Interviews with eminent women leaders to explore the impact of COVID-19 on women and how policies and AI can help

Global pandemics have reshaped humanity throughout history through loss of jobs, death and poverty. About 9.6 million American workers have lost their jobs due to Covid-19, but the impact by gender is uneven.

According to Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, 30 years of progress was erased overnight. About 2.3 million women have left the workforce in the past year, with women of color leaving at a rate twice that of white women. “American moms, especially moms of color, have borne the brunt of the pandemic. The end of the crisis does not mean a return to normalcy. For moms, the “normal” didn’t work in the first place ”.

To deepen this societal impasse, I interviewed five recognized women in their field: Kavita Bala (Dean of Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science at Cornell University), Rebecca Lester (Associate Professor of Accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business), Linda Lu (Ecosystem Director at Oasis Labs), Victoria Pettibone (Managing Partner of Astia Fund) and Navrina Singh (Founder and CEO of Credo AI, Member of the Board of Directors of the Mozilla Foundation). I contacted these eminent women because they are thought leaders in industry and academia as I was curious if the impact on women is also pervasive in all walks of life. .

Dean Bala defined the problem by saying: “During Covid-19, many researchers, especially young teachers with children, were negatively affected because they could not access their labs or had to provide more family care when all the schools and daycares have closed. . In this group, researchers were disproportionately affected by family expectations. This has an impact on the ability of academia to maintain a strong pool of women who excel in research. The same has been felt across the professional workforce. These remarks made me wonder about the limiting factors at the origin of the drop in the number of female researchers. Dean Bala rightly explained: “This is mainly due to the lack of childcare and elder care services. There is a dearth of alternative educational opportunities for the children of young female faculty members. The teachers must therefore take care of the children themselves. Women are expected to provide all practical care and have not been able to write so many articles or do so much research during the pandemic. Dean Bala hinted at a bigger problem that telecommuting was not designed for all children. For this reason, a greater burden is placed on mothers to ensure the continuity of learning for children.

Along the same lines, said Prof Lester, “Research shows that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, in large part because household chores (which already fell largely on the shoulders of women and men). I have personally experienced this as my husband and I were both faced with juggling two time-consuming careers, as well as overseeing the online school for our young kindergarten girl when the pandemic began. My husband has been extremely helpful and involved, but my research has definitely been affected. “

While some women have had to leave the workforce, even those who stayed are affected, as Professor Lester said, “I predict that for women who did not leave the workforce, we could observe. long-term effects in terms of career advancement and (by extension). This could dramatically reduce many of the progress we’ve seen in recent years. “

Employers responded positively with a sympathetic eye. Linda shared a perspective that probably reflects various companies: “At Oasis Labs, I wouldn’t say we’ve got it all figured out, but we do our best to make things relatively easier for our teammates, especially those with young people. children. For example, we are a fully distributed team, and our team has the commute time to the office saved for better use, such as taking care of their family members and, more importantly, taking care of themselves. We also have flexible working hours. Oasis is not a typical 9 to 5 workplace. In any given project, we will have people across the time zones of the United States, Europe, and Asia, and all over the world. world is very accommodating with each other’s schedules. Sometimes we have teammates who can’t be available in the morning due to babysitting issues, they’re just going to let everyone know about Slack, and that’s perfectly fine. All team members are very responsible and they will do their jobs during the hours they are available in a timely manner. Due to the policy of remote working and flexible hours, we hope that everyone can weather the pandemic a little easier. “

It is heartwarming to see companies offering flexibility to their employees. Working from home has become the norm for jobs that only require a computer and a phone. But the state of the labor force is poles apart, widening the societal divide. Some working-class women now have two jobs: in addition to their standard day job, they have taken on parallel assignments as drivers, delivery workers, tutors, chefs or wardens to fight rising inflation.

After I delved into the problem, I wondered if any existing policies were helping women in the workplace. A World Policy Analysis Center survey concluded that the United States lags far behind other countries in terms of guaranteed paid parental leave at the federal level. For example, Great Britain and Japan grant 39 and 52 weeks of paid parental leave, respectively, while the United States does not. US federal law guarantees new parents 6 weeks of leave, but this is unpaid and therefore has a financial impact on parents, especially when needed. Moreover, not all workers are even eligible for this unpaid leave. There are only a few other countries – none in the developed world – that offer no paid parental leave. That said, nine states in the United States and the District of Columbia require some degree of paid parental leave.

The issue of parental leave does not end there. Even where paid parental leave exists, there are policies that subconsciously promote inequalities in the workplace, made worse by the pandemic coating. A male employee of a company can return to work (from home) after a few weeks of childbirth while still being on leave while the mother is physically absent for about a year. This creates a differential in career progression between the sexes. Likewise, some universities offer both parents a one-year (research) extension on the tenure track to become a full-time faculty member.

The equal parental leave policy was actually created with the best of intentions, because otherwise employers will have to do the uncomfortable and downright impossible job of assessing who provides the most support to babies. Professor Lester summed up succinctly: “Giving everyone the same relief doesn’t help those most affected. It’s even worse for a party. “

This discussion made me wonder how society can tackle women’s issues. Victoria and I discussed what needs to happen to ease this burden – men are taking on a bigger role in the household for one. Government assistance is another – the child tax credit is already a way to support families. More importantly, according to Victoria, “Payments to women are a band-aid; instead, the focus should be on child care, education for women, and care for the elderly. Ephemeral payments, while useful in the short term, do not create long-term sustainable solutions. “

Reshma Saujani, through her Marshall Plan for Moms, has led a more comprehensive strategy and is supported by female leaders like Anu Duggal (Female Founders Fund) and Julia Collins (Planet FWD). The plan provides a framework for women to work and have children: direct payments to mothers, affordable child care, pay equity and retraining programs for women can alleviate the problem.

Can technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) be developed to help women? Robots can partly replace female housework, but it’s much more difficult to replace caring for children or the elderly with AI, as Dean Bala explained. Despite automation or camera-based solutions, it is difficult to replace a human being for family care. Moreover, families with lower economic status probably cannot even afford these solutions.

Navrina spoke about governance issues and AI biases. She explained how the data collection should be broad and inclusive. A skewed dataset can result in AI models serving only part of society. Sometimes bias also creeps into algorithms subconsciously based on the designer’s background and experience. Data collection should encompass all sections of society for the study. Additionally, algorithm development should be done by a team of designers spanning gender and socio-economic backgrounds.

These discussions left me wanting more of the world of AI development: from emotional robots for kids to machine learning for training women. We are in the nascent stage of developing these technologies to level the playing field for women and thereby uplift humanity.

Looking back, what emerged from these interviews was the overwhelming fact that Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem of gender disparity in the workplace. Although both men and women are affected during the pandemic, there is a strong distinction between what a pandemic means for each gender. Technologies like AI can help reduce impact if they are focused on key women’s issues and developed with a gender inclusive paradigm. A key aspect that has emerged is that the development of policies and technologies for women requires careful research into both conscious and unconscious ramifications. Collectively, our goal must be to go beyond the “normal” of the pre-pandemic level because this normal was uneven to begin with.

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