Women looking at robot technology in laboratory

AI, robotics, automation and gender

  • Susan Ferrier, Leadership |

When I reflect on the conversations I’ve had over the last few years with business and HR leaders, the future world of work was a hot topic. Especially around the potential impacts of AI and robotics on the workforce and people’s working experiences. In the past few years, much of the discussion was somewhat theoretical. We were sharing stories of our respective innovations and how these could disrupt business processes and transform products and services. We were sharing learning on how to bring these innovations to fruition. We were debating the potential impact they would have on human capital and HR processes. From what it could mean for skills acquisition, development and workforce planning, to learning, organizational culture and everything else in between.

What seems to be increasingly different now is that the conversations have moved on from the theoretical to the practical. AI and robotics are now truly reshaping how organizations operate. At KPMG we’re using AI and robotics to improve every aspect of our business. And it’s bringing a new level of speed and precision to the insight KPMG professionals can derive and the value we can bring – to ourselves, clients and society at large. 

The debate also seems to have moved on from ‘how many jobs AI and robotics are going to remove from the workforce?’ to the tasks within people’s roles we can free up so people can focus their efforts on the human skills that truly differentiate. KPMG’s use of AI and robotics hasn’t resulted in a reduction in our workforce. Quite the opposite! KPMG member firms added almost 10,000 new roles across our organization this year alone. And we expect to add a further 30,000 over the next three years.

But the change I find most fascinating is that we are beginning to see conversations emerge on how AI and task automation are likely to transform the opportunities within specific segments of our population. At the World Econonmic Forum at Davos this year, there was a debate on the service and administration sectors, two traditionally female-dominated industries. And what needs to be done to ensure a winning strategy exists for women in these areas and others. There’s clearly the tried and tested strategies. Ensuring women are championed and ensuring working practices and expectations change to help parents and carers support their families and loved ones. Removing bias from business decisions. Finding role models to set a new benchmark on what high performance looks like. Creating female friendly entry routes into traditionally male dominated sectors – KPMG’s ‘ITs Her Future’ is an example I am personally very proud of. They all work, we hear about them all the time.

But I wonder if we should ask an all-together different question. Is the advent of AI and robotics placing a premium on the skills and behaviors that come more naturally to women? Emotional intelligence. Creativity. Empathy. Collaboration. Ethical leadership. Care. If this is true surely we should all be looking ahead to ensure we enrich every aspect of our organizations, from top to bottom, with the skills and behaviors we can’t replace through AI (yet!). And we shouldn’t be waiting or relying on strategies of the past. Because to be successful we need to embed these skills and behaviors into our cultures now. After all, they are going to be the difference maker if we’re to be successful at the new frontier. Surely that’s worth investing in?