Why we need more women leaders in AI

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To drive AI-based innovation for a varied population, we also need diverse leadership in AI development. This isn’t the case today: women, for example, make up only 26% of the AI and data workforce, and the percentage of women in leadership pipelines has actually fallen back compared to 2019. We discussed the challenges and opportunities ahead with Ms Victoria Bunyard (CTO IBM, Benelux) and Ms Anette Böhm, Chief HR Officer at KBC Group and one of IBM’s 2021 Women Leaders in AI honorees.


Artificial intelligence and machine learning help us navigate an increasingly complex world. The implication is that algorithms may have a critical impact on people’s lives: in banking, for example, an AI-driven data analysis may decide whether or not someone will be granted a loan. While this sort of innovation enables our society to operate more efficiently, there’s also a need to ensure that this AI-driven data analysis operates in line with good practices and good ethics.

Designing and training AI models can be extremely sensitive to implicit biases. And even though certain programs can help you identify such biases in your AI and training sets, there’s a much more straightforward and obvious solution to this challenge.

‘It’s about ensuring that you have representation’, says Ms Bunyard. ‘If you start from a position of having a diverse workforce, you reduce the chances of putting yourself in a position where you may be at risk.’

One important domain where representation is falling short is the percentage of women in the AI and data workforce. Overall, only about 1 in 4 is female – and this number drops to an alarming 8% when talking about female leadership roles. So, how do we move forward?


Fostering and boosting female talent

‘I may say something quite controversial here, but I think we have to start much, much earlier’, says Victoria Bunyard. ‘Still too often, I see young girls and women being discouraged from technical careers or technical pursuits.’

‘Absolutely’, Ms Böhm chimes in. ‘And I also think we need to work a lot more with role models. We have to show young women and teenagers that they can have a career. Otherwise – even if they have an interest – they will reorientate themselves. If they see it’s always the men who get picked up, they won’t go there.’

‘We risk losing a lot of talent, if we don’t foster it well’, concludes Ms Bunyard.

Fostering talent can be done in various ways. (Bidirectional) mentorship is one of them. ‘There are known aspects to young female talent: they will not necessarily put themselves forward, and will not necessarily realize their own value and their own strength’, Ms Bunyard continues.

‘If I’m in the role I’m in today, it’s because quite a lot of people saw the potential that I have and the value that I can bring. It’s now on me to pay that forward.’

For Ms Böhm, successful mentorship stretches far beyond the company. Rather than an institutionalized matching process, it’s about trying to find people you look up to and receive constructive feedback from – both in and outside of the workplace.

‘It comes much more from the talent itself than it comes from the organization. What we can do as an organization is, of course, identify talented women and help them. I think if everybody did, we would already be one step further.’

When it comes to identifying and celebrating female leaders driving AI-powered innovation, IBM is proud to put 40 honorees in the spotlight every year.


Quotas: artificial booster or sustainable tool?

Another way to increase female participation includes quotas. While they continue to draw controversy – some may even call it ‘artificial’ –, both Ms Bunyard and Ms Böhm see their advantages and opportunities.

‘To be honest, I was against quotas for a very long time. However, I’ve become a bit more nuanced’, admits Ms Böhm. ‘Women shouldn’t be promoted because they’re women: they should be promoted for their skills and qualifications. And we can help them develop the right skills and qualifications.’

‘Quotas have helped to push the matter forward. I am a strong believer that we need to keep doing it in order to bring women into the more business-related functions. This way, women can see that they can have a career in those domains and take up these career opportunities.’

Ms Bunyard nods in recognition. ‘I spent a lot of time being pulled into “women in tech” and “women in this” and “women in that”. Initially I was not sure of the value of these activities, but over time I grew to truly understand the importance of these groups and networks, and encourage people to join in.  But the reality is, even with all that activity, I was still often the only woman in the room in most meetings. Something has to be done to change the numbers.’

‘It shouldn’t be the case that people find it interesting that I am female and a CTO. It should be completely normal that there’s a female CTO. If quotas are a way we change the numbers and get to some form of critical mass where you’re no longer the unicorn in the room – we have to use those tools until we change the landscape, or until we find better tools.’

‘If the number of women in leadership roles is dropping, it becomes all the more important that those who are successful become visible, that they are highlighted as role models.’


Celebrating Women Leaders in AI

In addition to fostering talent, it’s also key to celebrate it. That’s why IBM launched Women Leaders in AI, which puts the spotlight on 40 female innovators from across the globe who are implementing IBM Watson to transform and grow various industries.

Chief HR officer Ms Anette Böhm is one of this year’s honorees and the driving force behind the development of a digital talent platform powered by IBM Watson. A courageous and crucial step in KBC’s business transformation towards a digital bank, which could have rendered obsolete more than a thousand jobs.

While other financial institutions decided to let people go and to replace them with others, we decided that we wanted to be loyal to our employees’, explains Ms Böhm. ‘Technology is here to stay, and we all have to develop our technological side – whether we work in business, or in technology. Our learning utility will be key.’

The resulting Digital Talent Platform is a learning and matching platform with personalized content, which, in the first instance, enables its 16,000 employees in Belgium (at a later stage, all 42,000 employees in the group) to evaluate their skills, requalify themselves where needed and make sure they acquire the skills needed for KBC’s jobs of the future.


 Good tech vs tech for good

‘We are 175 people in the HR department, but we are not enough people to really fix the challenge that lies ahead of us. We have to transform so fast that our department is not big enough to ensure that we can offer the help needed. This is where technology comes in.’

‘In the past, we used to have the triangle between employee, manager, and the HR department. Now, we have the tremendous lever of technology, which is definitely here to stay. HR departments that do not look into technology will fail.’

This aspect is closely linked to a new-found appreciation for technology. ‘The real difference is that it’s no longer the domain of just technical people’, says CTO Bunyard. ‘Everyone, regardless of role, needs to have technology at their fingertips today.’

Technology has become front and center more than ever when it comes to supporting and augmenting people. According to Ms Bunyard, a direct consequence is that you have to think about ‘good tech and tech for good’: are you building your technology footprint effectively and for the right reasons?

This evolution also resonates with Chief HR officer Böhm. ‘When I talk to tech people, they really have the employee experience in mind. They know a complex system will not be the one that sells. In that way, I do believe that technology supports a human approach.’


Brand Amplification Lead Benelux

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