Closing The Gap

The rise of A.I. could hurt women's careers in a major way

Woman Playing Chess with Robot
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Developments in artificial intelligence and automation have been heralded as a major leap forward in human advancement. But they could also adversely affect another important measure of societal progress: The gender pay gap.

That's according to a new report from the World Economic Forum, which indicated that the growth of jobs in emerging industries, such as IT and engineering, is set to disproportionately hurt women and, by consequence, progress made in reducing pay inequality.

The gender pay gap, the difference between average earnings for men and women, has been narrowing over recent years, yet there remains a long way to go until compensation parity is reached — 202 years to be exact. And that estimate could grow even lengthier if progress is not made in bringing more women into the workforce, the WEF found

"We're looking at these big, structural changes, which I think are creating a drag on what was a stronger momentum before towards gender equality" -Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum

That's due to two major factors, Saadia Zahidi, managing director and head of social and economic agendas at the World Economic Forum, told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Firstly, many of the roles typically filled by women, such as administrative and customer service roles, are being "automated away" by new technologies. And, secondly, the types of roles that are growing, like machine learning and big data roles in the IT sector, happen to be ones where "the talent base of women is very small as compared to men."

"We're looking at these big, structural changes, which I think are creating a drag on what was a stronger momentum before towards gender equality," Zahidi said.

Engineers assembling robotics in factory
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The shortage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions is well chronicled. But the report notes how that gender disparity — often the result of historic gender biases — has visibly impacted the gender pay gap.

Most notable is its mark on the highly technical AI industry. There, the gender gap is three times larger than in other sectors, with women making up just 22 percent of the workforce.

Not only is that harmful for advancing pay parity and gender equality more generally, but it also creates issues for the technology itself. After all, the ultimate goal of AI is to think like a human and mimic the way humans behave. If that intelligence is programmed almost exclusively by men, there's a risk that gender biases will slip into the machines, too.

"It is absolutely crucial that those people who create AI are representative of the population as a whole," Kay Firth-Butterfield, WEF's head of artificial intelligence and machine learning, told CNBC. A lack of diversity means "we're not actually reflecting the population and we have a huge problem," she added.

Encouraging more women to jump into tech

The report noted that some industries and institutions are making progress in encouraging more women to become involved in emerging technologies. Chief among them were the education and health-care sectors and non-profits, where the talent pool of women in AI outweighed men. But it called for more work to be done.

"The diversity — including gender diversity — of views among innovators is vital to ensuring the economic opportunities created by AI do not increase existing gender inequalities, and that new AI systems serve the needs of society at large," the report said.

"There is no doubt that more can be done to encourage and inspire women to take interest in STEM-related subjects." -Steve Leonard, founding CEO of SGInnovate

One group that's working to encourage more women to pursue deep tech careers is SGInnovate, a network backed by the Singapore government that runs a series of STEM internships and placements. Steve Leonard, founding CEO of SGInnovate, said that such hands-on experience is the best way to get more women into the field and break down outdated stereotypes.

"There is no doubt that more can be done to encourage and inspire women to take interest in STEM-related subjects and pursue a career in these areas," Leonard told CNBC Make It. "Many of the brightest founders we are backing are women, and they are working on highly technical areas such as AI and MedTech. I am confident that we will start seeing more women step up to build great innovations that will help shape the world we live in."

Adam Edwards, business director for Singapore at recruitment firm Hays, added that employers in emerging industries could also start leading the way in reducing the gender pay gap by proactively seeking and training a more women. He noted that those employers are often among the most aware and vocal about the business benefits of gender inclusivity and its "positive impact" in creating opportunities for skilled women.

"Effectively, this levels the playing field when it comes to career progression and remuneration/reward structures," Edwards wrote in an email to CNBC Make It. "As employers further embrace the concept of creating truly equal gender platforms, the pay gap continues to reduce."

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