We love speculating on the promises of 5G, edge computing, and machine learning. We pour ourselves into finding solutions to upskill the workforce. We hypothesize on the digital acceleration of COVID-19. We are pessimistic, optimistic, and everything in between. We are not, however, talking about the role that 51% of our population (and 47% of our workforce) will play in the future of work.
As Abigail Adams famously penned to her husband, John Adams, in 1776, “In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies . . . ” Yet we seem to have forgotten about the ladies.
I conducted an interview with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) that addresses Abigail Adams’s request in the context of Industry 4.0. In our new set of laws, we must remember the impact women have on our current economy and how they will shape the future of work. This is what he told me.
Katica Roy: America’s demographics are changing. For example, the share of breadwinning moms has increased by 166% since 1970, and today 71% of households with children rely on a mother’s earnings for their well-being. In the next 20 years, analysts predict that 11% of the female labor force and 9% of the male labor force will see their jobs replaced by automation. What structures should we put in place to ensure no one gets left behind from all these changes?
Senator Cory Booker: It is past time that we close the gender pay gap. On average, women in America are paid 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Black and Latinx women make 62 cents and 54 cents for every dollar earned by men, respectively. We also need to ensure that women, and all underrepresented groups, are included in the jobs of tomorrow—namely, STEM-related fields that have been traditionally dominated by men. That starts with passing the STEM Opportunities Act, which would provide more access to STEM for underrepresented groups, including women and people of color.
KR: 2015 was the first year on record that middle-income families no longer made up the majority in America. As the share of manufacturing jobs in our economy continues to drop (they’re down from 25% in 1970 to 8.5% today) and expenses such as healthcare and retirement rise faster than wages, we need to redefine what “middle-class” means in the fourth industrial revolution, especially now with COVID-19 obstructing wealth equity. How can we restore America’s once-thriving middle class as we move into the fourth industrial revolution?
CB: For millions of Americans, the barriers to opportunity and success are higher than ever. I see it every day in my neighborhood in Newark, where the median annual income, according to the last census, is about $14,000. To put that in perspective, average annual rent plus utilities for a 650-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Newark is $12,000 a year. Throw in groceries, transportation to and from work, childcare, medical care, and other necessities, and you can imagine how hard it is for a typical family in my neighborhood to get by.
There’s no silver bullet to rebuilding the middle class in our country, but it starts with a $15 minimum wage, a massive increase in affordable housing units, and childcare subsidies for working families. And we need to make the kind of transformational investments that grow our economy and create well-paying jobs. This includes passing my bill, the Scale-Up Manufacturing Investment Corporation Act, which would drive unprecedented capital into advanced manufacturing here in America. It also includes investing in our crumbling roads, ports, and bridges.
Finally, we need to give every kid a fair shot at opportunity. My bill, the American Opportunity Accounts Act, or “Baby Bonds,” would create a new American birthright: a federally funded savings account for every child. By the time they turn age 18, the account holders who grow up in the poorest households would have upwards of $50,000 to use on wealth-building activities like higher education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship. This is the type of evidence-based investments that can change life trajectories.
KR: To be middle class, it’s no longer enough to graduate from high school and begin a job with stable and affordable benefits. In fact, Americans with a high school degree (or lower) are four times more likely to work in a “highly automatable” role than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Automation will only continue to replace entire jobs and on-the-job tasks. What concerns does this raise for our country’s workforce and our economy?
CB: We cannot be caught flat-footed by the major changes taking place in our labor market—we need to take decisive action and step up our investments in education and training programs to ensure all workers have the opportunity to secure a good job in the future. That starts with addressing the outrageous cost of higher education that saddles countless students with crushing debt and prevents so many more from going to college altogether. That’s why I support free community college, debt-free college at four-year institutions, and student-debt relief for teachers, firefighters, and other public servants.
KR: You introduced the Algorithmic Accountability Act in April 2019. How would this legislation combat algorithmic bias?
CB: Discrimination in areas like housing, employment, lending, and healthcare is not new, but the discrimination many communities face today does not look the same as it did for my parent’s generation. Algorithmic bias allows discrimination to be masked or hidden—people from marginalized communities may never learn about a house for sale, a job opportunity that’s present, or financing that’s available.
The Algorithmic Accountability Act would authorize the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create regulations requiring companies under its jurisdiction to conduct impact assessments of highly sensitive automated decision systems. It’s a key step toward ensuring more accountability from the entities using software to make decisions that can change lives.
KR: You also introduced the bill, the No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act in November 2019. This bill would ban the use of facial recognition in public housing units. What prompted you to take action on this issue?
CB: I started my career as a tenants’ rights advocate and have previously lived in public housing. The living conditions of the families in our public housing units are deeply personal to me. Facial recognition technology has repeatedly shown to be incomplete and inaccurate, regularly targeting and misidentifying women and people of color. We need better safeguards and more research before we test this emerging technology on those who live in public housing and risk their privacy, safety, and peace of mind.
KR: Regarding the bill, you said: “Using facial recognition technology in public housing without fully understanding its flaws and privacy implications seriously harms our most vulnerable communities.” How so?
CB: The use of facial recognition technologies in public housing could have a deeply harmful impact on accessibility to fair and affordable housing. This emerging technology could serve as the basis for the denial of building access or even unjust arrest for trespassing, particularly for members of vulnerable and marginalized communities.
There is also significant concern over the possibility that data from biometric identification technology could be shared with outside organizations without the knowledge of tenants. As I wrote to HUD Secretary Ben Carson along with several of my Democratic colleagues, “those who cannot afford more do not deserve less in basic privacy and protections.”
KR: Algorithms don’t write themselves, people do. Yet women, who represent 50% of the global population, make up only 22% of the world’s AI talent. How can we reach intersectional gender parity in AI so that we can minimize the economic and societal threat of algorithmic bias from the start—before products are launched into the public?
CB: We need to improve diversity and inclusion across our economy, but especially in STEM-related fields. It’s not just women: People of color and people with disabilities are also underrepresented in the tech sector, and they are also negatively impacted by algorithmic bias. We need to invest in these communities to ensure that they have opportunities to succeed in STEM-related fields. They need to have a role in designing the algorithms we use.
KR: Is Congress capable of legislating unbiased AI?
CB: Congress undoubtedly has an enormous role to play, but our efforts will be made stronger and smarter if we work closely with advocates, policy experts, and industry leaders to set norms and baseline rights that put consumers first.
KR: Besides legislation and reaching intersectional gender parity in AI talent, what other measures should be done to prevent organizations from developing and deploying biased algorithms? (As we saw with the Apple Card fallout as well as IBM and Amazon suspending the use or development of their facial recognition software, we cannot keep launching investigations into biased AI retrospectively, after the damage is done.)
CB: We’ve seen the amazing power advocates have in pushing corporations to be better. I’ve always said the power of the people is greater than the people in power. Together, we need to push the industry to test their algorithms for bias before they are deployed and then periodically as they are in effect, as my Algorithmic Accountability Act would do.
KR: What role do you see women playing in America’s future economy and society?
CB: Women are shattering barriers across our economy and society. I pray that in the coming months I will be able to call my friend Kamala Harris “Madam Vice President.” The future for women in America’s economy and society are limitless, but we all need to work together to reduce barriers that hamper their opportunity—that means providing affordable childcare, paid family and medical leave, and closing the gender pay gap.
Katica Roy is the CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity.