The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Anna-Louise Gladwell, managing director of AnalogFolk, an independent global digital creative agency based in London that has developed an AI tool called BigUp.AI to encourage women to adopt more impactful language in the workplace. Gladwell discussed the challenges women face at work and how the company has trained their tool to help them avoid passive language that inadvertently diminishes their strengths.
Hodan Omaar: Your company built this tool on the back of research published in The Language of Female Leadership, which says women have to carry out extra “linguistic work” to make their mark in the workplace. Why is this, and how is your AI tool helping them?
Anna-Louis Gladwell: Yes, Dr. Judith Baxter reported in The Language of Female Leadership that women are four times more likely to shrink their successes and use language that undermines their authority, value, and skill. This has been linked to multiple negative outcomes for women in the workplace, such as a lower acceptance rate of their ideas, pay discrimination, fewer promotions, and underrepresentation in senior roles. In comparison, men are twice as likely to use words and phrases emphasizing their successes and leadership skills.
So, with this in mind, our female-led team at AnalogFolk created BigUp.AI, a digital language tool to help women recognize the power they hold and strengthen their voices. Powered by natural language processing and machine learning, BigUp.AI identifies a person’s strengths and suggests alternative “big ups” to express them in a more impactful way. Users then have the option to “go bigger” for an even more powerful and confident suggestion.
Our tool and the “bigged up” language it provides, empowers users to become continuously aware of the language they’re using in everyday situations and recognize when they’re about to talk themselves down.
Omaar: How have you trained your tool?
Gladwell: BigUp.AI has been trained using skills from real CVs and strengths that users have submitted, helping us to develop a broad database of female-focused strengths. This helps us train our AI system to recognize any strength a user inputs and articulate it in an impactful way, which will help candidates cut through with both AI recruitment systems and employers.
Our ambition over the long term is to work with companies to train their AI recruitment systems using our expansive database of female-focused strengths, which can help address the unconscious bias that is further blocking women out of the workplace. There’s a myth that AI systems don’t discriminate or hold the same biases and blind spots as humans do. This is, of course, untrue. AI systems are simply trained on the existing data we choose to feed them, which means we all have a big responsibility to ensure the data we’re training AI systems on is diverse and representative of the future we want to build, rather than perpetuating the prejudices of the past.
Working on developing a tool like ours is especially important right now because the COVID-19 pandemic has set women’s workplace equality back decades. McKinsey calculated that women’s jobs are nearly two times more vulnerable to the pandemic crisis than men’s. And while women make up 39 percent of global employment, they account for 54 percent of job losses.
Omaar: To what extent does the need for a tool like this differ between societies that stress different expectations for men and women and those where gender roles are more fluid, like Norway and Sweden?
Gladwell: While we have users from all around the world, the current iteration of the tool is built on UK-specific insights and would need to be adapted to suit the specific needs of different countries. There are multiple different angles we need to consider. Primarily, is diminutive language an issue for women in that country or culture? And if it is, is it leading to issues of inequality in the workplace?
We then of course need to consider the language we’re using for the “bigged up” suggestions. Even within English-speaking markets, we would want to adapt the language to reflect the powerful language used in the workplace within that country so that it is as impactful and natural as possible.
Omaar: What are the main hurdles you face today, and what do you envision will be the main challenges in the future?
Gladwell: One of our biggest challenges is striking the right balance between challenging the status quo to champion a progressive new form of leadership that puts women’s authentic strengths front and center and ensuring we’re arming users with language which will get cut through in today’s workplace, including with their peers, managers, and recruiters. To ensure we’re striking this balance and offering users strengths that are both authentic and effective, we’re looking to work with both language experts and recruiters in the next iteration.
There are some brilliant initiatives coming from the other side to help make recruitment and the workplace more inclusive and open to hearing diverse strengths. One example of this is The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art with their Creative Leadership model. This model is built around a simple, yet powerful idea: By combining empathy, clarity, and creativity, everyone has leadership potential. The model uses these three universal human qualities to bring marginalized, ignored, and underrepresented people into the leadership conversation and offers governments, businesses, and society as a whole an alternative leadership model.
Omaar: What do you have planned next?
Gladwell: BigUp.AI is now in phase 2 of beta and can analyze full sentences of text. We’re continuing to develop the tool so it can better help women recognize their authentic strengths as well as teaching the AI system to read and enhance full paragraphs of text. The goal is for BigUp.AI to become a go-to tool for women to power up their bios, CVs, cover letters, interviews, and performance reviews. This will make it easier for women to embrace their talents, be confident in owning their achievements, and, ultimately, rebalance the gender gap.