In an AI World, Drop the Idea that Empathy is Feminine

Empathy makes someone a better employee, and we also need to build empathy into our artificial intelligence applications.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

January 23, 2019

6 Min Read

Traditionally undervalued in the tech industry, empathy — which is the ability to read and respond to another person’s feelings, thoughts and experiences — is a trait hiring managers and C-level executives can no longer ignore. After all, in a world where artificial intelligence will take up to 5 million jobs away from humans by 2020, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that up to 14% of human workers will need to adapt to new occupations to secure our future in the workforce. In other words, as we start sharing the workforce with more machines, human soft skills such as empathy will be at a premium.

And, that premium is justified. Hiring employees who are empathetic helps companies increase productivity, develop strong leadership and retain high-performing talent. It creates a workforce that can persuade potential customers to trust a company and its products. Without placing importance on empathy from the top down, companies can fail to build organizations that are customer-centric and truly understand and recognize the needs of their users. This can lead to poor product design and business outcomes, and it doesn’t particularly engender trust from investors.

Examples of companies’ lack of empathy are common. Earlier this year, Fitbit stumbled into a bit of controversy when debuting a menstruation-tracking feature that could only records periods lasting 10 days or fewer, ignoring the many women whose periods last longer. Or check out this story on “racist soap dispensers,” which were automated devices built by a company called Technical Concepts that didn’t seem to recognize dark skin. By creating technologies that didn’t fully acknowledge the humanity of their consumers, the companies' glaring lack of empathy resulted in immediate public relations backlash.

Given the speed of disruption by tech companies, it’s important to understand that beyond PR management, empathy becomes a moral responsibility. The scale of impact of technology is beyond precedent and showing empathy and foresight when designing products to anticipate their impact is necessary. Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab and chief scientist for AI research at Google Cloud says that AI “must be guided by human concerns.” She believes that “there is nothing artificial” about AI, which is made by humans and intended to act with human-like qualities. Li has applied this approach to “Designing AI to Cultivate Human Well-Being,” a multi-disciplinary course she co-teaches at Stanford University. Centered around behavioral research that shows how people need meaning in their lives, the course encourages students to develop AI algorithms that focus on human well-being. In other words: empathetic AI.

Given the undeniable need for empathy in the workforce, why are so many companies still failing to hire for empathy rather than for coding prowess? Perhaps it’s the fact that empathy is so often coded as feminine, and tech has long been a man’s game. Women like Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, may be trying to help girls and women stand out from the crowd when they claim that empathy is a trait unique to women. Yet this is just a perpetuation of the myth that men don’t understand feelings.

While it’s true that women tend to empathize more readily than men, recent research shows that women aren’t genetically predetermined to be more empathetic - we're just socialized that way. This is perfectly aligned with the stereotype that men are geniuses and women are nurturers. Unfortunately, in work environments where women are already devalued, empathy and other soft skills that are viewed as “feminine” traits, are not prioritized.

Luckily, the tech world doesn’t need to crumble under the weight of the patriarchy. In fact, some tech companies are already doing a pretty good job acknowledging that soft skills are traits that employees of all genders can hone. For example, in 2017, Mark Zuckerberg went on a listening tour across all 50 states to try to put a finger on the pulse of the needs and problems of Facebook’s users. The company even has an “empathy lab,” which allows software engineers to experience how people who are visually impaired or are hard of hearing experience their products. By attempting to walk in the shoes of its users, Facebook has been able to develop products that cater to the unique needs of people living with disabilities, such as a Braille display that connects to a smartphone and a smartphone with a built-in screen reader. This empathetic approach earned Facebook recognition as being one of the most empathetic companies in the world (along with Alphabet and LinkedIn).

Other good examples of empathy in the tech world are in virtual reality, where the cutting-edge technology is leveraged to boost philanthropy. For example, the U.N. has released multiple VR mini-documentaries — including one about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee. Nonprofits such as Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace are also using the technology to allow people to experience — rather than simply watch — how communities are combating climate change and deforestation. The mini-documentaries yielded billions of dollars in donations, indicating that the technology helped pull viewers’ heartstrings.

Researchers at the Universidad de Barcelona offered more concrete evidence that VR enabled violent crime offenders to feel more empathy towards their victims.

Back when I was a student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the well-known “Touchy Feely” class in the MBA program strove to improve emotional literacy and demonstrated that empathy can be taught. The school’s most popular elective for over 45 years, the class continues to help students unlock leadership potential by encouraging them to use soft skills to communicate and understand the impact of their interactions on other human beings. Expanding this type of training to more schools or teaching it to students much earlier — say, in high school or in undergraduate programs — could also help spread the gospel of empathy and the importance of soft skills to more people.

Girls Who Code founder Saujani was correct that girls and women are highly empathetic, but she was wrong in thinking that empathy is uniquely female. Defeminizing empathy by repositioning it from a “feminine” soft skill to a fundamental human skill is a crucial first step. By also expanding the tools we use to teach empathy, we can build a larger workforce positioned to problem-solve, work together and, most importantly, keep its humanity as AI becomes more pervasive.

Michele Daoud is principal at Monk’s Hill Ventures. Michele was an early employee and Director at Udemy, the largest global online education marketplace, where she lead content business development, strategy and creation. Prior to that Michele worked in Google's New Products & Services team overseeing display advertising platforms for Europe and North Africa. Michele was also a strategy consultant for telecom operators in the Middle East and Africa based out of Dubai. Michele has an MBA from Stanford's Graduate School of Business and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

About the Author(s)

Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

The InformationWeek community brings together IT practitioners and industry experts with IT advice, education, and opinions. We strive to highlight technology executives and subject matter experts and use their knowledge and experiences to help our audience of IT professionals in a meaningful way. We publish Guest Commentaries from IT practitioners, industry analysts, technology evangelists, and researchers in the field. We are focusing on four main topics: cloud computing; DevOps; data and analytics; and IT leadership and career development. We aim to offer objective, practical advice to our audience on those topics from people who have deep experience in these topics and know the ropes. Guest Commentaries must be vendor neutral. We don't publish articles that promote the writer's company or product.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights