The future of AI will be female

Relationships are meant to be reciprocal.
Relationships are meant to be reciprocal.
Image: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
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AI is probably coming for your job. But there may be a way to future-proof your career.

“Humans are going to find meaningful work if they can do the things that machines can’t do well,” says Ed Hess, a professor of business administration at University of Virginia. “And that’s higher-order thinking—critical, creative, innovative, imaginative thinking.”

In order to remain relevant in the new world of work, we’ll need to lean in to the skills that make us most human. Psychologists, social workers, elementary school teachers: These kinds of careers require a real understanding of what it means to be a person. Job numbers support this argument: As automation creeps in, fields that interact with machines such as construction work, factory work, and machine operation are declining rapidly, while occupations that place a premium on interpersonal skills, like those in the healthcare field, are seeing explosive growth.

Hess believes that soon, it won’t be enough to simply be intelligent; AI has the capacity to be much smarter than us. Adapting to the future of work therefore means we need to redefine “smart” to focus on our quality of thinking. In other words, we’ll have to learn how to become more emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a person’s ability to perceive, utilize, and manage their emotions, as well as the emotions of others. It’s a valuable skill for management roles, or any job that requires a significant amount of social interaction. A psychotherapist, for example, might use EI skills to put themselves in the shoes of their clients to try to understand their patterns of thinking. A startup founder with high EI might use a missed business target as an opportunity to invigorate their team. The ability to listen, collaborate, empathize, and self-regulate are all part of an emotionally intelligent person’s toolkit.

If machines struggle to emulate these human-oriented abilities, automation could bring about a moment of reckoning for EI skills, which have a long history of being undervalued by the labor market.

And that might just mean a moment of reckoning for women, too.

The future will be female

Studies of emotional intelligence have shown that women have a distinct EI advantage over men. Not only do they score higher (much higher) on EI tests generally, but they score higher on every single subscale of EI tests, as well. Study after study has shown that women outperform men at understanding, expressing, and perceiving emotions.

This might explain why, after the financial crisis, women managed to adapt to the decline in middle-skill jobs (think: paralegal or dental hygienist) better than men did, despite women being hit hardest. While the jobs that AI is displacing are mostly held by men (locomotive firer, the fastest shrinking job, is 96% male, for example), it is primarily women moving into expanding occupations like home health aides and nursing. Labor market experts have hypothesized that another reason this gap is growing is because men are reluctant to move into booming fields like healthcare as they see it as “pink collar,” or women’s work.

A recent study at York University on women’s rise in the high-paying job market discusses a related finding. Over the past 25 years, the probability of a college-educated man working in a white-collar occupation (think general managers, financial analysts, and physicians) fell, while the probability of a college-educated woman working in these roles rose. The key mechanism underlying this shift was found to be an increase in the demand for social skills in these jobs.

Researchers at Google came to a similar conclusion six years ago in a quest to discover what makes the perfect team. They found that groups tend to innovate faster than an individual working alone. But the most important factor in whether a team would be successful was “psychological safety,” a term that describes a team climate of trust and respect where people feel comfortable being themselves. A team like this might excel at traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘social sensitivity.’’

“Our results do suggest that the increasing demand for interpersonal skills is something that favors women,” says Matias Cortes, the economist who was the lead researcher on the York University study. “So if this is a trend going forward—if we think that AI will increase the need for social skills—then this may be beneficial for women, because they really have a comparative advantage there.”

However, this is not to suggest that every woman is gifted with emotional intelligence, and every man struggles with these skills. Nor should it suggest that women or men ought to be one way or the other. A scientific study on gender and emotional intelligence is not a justification to peddle gender stereotypes (‎looking at you, Google memo guy).

It’s important to note that even though research overwhelmingly points to women having greater EI, science hasn’t determined that these qualities are innate. It’s just as likely that these traits have become ingrained over time by a society that teaches women they are supposed to be nurturing, social, and humble.

Salim Ismail, the executive director of Singularity University, echoed a similar perspective about the future of work at the school’s recent Global Summit event in San Francisco. Ismail argued that solving the world’s biggest problems will mean shifting our institutional mindset from that of the “male archetype”—competitive, risk-taking, controlling—to that of the “female archetype”—flexible, open, distributed.

“The male archetype is really good at managing scarcity: command and control, search and destroy, go, grab, bring it back,” Ismail said. “The female archetype, though, is better at dealing with abundance. When the male archetype deals with abundance, it relates to it as power and tries to hoard it. The female archetype meets abundance and shares it around.”

But the one thing Ismail didn’t mention in his strategies for creating this feminine utopia? Actual women. Sure, both men and women can have “female archetype” traits. But how is it fair to build a more “female” version of the world without actually encouraging women to help build it?

Women tend to excel at the qualities the new world of work demands. So a tip to business leaders preparing for the future: Look out for the women. Hire them, mentor them, promote them, support them. The AI revolution won’t just be feminine—it will be powered by women.