Learned behaviour is as much of a hindrance to achieving gender and other forms of equality in business, as ignorance

For all the perceived benefits that artificial intelligence can bring to modern industry, it appears it still has a way to go for HR purposes.

It was reported last month Amazon had built an AI recruiting tool to screen CVs and applications in its hiring process. However, it had to bin the initiative because it turned out the machine itself was inherently misogynistic.

This was because the tool was programmed to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period, most of which came from men – who have traditionally dominated the tech industry.

The system taught itself that men were preferable to women. It penalised CVs which included the word “women’s” and reportedly downgraded graduates of two all-female colleges.

Although Amazon is said to have adapted the programme to make it more gender neutral, there was still no guarantee the AI robots would not find other ways to discriminate, leading Amazon to ditch the project.

You would laugh if the subject weren’t so serious. In fact, this case study is a pretty damning indictment on the deeply ingrained bias against women in work.

We’ve written before on how unconscious bias is a real and challenging barrier the (re)insurance industry has to overcome if we are to achieve true diversity in the workplace.

But what the story of Amazon’s AI hiring assistant really shows is that learned behaviour is as much of a hindrance to achieving gender and other forms of equality in business, as ignorance.

Many will argue that, as humans, we must have the self-awareness to recognise when we are imitating the habits of others. Far more self-awareness than a robot, surely?

But I’ve had a number of conversations with leaders in the diversity and inclusion space since I started writing about this agenda, and unfortunately that is not always the case.

Anecdotally, there is evidence that new graduates – who often do not bring with them outdated ideas of equality in the workplace – can quickly emulate the behaviours of their superiors, as this is perceived to be the behaviour required to get ahead.

These adopted behaviours may not always be extreme. They can be as small as commenting on a colleague’s work attire, continuing the use of phrases such as “box bunny”, or always asking the female members of the team to make the tea.

One of the frequent comments I hear when talking about achieving diversity in (re)insurance is that everything will fall into place when the older generation retire.

And, while this may be true in part, I feel it is a lazy answer to an urgent issue.

The more senior members of this industry need to ensure that outdated ideas do not continue by setting the example for younger practitioners to emulate.

No one expects workplace equality to be achieved in a day. But we can certainly accelerate the process.