Can AI Ensure All Employees Are Treated Equally?

When my boss decided to retire at the end of last year, I was the last to know. I was alerted about an hour before the e-mail was sent announcing it. That wouldn’t have been a big deal except that the department heads planned to replace him. The announcement also contained the news that those interested should apply for the job. I had been working successfully at my position under him for nine years, and it seemed that I wasn’t the candidate at the top of their minds to replace him. I since have learned that months prior to my boss’ retirement announcement, the department heads had been speaking with an outside candidate about the possibility of him taking the job. With my strong work record, the question arises: Why was I overlooked?

I forced a happy ending because I spoke up and all but promised to quit if I didn’t get the job, but I shouldn’t have had to force the department heads to do the right thing. The upsetting thought occurs to me often that I was overlooked because I am a petite, soft-spoken woman. I didn’t fit the publishers’ vision of what a senior editorial employee looks like. The man who was their first choice does fit their stereotypical vision of what a leader looks like: He is a tall, 50-something man with gray hair and glasses and an overall serious look. 

The story doesn’t end with my getting the job after significant prodding. Instead of informing their initial choice for the job that the position had changed, or that someone else had been hired, they steamed ahead and hired him anyway, as the editor-in-chief of a publication that wasn’t in need of an editor-in-chief (truth be told), with special projects and reports also part of his bailiwick. They bent over backwards to accommodate him, rather than changing the open position to an entry-level position, so that I would have a junior employee working under me. Instead, there are now two men working on a monthly publication with a handful of sponsors, and one woman working on a weekly publication with more than a dozen sponsors. Would a woman have been accommodated to such an extent? I have been in the position my new colleague was in, and I was simply told the job had been given to an internal candidate, or that the job had been changed to an entry-level position. 

This long story is a way of saying men and women still don’t get equal treatment in the hiring and promotion process. That unequal treatment might be made better by artificial intelligence in hiring, development, and promotion processes. I read about this last week in The New York Times, in an article by Corinne Purtill. “AI can identify the subtle decisions that end up excluding people from employment; it also can spot those that lead to more diverse and inclusive workplaces,” Purtill writes. 

Humu Inc., a start-up based in Mountain View, CA, is betting that humans can be nudged to make choices that make workplaces fairer for everyone, and make all workers happier as a result, according to Purtill. Those nudges can be e-mails sent to all employees noting a lack of women applicants for certain jobs, for example. 

An AI system probably can be programmed to e-mail all those at a company from poorly represented demographics, encouraging them to apply for specific positions. These systems also are capable of letting managers know of pernicious hiring and promotion patterns, and could send alerts to managers reminding them of specific employees in their department who may be getting overlooked. 

AI also could be used to reduce human errors by taking humans out of the initial decision-making process. An AI system doesn’t care who is a woman or a man, or who is one race versus another. It has the capacity to be free of human biases. It can scan a dozen resumes, pulling out only the facts relevant to the open position, such as experience and expertise, leaving out identity factors that might push a biased manager to prefer one employee over another for the wrong reasons.

How many stories like mine do you have at YOUR company? Is it possible that there are more than a few highly qualified women who have been overlooked for internal promotions because their image didn’t match the department heads’ stereotypes of what a leader looks like? 

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