Ireland: Artificial Intelligence Can Promote Gender Equality

By Darran Brennan and Catherine O’Flynn © William Fry August 3, 2018
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​In our artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace article series, we are considering the potential positive impacts that AI could have on the workplace and the possible amendments required to Irish employment law to allow these to happen. In our opening article in the series we identified gender inequality as an Irish employment law issue requiring urgent attention and an issue that could be helped by the clever use and application of AI. In this article, the third in the series (a link to the second is here), we focus on how AI can help employers promote gender equality, including gender pay gap reporting, encouraging gender diversity and fostering collaborative workplaces.

Gender Pay Gap Reporting

Mandatory gender pay gap reporting is fast approaching in Ireland, with two separate pieces of legislation on the issue currently working their way through the legislative process. On June 26, 2018, the Cabinet approved the General Scheme of the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill. The proposed bill follows an earlier private members' bill, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Gender Pay Gap Information) Bill 2017, which has already passed second stage in the Seanad. The government bill will now take precedence over the earlier bill and we expect it to be published and debated later this year.

In our recent article, Bridging the Gap – The UK Experience, we examined the pitfalls in the similar U.K. system, which released its first results earlier this year and discussed how that experience would provide the Irish legislature with food for thought on making Irish legislation watertight in enforceability, meeting deadlines and encouraging reporting. There is clear potential for AI to assist Irish employers to make our reporting accurate, thereby helping employers to better analyze data to resolve problems.

In the U.K., companies were obliged to report and publish, among other data, their organization's mean and median gender pay gap in hourly pay. The median pay gap of companies which reported was 9.7 percent. However, the accuracy of the figures published have been called into question with the U.K. Office of National Statistics stating that the gap is higher, at 18.4 percent. For companies that were obliged to report, instructions on how to gather, calculate and publish this information was provided online. There is certainly potential for AI to help employers in the gathering and calculation of the gender pay gap mean and median figures and to make the process easier for employees and employers. AI can also help authorities with the collection and presentation of data.

Encouraging Gender Diversity

A central tenet of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2015 (the acts) is to prevent and remove discrimination in all its guises, including gender discrimination, from the workplace. The acts provide that employers may not discriminate based on gender. In relation to access to employment, conditions of employment, promotion, re-grading etc. In tackling gender discrimination, AI can be used to identify, learn from and prevent bias within organizations.

We examined the use of AI in recruitment in part two of this series, in which we discussed Textio, an "augmented writing" company that analyzes job descriptions and suggests alternative wording to ensure gender balance and elimination of unconscious gender bias. Textio uses a "tone meter" to help companies spot when certain words or phrases are imbalanced and notes that there are many thousands of combinations of words and phrases that can impact which gender applies for jobs. They explain that seemingly harmless words such as "exhaustive" and "enforcement" can create a gender imbalance in job descriptions.

The use of AI to analyze employee data, for example, to record and monitor employee remuneration and client satisfaction may also be useful in preventing discrimination by removing unconscious bias from promotion and re-grading processes. Using AI to avoid unconscious bias affecting the decisions of employers is certainly useful for employment law purposes, although it is important to remember the caveat that AI technology still needs to be programmed by humans and this part of the process leaves space for bias to be inbuilt into AI algorithms.

Maintaining Engagement

It is widely acknowledged that family life has an impact on career engagement and progression. Maternity leave and parental duties are often cited as reasons why gender imbalance remains at higher management and executive levels. Leading AI in the workplace commentator, Peter Cosgrove, notes that women are less likely to leave work if they are supported in their career development. An interesting use of AI then is as a means of providing this support and to encourage parents to remain engaged in the workplace, thus avoiding gender discrimination in promotion, access to roles and career progression for parents.

The use of collaborative workspaces, as explored by Meister & Mulcahy in The Future Workplace Experience, such as Google Hangout, a communications platform including video chat, instant messaging and online calls and Microsoft Yammer, a private social network for employee collaboration, gives employees outside the workplace the opportunity to engage with and contribute to work in a meaningful way.

AI can be useful in these circumstances, to undertake tasks that usually require employees to be in the workplace. The Irish Times recently reported on a Swiss Bank that has "cloned" its regional chief economic and chief investment officer, so that he can give briefs to clients and staff in a digital format. The clone appears on a television or computer screen, and is programmed to answer questions and give advice on specific areas. While this is in an early prototype stage, it provides an interesting insight into the solutions AI can present to typical employment issues. Solutions such as this can support gender equality, in assisting parents in maintaining engagement with their work while outside the workplace.

Comment 

While AI does not present a perfect solution to all gender discrimination issues, it certainly presents interesting solutions to problems encountered by employers and a new means of tackling gender diversity issues. Using AI in gender pay gap reporting, to avoid unconscious bias and to improve links to work for those not in the workplace, will assist employers in avoiding common occurrences of gender discrimination.

Darran Brennan and Catherine O'Flynn are attorneys with William Fry in Dublin. © 2018 William Fry. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.

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