. Do you have a special committee or board advisor that helps to inform your governance of AI and its impacts on the organization and beyond? Consider filling gaps by creating new committees that have potential places for women. Reconsider the roles on your board to make sure you have the diverse talent to deliver the company’s strategy. Look for talent in unusual places, too: consider female CEOs of private tech companies for non-exec positions, for example. And consider asking external partners to help you on this journey.
  • Develop a clear strategy for AI. What role will technologies play in helping you to achieve your business and cultural objectives? Who ‘owns’ data/digital in your organization? How will you make sure there’s no bias in your AI systems – either customer-facing or internal? Have you embedded the right checks and balances for trust, ethics, transparency and explainability into your AI strategy? And how will you shift the focus from managing risk to maintaining trust?
  • Work out what you need to know from management, and decide how AI can support this reporting and decision-making process.
2. From the board to the organization
  • How are you making sure your leadership teams treat your culture as a strategic asset? What talent-related metrics are they presenting to the board, and how often?
  • What questions should you ask management to make sure they focus on the issues they need to solve, and don’t get carried away with the tech?
  • Encourage your leadership team to work with executive search organizations to think more creatively about where talent might be, and what strengths make for a good team.
  • Help them to recognize that a degree in a STEM subject isn’t the only route to a leadership role in tech. Upskilling women at graduate to middle management level will also help to fill any gaps in the pipeline.
3. From the organization to the outside world
  • Consider how your use of AI could be influencing how women perceive you as an employer. Do people trust your brand?
  • Set up a taskforce with other organizations in your sector to encourage early education and develop a balanced pipeline for STEM. As Jeff Wong, EY Global Chief Innovation Officer, said in a recent blog, “Leveling the STEM playing field starts in the classroom – not the boardroom.”
  • Run your own outreach/CSR programs in schools and universities.
  • Report on efforts to level the playing field, even if you’re not legally obliged to. Being transparent will build trust.

The lasting impact of a positive legacy

These ideas should help you put strategies and processes in place to solve the gender imbalance on your board and below. But what if fellow members of the board or management team have yet to buy into your approach?

“A helpful way to view it can be in terms of legacy, or the kind of organization you want to leave behind,” says Sharon Sutherland. “If that legacy can be positive – in this case, a better gender balance at every level – you’ll be helping to deliver long-term value for your organization. And no one can argue with that.”

Join the conversation #SheBelongs. Let’s progress #WomenFastForward.

We would like to thank Sven Petersen, Partner, Egon Zehnder and Sara Conejo Cervantes, International speaker and campaigner for gender in AI and Board member, InspiredMinds, for sharing their views with us.

For more insights on board matters, visit ey.com/boardmatters. For information on our Women. Fast forward program, visit ey.com/womenfastforward.


Organizations are struggling to achieve gender-balanced boards. As the participants in our recent podcast How can more women become architects of the digital world? discussed, AI could be part of the solution – helping organizations to level the playing field. But, that's not enough to drive culture change.

About this article

By Sharon Sutherland

EY Global Center for Board Matters Leader and Asia-Pacific Networks Leader

Global mindset. Power through diversity. Art lover. Intellectually curious. Traveler. Legacy matters. Passionate about learning initiatives.