Podcast transcript: How can more women become architects of the digital world?
18 min approx | 8 Mar 2019
Hello and welcome to The Better Question, EY’s series of podcasts that will answer the questions that will help you lead your business through this transformative age.
I’m Juliette Foster, and today we are asking the Better Question: How can more women become architects of the digital world?
We’ll be speaking to three guests:
Sharon Sutherland leads The EY Global Center for Board Matters, and is the Global Markets Strategy and Operations Director at EY.
Sven Petersen leads Egon Zehnder’s UK Technology Practice and is active in the firm’s Executive Assessment and Development and Technology Officers practices.
Sara Conejo Cervantes is an international speaker and campaigner for gender in AI. She has been attending hackathons since the age of 14 – and first gained recognition when she wrote a response to the House of Lords report on AI in the UK.
So, today we’ll be discussing how technology can help advance women all the way up to the boardroom.
Let’s start off by posing this question to our speakers, What in your opinion is the connection between gender and technology? Isn’t digital gender-agnostic?
Sara, I want to start with you because you’re a spokesperson on gender and AI. You’re also our youngest guest today. What’s your take on that?
I think that there is a connection between gender and technology and specifically looking at the ratio of people working in this industry. Women are discouraged from a young age to go into this industry and it's harder to then later on captivate them.
But I think once we have that diversity, I think it's a great way to produce better products and just make it more inclusive.
So, I agree. I think, digital itself is agnostic but the industry that sits behind it, typically is not. And I think that’s exactly Sara what you are saying. And given that women make up half of the workforce, yet we’ve only got 25% of STEM professionals and 20% of AI professionals as women, I think we’ve got some work to do. You can extrapolate that through, to the board composition as well. And, digital, or the rise of digital and the rise of the digital committee, is a relatively new one and, as such, is a new skill set.
I would agree with that. So, my perspective, helping people into roles, as well as developing them in roles, is that technology per se is gender agnostic, digital is gender agnostic, AI is but when you look behind and see the function, for example, of the technology leader it's a very different picture and it's a woeful situation, and it gets even worse than when you take the board into consideration.
Meaning very few female leaders in technology leadership roles, very little technology representation on board in itself but then female representation of tech on boards, is also a pretty dire picture.
So you all agree that digital must be gender-agnostic, but when you look at the make-up of leadership teams, gender diversity is severely lacking. Which begs the question, how important is it for women to have an equal role in driving transformational change?
You know, if we talk about diversity more broadly, in the boardroom and equally in organizations, it's very well documented that organizations that have diverse workforces have a greater economic imperative and are actually more successful.
So we can also look to financial results, to prove that, but, collaboration is key here and having cognitive diversity, including gender, is critical to driving better outcomes for an organization.
I agree with that. Where digital technology needs to be seen as a transformational effort, actually women have, I would argue, a strong capacity to drive that across a business, sometimes even more so then men.
Sven, what do you think is going to open the way for women to be part of the future workforce?
Good question, and not a straightforward answer.
I think from a broader societal perspective it is about role models, it is about creating leadership paths for women in particular that are in line with their aspiration and in a sense also gives permission to want to be a leader in this field. And that, I fear, at the moment, is not quite the case. I see a lot of female talent in the succession pipeline, of big CIOs, for example, and they are kept there as a great place to be and yes we have a female in the succession pipeline, but they never really get promoted.
Okay, so Sharon, it hints there of the culture of a company; that it has to be a key asset if it's to open that door.
Absolutely. Culture by its very virtue should be inclusive and companies that actually have an inclusive culture and performance-based environment tend to perform in the financial markets as well.
They also tend to engender people of different backgrounds wanting to work for them too, which brings more women into the workforce.
And I'd just like to go back one step and look at what is actually the role of the board in terms of its responsibilities because we talked a little bit about financial performance but there are key tenets and that's strategy, risk management and talent, and we really are talking about all of those things in the context of this conversation.
In terms of culture and talent, I mean, that is very much aligned to your strategy and if the two of those are not moving in equal direction, then you really are missing a trick here.
But it's not good enough to just state what your culture is. You have to live and breathe it. You also have to challenge management assumptions as well about what's going on at the grassroot level, and actually ask the questions yourselves of employees and stakeholders and not just accept information.
This is one of these things that you can't leave to chance.
Okay. Let me bring in Sara at this point because these are challenges that you're going to face when you join the workforce but from your perspective how do you think that today's leaders can tap into that pipeline of female talent and create businesses which are inclusive?
One way they can start off is by encouraging and bringing people into their companies just to take a look around, see what they're doing, see how they're working. As well as this, they can start having their own events, hosting for younger people.
When I'm talking about younger people, I'm not talking about university students, I'm talking about much younger age where we need to stress the impact of this. So, it's starting from the ages of 12 up following through secondary school, even through college.
One of our EY global leaders for innovation, Jeff Wong, said recently, you know, "Inclusion doesn't start in the boardroom. It actually starts in the classroom".
And I think that's exactly what you're saying there, Sara.
Yeah, I would completely agree with that statement.
But then it's what happens outside of the classroom. That's where it starts to get a bit more complicated in the world of work and that brings me to the subject of positive discrimination. From your perspective, Sara, is that something which you feel, like it or not, companies are going to have to embrace and basically get on with it, stop being afraid of it, see the positives?
I think currently in the state that we're in we really need to start to encourage this because, as sad as it sounds, we've got to the point where it's a necessity and we really need to encourage girl only events and this isn't to discriminate against male candidates, for example, but it's to encourage female candidates more into it.
And so that's why tech only girls’ events, it's just really interesting to see the ways the girls work with each other to produce results.
I can see you nodding your head in agreement there, Sven.
Yes, absolutely. I think to address the imbalance, a level of positive discrimination is probably needed because we are at an urgent point in this discussion and in this situation, that we're in. With two little daughters at school and actually a female coding teaching at school, there is an excitement and an equal access at a certain level but then something gets lost, when kids leave school.
And then at a later stage, females almost have to catch up again. That's the big problem that I see. So, when boards ask us, "Can you get us a female board member who also has a technology voice?", if you want, the pool is extremely small.
It comes back to the point which I was going to raise with you, Sharon, about using technology as a positive force for change in an organization but also more presciently to address this whole issue of gender.
There really has to be a sort of deliberate ploy whether it's through a board or, just the broader organization around what is your strategy around tech and how does that align with your talent profile and your forecasting about the workplace of the future.
They're all interconnected. It's an eco-system. I mean, you can't have one without the other. With more than 50% of the population now being women, we now do have the opportunity to address some of these legacy roles that we've seen in the past that have been traditionally inhabited by men that's the exciting thing about all of this there is a positive upside to all of this and, again, it can't be left to chance.
It has to be very deliberate and the approach that a board and an organization takes needs to be continually refined.
Sven what are your thoughts? You work with a lot of boards to identify the right talent mix. How can AI be used in support of talent management and create greater gender diversity?
My view is that no boardroom needs AI to understand if they’re diverse or not. But AI has a role to play creating awareness. That is mainly achieved through data. I think we're still a way off to fully embrace that and I think the technology still needs to infiltrate the board.
I think AI, as a constant reminder, as an additional management tool to understand, in a almost like a dashboard way where you are and maybe also what the consequences of some of your decisions are, will be helpful.
However, I'm also of the opinion that AI should never exonerate you from self-leadership and personal accountability. That's a very important point for me. So, I think we should never use it as an excuse. I think AI in an ideal way should always remind us of our ability to make the right call and the right decision.
Just to touch on the discussion of AI a lot of people would turn around and be, "Oh, it can turn really bad". I think currently in the community of AI there is a lot of people who are really trying to push forward with AI for good and AI for humankind. There is really good examples of how it can lead to bigger problems in the future if we don't try to solve this now.
Absolutely. I mean the AI debate is at the moment centered a lot around displacement of the human being, automation.
What I hear less is how AI can help you become a better human being or how you can be more of yourself, or how can you find the potential in you and develop it.
In the gender debate, an AI that has been infused with current diversity thinking may even inform a female candidate to say, "No, no, no. You don't have to apply for this because that's where we are right now". Whereas the enlightened AI, or the future facing AI, might say, "Of course, equal opportunity. Do this. Go ahead and develop yourself and be that person" right.
AI is not in itself the solution.
Human behavior and how we carry ourselves and the decisions we make, that's the solution. And so any input that informs that and drives change at that level, I think, is what we need to look at.
Sara, what do you think about how technology is designed today – is it responsible?
I think it's really important for corporate organizations to consider accountability and transparency in their new designs, whether that's in AI or a new upcoming technology.
I think it's really crucial for them to consider this, especially the ethics that fall behind this. As a young person speaking, I definitely do not want to go into a workforce where there is going to be bias.
I think this is something that quite a lot of young people are quite worried about because older generations haven't taken into account a lot of this. We've obviously had companies where they have used biased data and have produced inaccurate results and they've had no legal implications because of this.
I also want to bring the government into this conversation because, even though technology is growing at a really exponential and rapid rate, I think there is still something that the government should enforce to ensure that any illegal implications are accounted for and not just up to the company to come forward for doing this but also there being some legal actions.
Of course, this is quite a shady area because it takes really long for government to pass bills and, by the time a bill has passed, there would be new technologies already arising and I think this is why it's up to companies' responsibilities to really take into account the actions they're taking.
I really want to emphasize that teaching young innovators and creators that are going to come into the workforce, to ensure that they do consider ethics when working on different projects, think of legal implications, like also covering GDPR, as well as accountability and transparency.
There is an interesting angle here that would be remiss of me not to explore further for our audience.
Sharon, to what extent do you see leadership today considering a framework of ethics and accountability when it comes to AI? As was highlighted earlier, upcoming and future female leaders especially in the technology space are very concerned about this.
What Sara has just described is an ecosystem and, you know a co-existence of multiple constituents that have a role to play in this whole debate. As you say, from a legal perspective trying to keep pace with the changes and shifts in technology is nigh on impossible.
But we can't use that as an excuse, there's a role for many including governments, to play. But bringing it back to the board's perspective, I think three of the biggest questions on board members' minds at the moment, as it relates to AI, are: what can AI do for us, what implications does it have for our workforce and what risks do we need to mitigate?
But probably more broadly what opportunities does it bring?
Bearing all this in mind, the big question really for all of you is: what is the way forward?
Even with gender inclusivity, I think it's this thing where we need to start to tackle biased data, in particular, right now and make sure that the data that we are using is clean and modelled in the correct way.
Aside from that is also making sure that people are willing to give their data because if we want to live in a smart city, we can only do that if we have data available and stop creating the stigma of we're going to steal your data or this data's actually not representable, and instead encourage them to be able to do this to ensure that data in the future, that is going to be used in AI algorithms, for example, are less biased and to make it more inclusive and particularly to women who are going to be working in the industry.
Sharon, what do you regard as the way forward?
We talked earlier about the fact that digital's gender agnostic but practices are not. So, I think that’s one of the things that I would challenge leaders of today to really drill down to their practices, their behaviors, again their talent strategy, those types of things I think are very important.
And, again, you cannot leave these things to chance. You will fail.
Sven, your closing thoughts?
For me, it's quite important that anyone listening in a position of authority and power doesn't opt out of the technology debate but feel that they have agency in this. The dialogue needs to be matured and, therefore, every single stakeholder in this debate, and especially the senior stakeholders, have agency in this. So, just because you didn't grow up with coding skills doesn't mean you can't talk or partake in the debate.
Sound words on which to end our discussion.
So that’s it for today’s episode, which is dedicated to International Women’s Day, and brought to you by EY’s Women. Fast forward program and the EY Center for Board Matters.
We discussed how more women can become architects of the digital world.
But, as ever, the answer to a better question often leads to more questions. So, let me leave you with a few to ponder:
- How can AI bring to the fore unconscious bias within decision making?
- Are your board members role models for the future directors of your organization?
- Does your technology strategy align with your talent strategy?
For more information on EY Women. Fast forward program visit ey.com/womenfastforward.
To hear more episodes, subscribe to the full podcast series, and if we’ve got you thinking a little differently about gender equality in your business, consider leaving us a review.
The better the question, the better the answer, the better the world works.
Until next time, goodbye.
Disclaimer: The views of third parties set out in this publication are not necessarily the views of the global EY organization or its member firms. Moreover, they should be seen in the context of the time they were made.