Women Are Falling Behind On Generative AI In The Workplace. Here's How To Change That

Companies can reverse the trend by upskilling, creating a shared vision with workers, broadening IT teams, and inviting leaders and Gen Z to the discussion.

women upskilling in artificial intelligence for the workplace

This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum on April 2, 2024.

Interest in generative AI tools is exploding around the world — but female employees are trailing behind their male colleagues in using the technology. That could have big implications not only for individual career trajectories but also for the companies creating and filling the jobs of the future.

Technologists believe generative AI is turning into a whole new industry unto itself. But women haven’t been as eager as men to embrace it. According to research by the Oliver Wyman Forum of 25,000 working adults surveyed, 59% of male workers aged 18-65 around the world say they use generative AI tools at least once a week, while only 51% of women say the same. These disparities persist across age groups and the 16 geographies studied.

Perhaps most distressing, the gap is widest among the youngest of workers: 71% of men ages 18-24 say they use generative AI weekly, compared with 59% of women.

Left unaddressed, this disparity could not only magnify gender imbalances in traditional “pink collar” occupations susceptible to automation, such as customer service, education, and healthcare, but also limit opportunities for women in the occupations of the future.

The good news is that companies hold the power to reverse this trend. By providing more upskilling, creating a shared vision with workers, broadening IT teams, and inviting leaders of business units and Generation Z “superusers” to the discussion, leaders can encourage more women to embrace generative AI.

Upskilling at scale

Almost all employees recognize the importance of generative AI, even if they aren’t using it yet. Fully 98% of those surveyed by the Oliver Wyman Forum said they need to be upskilled over the next five years due to AI disruption. Most employees — 77% of white-collar workers, 74% of blue collars, and 71% of pink collars — say employer support would make them feel more comfortable using AI at work.

But while workers are eager to get this training, business leaders believe only 40% of their workforce actually needs such upskilling. That disconnect creates anxiety for workers wondering how generative AI might disrupt or eliminate their job functions.

It isn’t always easy for workers to take initiative. Women often are more reluctant than men to spend time or money on additional training — even when it is crucial to their careers. Cost is one factor; another is time, which is a valuable commodity for people juggling family and household responsibilities.

Employers can address these issues by offering extensive AI training during the workday. Companies that provide a range of opportunities, from in-person to virtual, from team to independent, and across various levels and use cases will get better engagement from women. This will be especially helpful to women in jobs more likely to be disrupted by AI.

Some businesses are already thinking ahead, especially in jobs that are going to be significantly affected by AI. One large international furniture business, for example, is teaching call center workers to become interior design advisers. Its recently introduced AI bot can handle customer queries, leaving employees to help customers with home advisory and improvement services.

Create a shared vision with workers

Business leaders need to get out in front of the AI issue by explaining its potential effects on work across their organization. This includes engaging workers in creating a shared vision for the future and providing a dose of inspiration by regularly relaying how generative AI can augment employee skills and make jobs more interesting and value-added by eliminating monotonous tasks.

One large tech company, for example, has begun this process by placing AI at the center of its long-term plans and broadcasting it to employees. As part of that vision, it announced it has decided not to fill several thousand non-customer-facing positions that it expects AI will replace in the next five years — jobs based on rote tasks such as providing employment verification letters and shifting employees between departments.

Inclusivity in IT

In most companies, AI strategy, budget, and accountability are housed within the IT department, where female representation is typically low. The IT function is critical to create and enable changes, but business leaders also need to get more familiar with the technology and explore its possibilities. This, in turn, will broaden the base of decisionmakers — and bring more women to the table.

It’s also crucial, of course, to grow the ranks of women in tech roles where many AI decisions are made. One large tech company has significantly increased the number of women in tech positions with a multiyear initiative that focuses on retention by addressing issues like pay equity, access to critical healthcare, and family leave policies. Another has used its mentorship and sponsorship programmes to increase female retention by 25% over the last five years.

Tap Generation Z

Generative AI presents an opportunity for Gen Zers, already likely to be more familiar with the technology, to connect with and teach older colleagues about it. Oliver Wyman Forum research last year showed that many Gen Zers value community and want peer-to-peer mentorship programs. Here’s an opportunity for Gen Z women not only to lead but to create wider awareness and help train their colleagues. As the technology becomes more embedded and mainstream, businesses can show that a diversity of voices and genders are helping to lead the discussion.

Generative AI is already disrupting the workplace, and the pace will only speed up from here. Women must figure prominently in the labor force of tomorrow, both for their sake and for the sake of companies, shareholders, and societies.

Now is the time to narrow the gender gap in AI adoption — and companies have an opportunity to play a crucial role in that process.