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Artificial intelligence, gender bias, and remote teams, with Lauren Pasquarella Daley

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Only 12% of AI researchers are women. Artificial intelligence plays a major role in the development of distributed teams and the future of remote work — but what does that future look like with a gender bias in its foundations?

In this episode, Barbara Matthews, Chief People Officer at Remote, is joined by Lauren Pasquarella Daley. Lauren is a renowned futurist exploring the future of work and the future of the worker with a passion for advocacy for women in the workplace.

In the chat about the future of work, Lauren estimates that 80% of jobs will be impacted by AI. What role will this have on shaping culture and society? And what can the average person do about any of this? Lauren also shares her recent work at a symposium, which looked closely at the future of distributed teams. Her research covers how humans interact with machines; rescaling and upscaling; shifting paradigms in the workplace; and inclusive and flexible teams. 

We hope you enjoy the latest episode of Off Mute!

Episode transcript

Barbara: I am Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and this is Off Mute, the podcast that explores managing distributed teams all across the globe.

In this episode, I'm having a chat with Lauren Pasquarella Daley. She's recently found her own consultancy and coaching company, exploring the future of work and the future of the worker.

But in the past has led an instrumental Women and Future of Work program creating learning programs for leading inclusive hybrid teams, workplace flexibility and empathy for leadership in this new era of work.

I learned lots from my chat with Lauren, and I think you are going to really enjoy our conversation too.

Lauren, thank you so much for chatting with us today. I've been spending a bit of time researching you over the past week, and I'm really looking forward to learning a bit more about you. I've tons of questions actually from the background you have.

The Women and the Future of Work Strategy

Barbara: Firstly, if it's okay, I want to dive into your time at Catalyst. You created the Women and the Future of Work program, and I'd love to hear you share a bit more about the program itself.

And also, I'm really interested in the workplace changes that you've helped to influence and that you've seen with that.

Lauren: Thank you for having me. I'm really happy to be here today, Barbara. We launched the Women and the Future of Work Strategy at Catalyst before the pandemic. We launched in 2019. We had a symposium and the four areas of focus that we were really looking at were how humans were going to interact with machines moving forward.

So, looking at the impact of emerging technology and understanding not just how humans would interact with machines, but also how it would change jobs, how emerging technology could also entrench biases.

And so, we wanted to make sure that we were staying ahead of those changes, which led us to the second area of our focus, which was on the need for re-skilling and upskilling, not just for technical skills. We know those are going to be critical moving into the future.

But also, those human interpersonal skills like empathy, adaptability, critical thinking that really differentiate humans from machines and can be a bonus for teamwork, collaboration, especially in new ways of working.

The third area was around the shifting paradigm of life and work and how our expectations about work are changing, but also how we're integrating our lives with our work in different ways.

And that not only employees, but also consumers are expecting different things from companies expecting them to respond to social issues, to be progressive on flexible working, all of the things that go into making a holistic wellbeing experience at work.

And then finally the last area was on inclusive, flexible teams. And actually, at our symposium, this was the area around workplace flexibility and remote work that our attendees struggled with the most pre-pandemic.

Of course, those were the changes we expected to take place over the next three to five years, wanting to make sure that we were staying ahead of the changes so we could create more equity going forward.

And then the pandemic hit three months later and accelerated everything, changes that we thought would take place three to five years sometimes took place three to five weeks. And for some organizations, three to five days.

Barbara: Did you have any metrics or data that have seen, I guess, the impact of the program itself on that cohort?

Lauren: When we launched in 2019, we were really looking at how to evaluate this, how to help organizations stay ahead of the changes. But we launched with a research agenda that started to look into some of these areas.

One of the research reports was on the power of empathy, especially during times of crisis. And looking at empathy as a skill. The way that we defined it was empathy is the skill of showing care, concern and understanding to the lived experiences of another person.

It is a skill. It is something that you can get better at. You're not born with it. Everyone can get better at it with intentional training and practice. And we wanted to understand people who experience empathy from their managers and from their organisation through policies around remote working, what those benefits were for the business, because we really saw it as a win-win.

Not only would it help people, but it could also help further business outcomes like innovation, engagements, the ability to be creative. And our research definitely supported that.

We also had a study that looked at the benefits of remote working access, and particularly for women. Women who had access to remote work options said that they were 32% less likely to intend on leaving their job in the next year if they had childcare responsibilities compared to women without childcare responsibilities. So, remote work access was critical.

And we also looked at skills such as adaptability and how you can create policies that show care, concern and understanding, but also be flexible when the needs change. We know that change is going to continue to come. We have to be adaptable going forward.

How did the shift to remote work affect women specifically?

Barbara: You did reference the pandemic. Obviously, we can't ever have a podcast these days without referencing the pandemic. We all know the pandemic dramatically changed the landscape for remote work, but tell me a bit more if you can, about how the change impacted women specifically.

Lauren: This was something we were tracking very closely throughout the pandemic to understand the impact of what this would look like for women immediately during the pandemic, and then what it would look like for years to come.

And a lot of the reports initially were that women were having to leave the workforce if they were in fields or industries where they didn't have access to remote work.

So, if they had to be on site, if they were essential or frontline workers, the need of having to take care of childcare. But also, the impact of shutdowns really was impacting women's careers.

And a lot of economists were concerned that women would be driven out of the workforce, that we would be set back a generation.

But what is interesting and what we started to see in track was that the impact of increasing access to workplace flexibility and remote work actually allowed women to stay in the workplace, in the workforce, in those industries where they had access to it.

Our study showed again that they were less likely to intend to leave their job in a year. And now as we get through the pandemic and looking at where we are today, there were a lot of talks of the She-Cession that women would be leaving the workplace, would we ever get those gains back?

And today, this year in 2023, we are. The research really is very bright that women are in the workforce in greater numbers. And what the economists attributed that to is being able to work from home, having greater access to remote work.

And so, when we're looking at those record numbers of women in the workplace, there was a study in the United States from Glassdoor where they looked at it and said, based on those numbers, there's an opportunity for 1.3 million more women to be in the labour force today because of remote work than pre pandemic. That is incredible.

So, having access to remote work is critically important, and that's why it's so important that we continue to have access to remote work going forward.

Barbara: Totally agree. And as a mother of three, I fully endorse remote work. Lauren, I was reading a recent interview you gave, and you coined a term, emergency remote working. And I want to just understand a bit more about your opinion on the differences between emergency remote working versus a full-time culture of remote working.

Lauren: For me, I was working remotely for many years before the pandemic. I've been a remote worker for 10 plus years. For me, the experience changed as well. What we had beforehand was very different from what we experienced post pandemic.

So, what I mean by emergency remote work is that many organisations didn't have the infrastructure in place to have sustainable long-term remote work. So, when the pandemic came, there was an emergency need to quickly make everything online and virtual in every function that they could.

But what often happened were those organisations who had been working more on site in the office, when they moved to a virtual setting, they replicated many of their office practices into a virtual environment, which worked during the emergency for the short-term, but they're not sustainable for the long-term.

When we think about long-term sustainable, intentional remote work, we have to create environments that are really there to optimise the experience, not replicating office practices, but thinking of new ways of doing the work differently.

So, we are addressing burnout concerns that we’re blurred lines between work and home, that we are more productive, that we are innovative, creative, and doing it in a way that is sustainable for the long-term.

And also, absolutely at the core of this is that it's equitable. We want to make sure that we're not creating two tiers of workers. Especially as offices reopen, as people come back, as we move towards hybrid working, if people are on onsite or offsite in a distributed team, we want to make sure that the access to opportunity is there for everyone regardless of where you're working, how you're working, or when you're working.

Barbara: Love that. Thank you. I was also reading during my research, the Remote workforce report that we released for 2023. And in that we discovered that women are more likely to want to work remotely. I think for a lot of the things that you talked about, the freedom and the flexibility also that remote working can offer. We found that men also value remote work more for its potential to increase their productivity.

So, I'm really interested to hear your thoughts on the findings, did they resonate with your experience and insights?

Lauren: Absolutely. We hear that quite often. As I was thinking about this when I read your report, I see that finding quite often, and I started thinking about it a little bit differently, that both of those reasons are actually about productivity.

When you are at a baseline where remote work enables you in having flexibility, enables you to contribute to the labour force and have a job and be in the workforce, those benefits are paramount to you.

So, for women who are often more responsible for household duties and caregiving responsibilities, the access to flexible and remote work really allows them to balance as much as they can. I really don't like that term because it's rarely balanced.

Barbara: Rarely balanced, yeah.

Lauren: But to be able to integrate life and work in a different way. And so, that's a primary benefit.

But that also allows women to be productive at work. If they're not having to take time off for childcare, if your child gets sick and can't go to school, if you're not having to figure out how to do this differently with all of the responsibilities that come with caregiving, if you can still contribute to work that's about being more productive.

And so, for men who had a baseline who are typically not shown by research to be taking on the majority of household duties and caregiving responsibilities, at work, it was about boosting productivity. And so, they could see that major gain.

But to me it's really the same thing. It's how you can be more productive at work. And be more productive at home as well.

Barbara: Yeah. I appreciate that reframe. I think you're right. You talked about blurring the lines. We talked about balance or lack of balance.

So, taking that a step further and thinking about the always on work culture, many remote workers can experience burnout while managing their home life and juggling the expectations of working late in the evening, or indeed like sitting in your kitchen, having your dinner with your computer right beside you because you have no office.

What solutions have you seen among remote workers and organisations with distributed teams that help provide a more healthy work-life balance?

Lauren: This is such an important area because again, when you have access to your office all the time, then it's easy to get sucked into one more email, one more response, one more thing that you're going to do.

And I think this goes back to the idea of emergency remote work versus long-term sustainable remote work. When you replicate office processes and make things synchronous where everybody's responding in real time and that somebody's waiting for something for you to be able to move something forward, then I think it can lead into that sense of blurred lines and wanting to respond immediately or in real time.

What I've seen to be really helpful is moving more towards an asynchronous model where people are responding when it's convenient for them. Not expecting an immediate response, still moving a project forward, but knowing that you might not get back to somebody until the next day when you're actually in your workday.

It allows for people across different time zones to contribute in the way that works best for them and really can be sustainable for the long run.

I think another important area is for leaders to make sure their role modelling that sense of disconnection. If your leader is saying, “Yes, of course we don't expect you to respond after hours,” but continuing to send messages after hours and expecting an immediate response, then that's not setting up that you feel you can have that disconnect.

And so, leaders who role model that, who reinforce the expectation that there is a boundary between life and work when you're working from home is really important.

And finally, the idea of having some sort of routine to start and shut your day. A ritual that can help you close your laptop to get ready to go to work. A lot of times that was the commute for many people. And now what does that look like? How do we create those rituals to really create that sense of boundary?

Barbara: I was literally saying to my husband last week, it's hard to just shut the laptop and just walk downstairs to the three kids. And I do need something like a moment to step away and just process my day a bit and prepare myself for bedtime, which is an adventure in itself.

Creating a gender-neutral culture for remote teams

Barbara: So, pivoting a little bit, Lauren, talk to me about a gender-neutral culture and what would be your advice to organisations and individuals who are looking to create that type of gender-neutral culture within their working life?

So, if you could share any practical steps or actions that could be implemented to drive some positive change in the area.

Lauren: Yeah. I think it's really important for organisations to reflect on how their policies and practices could potentially be reinforcing bias in the workplace. And so, when you're looking at gender bias, a lot of times it's unspoken. It's in the unwritten rules, it's in who's getting access to opportunities, who's being spoken about in rooms when a hot job is on the table.

And so, making sure that you are creating access to opportunity in different ways. And so, a lot of times this could be doing an audit to see who's getting hired, promoted, who's being sponsored for opportunities, creating formal programs, but also making sure that you're addressing it at an individual level. So, there's this systemic need to address, but also at the individual level with managers and employees.

I think another part of creating a gender-neutral workplace to make sure that everyone has access to opportunity is also about being gender inclusive. Going beyond the gender binary to look at how you can create workplaces that work for everyone.

And a lot of times I say workplaces that work for women, work for everyone. And that's really the case. If we have an opportunity to create a workplace that is more equitable and inclusive where everyone can belong, contribute, and thrive, we should take it. And there's a lot of different ways to do that through policies and practices, but it starts with awareness and intentionality of wanting to make those changes.

Barbara: Intentionality, yes. Totally agree. So, I'm going to pivot a little bit back to empathy. I think it's such an amazing topic and I think if we had more empathetic leaders across the world, I think our employee experience would be a much better place for everyone.

So, empathetic leadership, you've obviously stated it's so important for businesses and I think it's critical to have empathetic leaders, but especially for male leaders towards women, to allow for more flexibility around this life and work needs and the mixing together of both, what have been your experiences of that?

Lauren: Yeah, in our research we found that leaders who demonstrated empathy, particularly for women, really reduced their sense of COVID-19 related burnout.

And also, we found that people had a sense they could address their life work needs in a more holistic way when their leaders had high levels of empathy. And so, I think it's really critical. And when you look at the workplace, a lot of the leaders in workplaces are men.

And so, making sure that we are increasing empathy as a skill is critically important to make more inclusive and equitable workplaces that work for everyone.

Personally, I've experienced this as well throughout my life. When I think back on some of the leaders I've had who have been the best ones, it's that they've made me feel seen. I feel like I belong, they understand me, but they don't project their understanding onto me.

They ask me what I need and then they help me figure out how to get there. They don't solve it for me. They reflect back and help me solve it. Those have been some of the best leaders.

And part of why I got interested in flexible and remote work, when I was pregnant with my first son, I was put on bed rest, and I had two very empathic male managers who figured out a way for me to still be able to contribute to work without having to tap into my sick leave then. That's when I realised, wait, there's a different way of doing this.

Barbara: Amazing.

Lauren: Being able to understand the lived experience that someone else is going through. They had not been pregnant on bedrest, but yet they recognized that this was an issue and worked with me to solve it. And I think that's what it's really all about.

Barbara: I love that. I love that. Curiosity coaching and care, I think is kind of a lot of what you covered there. So important.

The effects of artificial intelligence on women and remote work

Barbara: I'm going to move into the world of AI because you also have to always talk about this on a podcast. It is just everywhere at the moment.

The Harvard Business Review cited many instances of how AI has adopted gender bias from humans and seeing the world as just male and female. What effect do you think this is having upon users currently? And potentially if you could project it forward into the future?

Lauren: I tend to be a tech optimist. I'm always looking for the benefit that technology can bring. This is an area that I am concerned about, and I've been tracking for a while of how AI can perpetuate the biases of its users and its creators moving forward. And I think it's something that we have to keep in mind.

And when you think about it, the technology itself is neutral, but how it's built and how we train it is where some of those biases can seep in.

So, if you're training it on a data set, that is biassed in itself and for instance, if you're trying to create an algorithm to hire the best candidate for the job and your applicant pool and your current selection of employees tends to be tipped more towards men, then the AI will pick up on that and can perpetuate that bias.

And so, what's really key is that people are aware of the fact that there's bias in AI, that they are looking for it, they're monitoring it, and they're asking questions of the tools they're using to understand how it's being monitored and corrected.

You can correct that bias by retraining on different data sets and being intentional with it, but if we're not questioning it, then it can start to perpetuate and grow deep in that concern.

And especially with generative AI right now, when the entire internet and world is its data set, we have to be very concerned about how bias is getting pulled in and perpetuated if we're not even aware or questioning what it's telling us.

Barbara: Yeah. The awareness is key and the education almost from the AI corporations to educate the rest of the world on how to use it and how to engage with it is so critical.

Lauren: I think that's really an important point that the companies that are creating these tools need to be reporting out how they're monitoring and correcting for bias. And people who are purchasing and using those tools should be looking for that and using products that are in line with how you want to see the world.

When we're using a tool, if I'm typing something into a generative AI tool, I want to make sure that what it's giving me I can trust. And so, if organisations and companies are telling me that, then it takes one step away. But I also need to be questioning and looking for it.

Barbara: In UNESCO's 2019 report, it presented data that showed only 12% of AI researchers are women, and that represents only 6% of software developers. So, I think that probably taps into a lot of your saying about creating tooling itself and the data sets, but what more can be done to level up the gender level in the industry for the future, do you think?

Lauren: Again, when we're looking at who's creating AI, if we have such a wide gender gap, then it's not surprising that unconscious bias is getting baked into the tools that people are creating.

Increasing the pipeline to STEM careers is really critical for everyone going forward. And I think one of the interesting aspects of generative AI, I saw one study from open AI where they expect 80% of jobs to be impacted by the effective AI in some way.

When you think about it, if you don't have to know how to code, if you can type a prompt in to say, “Hey, code this for me in a particular software language,” then it starts to democratize access to careers who traditionally had needed a four-year degree, many years of experience, by automating some of those gatekeeping responsibilities and tasks, we're able to democratize access.

As long as we're making sure we're keeping equity top of mind, it's easy to, again, more deeply entrenched those biases by figuring out different ways to create pathways that can deepen those inequities.

It's really important to make sure that we're looking at equitable re-skilling programs, that we're figuring out how we can get women into these careers and be successful not only in entering STEM careers but being able to stay successfully because of flexibility and that they're in a culture where they belong and feel they can contribute and thrive.

Barbara: Yes. And if the listeners are anything like the company that I work for, we are being encouraged more and more to engage in AI and try to understand it and leverage it when we can.

So, what steps do you think listeners of this podcast can do to help to overcome the bias in AI and move us towards a more, I guess, modern perspective with more ethical AI?

Lauren: We've talked about this. I think the idea of having awareness, first of all, that there is bias is critically important. If you're an organisation or a company, create some policies and practices for your employees of how you want them to engage with AI.

I think it's unrealistic to think that people won't be, there's a lot of productivity gains. It really can make the workplace much more efficient. But it's around creating those guardrails of how you want your employees to engage and what you are thinking is ethical for you as a company.

So, looking at some of the best practices, talking to people who are experts in the area, but then creating those guidelines so people know how to engage. And it's very transparent, making sure that there's a single source of truth around this. So, there's no question of how you want to engage ethically with AI.

Is it okay to type in proprietary information into what tools? How can you use it? If you're writing, do you then have to take it to make sure if a tool has written something for you, how do you make sure that it's not plagiarised? How do you then look at it so it's ethical not only in addressing the bias, but that the outputs it gives you are also ethical.

Barbara: And Lauren, if you look at the global landscape and the pace of evolution across technology, how do you think the culture of remote working will look in the next five years?

Lauren: This is such a great question and something that I was actually just talking about yesterday.

Barbara: You could talk about it for hours, couldn’t you?

Lauren: Yes. It's fascinating. And as a future work expert, it's one of the things I think about a lot as well, how where we are today will change. And I tend to think I'll get better in the years to come.

And remote work right now, again, we are still limited by the technology that we have. The technology has drastically improved just in the last two to three years.

When you think about what we experienced in the pandemic, many organisations would not have been able to quickly adapt and shift to working remotely had we not had video conferencing. If we were still relying on outdated ways of connecting, if we couldn't see each other, if we didn't have access to cloud technology then it would've been much more difficult.

So, when I think about the next five years, it's hard to even envision, especially when we look at how generative AI has quickly accelerated and evolved just in the last year.

I expect to see more focus and emphasis on remote work continuing to expand, that we will reach that new normal of people continuing to have access to remote work and workplace flexibility, expanding into new sectors and industries and roles as well.

And that the experience will be more holistic where it's not remote work, where it's just work. The tools will get better. We'll be able to collaborate in different ways. I would love to see some kind of technology where we can, instead of being to pictures on a screen that we can feel more immersive with each other.

There's a lot of different things that can happen to make the experience better. And I'm really excited to see where it goes.

Barbara: That sounds cool actually, the immersive experience. I love that. Okay, so wrapping up Lauren, we have one final question. So, this is the question we ask all our guests in the podcast series. So, I need to ask you, can you think of a time when you had to deal with a challenge that made you think this could only happen with distributed work?

Lauren: Yes, I can. And it's funny because one of the benefits of working in a distributed fashion is that we are integrating our lives and our work. And a lot of times people think about caregiving for children or elder care, but for me, this question comes down to my pets.

I have two cats and they've worked with me as my coworkers and in my remote office for many years. And as I started to do more speaking engagements and have executive sessions where I was presenting, I had to lock them out, so they weren't on screen as often as they wanted to be.

And there was one time where my kids were home, it was the summer. I had a very important meeting. I let my kids know, get offline. I don't want any bandwidth issues. Be quiet, don't interrupt me. I put signs on the door to say, please don't interrupt me. Quiet please.

Barbara: Did your kids listen to you, Lauren?

Lauren: They did. My kids listened.

Barbara: Wow, you need to come to my house.

Lauren: They surprisingly listened, but my cats did not. So, my kids were great. But in the middle of the meeting, just as I was about to start talking, one of my cats decided I must be in that room with you. Started desperately scratching at the door and not just like a little scratch but doing this. And it was pretty loud.

And when I ignored him, he started yelling so loudly, yelling and yelling. And of course for people on the other end, they could hear it, but it couldn't tell what it was. It just sounded bad.

And of course, I had to apologise. And then everyone laughed. I joked with my kids that they could hear and understand the instructions. They read the signs, but my cats did not know how to read the sign to not interrupt me during that session.

Barbara: I love that. Those poor cats. Are they here now or are they kicked outside again?

Lauren: They're right outside the door actually.

Barbara: Poor cats. Bring them in next time. Lauren, it's been so great talking to you. Thank you so much for your time. I've learned so much from you.

And it's so exciting to hear about the future of AI and the potential that we have and also all of the diversity programs and the diversity opportunities. I think that we have to improve over time for remote and distributed teams. So, thank you so much for your time.

Lauren: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

Barbara: Thank you to Lauren for talking in depth about diversity programs for remote and distributed teams and the future of AI.

Well, that just wraps it up for the latest episode of Off Mute. I'm Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and we'll be back in two weeks with the next episode.

Please follow the podcast and if you like what you've heard, then give us five stars as it helps others just like you find our podcast.

Thank you for listening to Off Mute from Remote. Catch you next time.

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