Can technology help HR finally confront gender inequality?

This week, economic historian Claudia Goldin won a Nobel prize for her work analyzing two centuries of research on the gender pay gap in America—an effort highlighting how ingrained gender inequality is in the American workforce experience.

“We’ve been talking about it forever,” said Clarissa Peterson, president and CEO of HR consulting firm Ohana HR, at the closing keynote address of the Women in HR Tech Summit at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. The systemic nature of gender inequality adds to the complexity facing HR leaders, whose mandate to confront the issue has been elevated in recent years—with the emergence of movements like #MeToo and increased attention to pay inequity. Yet, they also have an evolving partner: technology.

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In Tuesday’s session, Peterson, along with global talent acquisition leader Amy Cropper and author and entrepreneur Laurie Ruettimann, shared how they envision HR leaders and technology working together to break down the centuries of gender inequality.

“We can use technology as an enabling platform to help us solve these issues,” says Peterson. “[Inequality] has been going on a long time but now we have technology to help us move closer to solutions.”

Actionable tech strategies to confront gender inequality

Cropper says one of the most impactful ways technology can disrupt inequality is through the data it generates.

Amy Cropper
Amy Cropper

Diversity goals are core to any DE&I project, she notes—but having the data that allows leaders to track the organization’s journey toward those goals is critical. Importantly, that data can’t be tightly held in the C-suite; modern efforts to break down gender and other forms of inequality should hinge on transparency.

Cropper notes that employees across all levels don’t necessarily need “every detail” of DE&I-related data—but should be invited to walk the journey with leadership.

“How can HR technology bring this more to the surface and allow everyone to be a part of it?” questions Cropper, noting such transparency can also impact the employee value proposition and employee branding. “[Transparency about data can] help people feel part of the solution.”

Data can also enable HR and business leaders to draw essential insights to create forward-thinking, inclusive strategies.

For instance, a team Cropper once worked on leveraged technology for a deep dive into where the organization was losing candidates through the application process, revealing gender disparities that led them to revise job description language.

Clarissa Peterson
Clarissa Peterson

“You can use technology to gain more insight into some of your practices,” adds Peterson, noting a former employer turned to tech to analyze performance reviews and uncover bias risks.

See also: What is pay transparency?

Some organizations are leaning into emerging technology like AI to guide DE&I efforts. In this vein, Peterson notes that HR should view AI as “additive”—automating tasks where possible to enable humans to focus more on value-added activities like building inclusive cultures.

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Experts warn that AI tools carry their own risk of biases; however, their potential for bias reduction—when pursued with a thoughtful strategy—may outweigh the risks, Cropper adds.

“Bias is already happening in organizations today, and we may not be aware of it,” she says. “If we use AI, at least we have a record—an automated mechanism to show what is happening, what decisions are being made. And then we can look at those with our human eyes and human brains and say, ‘Where do we need to make adjustments? Where is this not OK?’ ”

The human-technology partnership

Technology can play a role in breaking down gender inequality, the speakers agree—but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“If you’re looking for HR technology to address gender inequality, you’re going to be looking for a long time,” Ruettimann says. “If we think tech and tech alone will solve anything for anybody, we’re absolutely wrong.”

Placing the onus on the technology is “not fair” to the solution, adds Peterson. For instance, a former employer directed her to conduct a pay equity study on the entire workforce. She drew the data she could from the ERP and HRIS, but it told an incomplete story—no documentation on why certain people were promoted, for instance. Essentially, it wasn’t fed the information by humans adequately.

Related: Balancing internal, external data to make the most of your people analytics

Laurie Ruettimann
Laurie Ruettimann

HR practitioners also need to get more comfortable speaking the language of data to truly take advantage of the potential of tech.

“A company I worked for hired a data scientist and he’d say, ‘Clarissa, the answer is 6.’ So, I’d say, ‘OK, I don’t know what that means.’ I had to learn how to use the data to tell a story,” she recalls. “If we just say having the data is the answer—because many HR executives are not fluent in HR tech speak or are not comfortable with it—we end at 6, and we don’t experience the richness of what data can tell us.”

She adds that fear is holding many in HR back from embracing the real potential of technology. But, over-indexing on fear will keep the function stuck—and unable to confront systemic issues.

“We’ve got to be courageous, we’ve got to be bold, we’ve got to be curious to partner with HR technology to navigate the next normal,” Peterson says.

That process will look different for every organization, Cropper notes—it could be automated reminders about the potential for bias in the performance review process or a pizza party to educate managers on unconscious bias—but even the “little things” are important stepping stones along the change journey.

“You have to meet the organization where they are—and it may not be a pretty sight,” she says. “But find out where you are and make that status as transparent and available as possible—then take the next step, the next right thing you can do.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].