The gender representation gap didn’t happen overnight. There was no single event that created the current inequity. So, it’s reasonable to say that there won’t be a singular solution, either. There’s no silver bullet. It’s a puzzle, and we need all the pieces to come together for women to be equals in the workplace—and in leveraging the potential of generative AI.

As my colleague Phaedra Boinodiris recently wrote, “The importance of diversity in AI isn’t opinion, it’s math.” Referencing the diversity prediction theorem, she demonstrated how, when the diversity in a group is large, the error of the crowd is small. Unfortunately, according to the 2023 IBM Institute for Business Value Women in Leadership study, women only hold:

  • 12% of C-suite and board-level positions
  • 14% of senior VP positions
  • 16% of VP or director positions
  • 19% of senior manager positions

Even as we increase our C-suite presence year over year, we are not equally filling the leadership pipeline. This lack of a pipeline in the leadership funnel is an enormous problem, and a huge reason why the gap is growing. If we don’t start doing some things differently, the gap will never close.

This year’s report from the IBM Institute for Business Value, Forging the future with AI: Women can take the lead, beautifully identifies what I believe are the right areas—including leadership, allyship, and risk-taking—to address the inequality we’re seeing. I believe the stories from other women leaders that are in this report will inspire women in the workforce to rise to the challenges and opportunities posed by AI and address current workplace dynamics. I know they inspire me.

Get the report: “Forging the future with AI: Women can take the lead”

Why women can—and must—lead generative AI

Addressing the challenges with gender inequality and making real change requires an intentional, continuous drumbeat from all of us, women and men. It must be an unrelenting commitment. And I think technology like generative AI can help us do this.

We are in the early days of the true, transformative impact of generative AI. The areas where generative AI is having a business impact right now—marketing, HR, and customer service—traditionally have more women in them. Additionally, the skillsets and attributes needed to cut through the confusion and implement generative AI—empathy, open communication, transparency, strategic vision—are attributes where women are, stereotypically, known to be stronger. Unfortunately, these attributes are often undervalued in the workplace, even though women are more often evaluated for them.

Am I saying that we play to stereotypes? Not quite. I’m saying that those characteristics are invaluable strengths that we should lean into. Our empathy, our listening and communication skills, and our strategic minds are positive characteristics that the world needs.

When you put these things together, there is this huge opportunity for women to step up. Now is the time to be bold and take those risks.

What is holding women back?

If we have this opportunity to close the gender gap, why isn’t it happening? Why are women more hesitant than men when it comes to adopting AI?

It is partly due to lack of representation. While 73% of business leaders believe having more women leadership is important for mitigating gender bias in AI, only 33% currently have a woman in charge of decision-making for AI strategy.[1] Then there are concerns about job security. As the report states, women claim to be more concerned about being replaced by AI, compared to their male counterparts (46% versus 37%), and 59% of women claim they are waiting for company policies to tell them how and where to adopt generative AI.

There isn’t a single barrier, and there isn’t a single solution. But it’s clear to me that three big blockers are inconsistent leadership strategies, women as the minority (also known as a lack of diversity), and a lack of male allies. Unfortunately, these factors fuel each other and contribute to this vicious cycle that widens the gender gap.

What will help break the vicious cycle?

Forget gender and AI for a second. Take any situation in which you are the minority. It’s more difficult to speak up, to be heard, and to feel valued. It’s hard for any minority to stand up and take risks. For women in business, especially in tech, we are often the minority in the room. As we start to see more women around us, it will be easier, safer, to share our points of view.

How do we get more women in the room? Intentional leadership, to start. Not only hiring more qualified women but creating workplaces and roles that are appealing to women. When planning meetings, putting together a panel of speakers, or brainstorming projects, ask yourself: Are women equally represented in the room? Are we elevating women’s voices and ideas as much as their male counterparts?

It may be an unpopular belief, but yes, we do need our male colleagues to help us with closing this gap. This is true of those who are leaders, but also those who can be allies. They can help promote us, give us the floor to speak, ensure that we are heard. For women, if you don’t have male allies, you need to find them.

Connecting all the pieces

As I mentioned, this is a puzzle. There is no silver bullet or step-by-step recipe to follow. There are pieces to fit together to close the gap. If we don’t make the necessary changes, the gap will widen. But closing it is a process. Luckily, the current environment is increasingly conducive to making these changes. More people are listening. It’s no longer a secret problem.

The puzzle pieces are now being illuminated by the light of day and we need ‘all hands on deck’ to solve for the full picture. As I see it, some of those key puzzle pieces are:

Executive leadership

It starts at the top: Leadership must realize this is an issue and set the stage. They need to be even more intentional and give their strategies real teeth.

Allyship

Women: Find male allies! Men: Be allies to the women around you. When male allies are in place, they can lift women’s voices and give added support to our perspectives in a way that is harder to do when you’re the minority.

Bold women willing to take risks

Leadership and allyship are not enough. There is an onus on women to be bolder and take more risks. As the IBM Institute for Business Value report illustrates, men are looking at generative AI to advance their careers, while women are looking at it as a way to keep our jobs. That alone leads to an enormous difference in how we approach learning and implementing generative AI.

As leadership support, male allies, and opportunities fill the room around us, we need to lean in. Is it scary? Sure. It’s tough, but so are women. We are resilient.

I think of my mother. She’s my hero, my superhero. She has the highest EQ of anyone I’ve ever known. Very giving, very perceptive, very in tune with others. And even she would say, “People cannot read your mind.” She taught us to speak up, to follow our passions, set our goals, and work hard to achieve them. And very importantly, to not accept ‘no’ as the final answer. That is the resilience and toughness I got from her.

As women, we need to lean into our resilience and innate strength. It is on us to be bolder, to take those opportunities and speak up. When it comes to being innovative and taking risks, if we fall or fail, we need to stay focused on the goals we set. Get back up, do what you need to do, help lift other women along the way.

Those are pieces of the puzzle we can control for ourselves: hard work, confidence, faith or mindfulness, resilience. And of course, the choice to pay it forward for the next wave of women leaders.

Get the report: “Forging the future with AI: Women can take the lead” Read more: “AI skills for all”

[1] In partnership with Censuswide, IBM interviewed 4,008 senior business decision makers in companies with 250+ employees across the France, Germany, Italy, KSA, Spain, Sweden, UAE, and the UK in December 2023. This included 2,005 male leaders and 2,003 female leaders.

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