AI: What will it mean for women?

 |   Emma Barrett, Public Sector Director, Microsoft New Zealand

Image of Emma Barrett, Public Sector Director at Microsoft NZ

I recently joined a panel discussion at our incredible Microsoft AI Tour in Sydney and was asked to comment on what role AI would play in supporting women in the future. Wow – what a great question! I had to wonder why I hadn’t considered this before. It’s such a fascinating topic – and after some reflection I feel genuinely optimistic about AI’s ability to support women in many ways.

In Microsoft’s women’s employee resource group for Australia and New Zealand, which I co-lead, our mission and purpose is “to create a culture where all of our women are supported to thrive, both personally and professionally”. We know from Women Rising’s The Voice of Women at Work 2023 report that the biggest challenges facing women in the workplace today are burnout, lack of support and lack of development. AI can directly empower and support women across all of these key areas.

Burnout is a major issue for women, with pressures felt from workload and deadlines, family dependencies, financial stress, social pressure and simply juggling full-on schedules. The productivity element of AI and productivity enhancements such as Microsoft’s Copilots will give us more time back by making us more efficient at work.

Take teachers, for example. In New Zealand, 85 % of all teachers are women (73% in Australia). Our research shows generative AI could reduce teachers’ admin by 30%. The same goes for other female-majority sectors such as healthcare (where female doctors in Aotearoa are expected to outnumber males by 2025), law, professional services such as HR, marketing and communications, and administration.

The key is using new generative AI tools intentionally, in a way that doesn’t just free up more time for meetings! The great thing is modern workplace platforms like Viva now exist to monitor how people are spending their time at work (and even flag when overtime and after-hours calls are creeping up), helping managers create less stressful workflows.

From a practical view, I like to think that AI will help support us women to gain confidence when we lack it. I like to use PowerPoint’s Online Presentation Coach to provide real-time feedback while I’m rehearsing presentations – it watches you present and provides feedback on pace, pronunciation, eye contact and more. Such a simple application of AI that helps to build confidence, like a mentor in your laptop!

Meanwhile, it’s been well documented that gender bias has a role to play in women being held back from job opportunities, and therefore career growth and development. Studies have also shown that the same resume with a woman’s name on it, as assessed by humans, often yields a different result or sentiment to that which has a man’s name on it. If it were AI assessing incoming resumes and applications, that often unconscious bias should be removed. While AI does have its own inbuilt biases to overcome (being trained by human beings), when it comes to opening the door to more women in senior roles, it can potentially be a powerful tool.

As Microsoft’s New Zealand managing director, Vanessa Sorenson, has also acknowledged: “Too often, women say they’re not sure they can do a certain role, because they lack the confidence. So naturally, you believe them. But we need to stop listening to what they say about themselves and start looking at their capabilities and what they’ve actually achieved.”

Some reports predict that women will be disproportionately impacted by jobs disappearing over time as AI replaces them. I’m personally not convinced! While an Open AI report with the University of Pennsylvania found most workers will see at least 10 per cent of their jobs affected by AI, it’s less about taking jobs and more about enhancing the work they do. In my mind, if we’re smart about upskilling more women in AI, there’s an opportunity to create more fulfilling roles for all women.

Firstly, the basic admin tasks that are currently consuming their workday will be done for them, leaving more time and space to do more high value work. Secondly, women naturally show up with an abundance of empathy, amazing communication skills and EQ – all qualities that generative AI doesn’t have. There’ll be a growing need for humans with these skills to complement AI, unleashing more productivity and innovation with a human heart.

Even the formerly “technical” roles such as coding now reflect this. With AI innovation such as GitHub Copilot, we’re seeing huge reductions in the time it takes to write code (up to 50% time saved), and coders are feeling more fulfilled and happier in their jobs. What was once a profession that simply involved a lot of specialist knowledge and logic is now becoming more about an appreciation of usability and innovation supported by AI tools that can manage the more technical detail and prompt coders on what to do next, widening the field for more people who are currently under-represented.  It would be a game changer for diversity in IT if AI leads to coding becoming a more compelling career path for women.

I’m excited by the possibility of AI to positively support women to take new opportunities, to help reduce burnout, to help build confidence and reduce gender bias in many processes and systems.

And not only in the workplace. As soon as I figure out how to use Copilot to summarise the multiple daily emails I receive from my kids’ schools, that will truly be a great day.

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