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Can artificial intelligence help close gender gaps at work?

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Is it because she is a mother? Or perhaps she is perceived as lacking ambition, or leadership qualities?

Gender stereotypes continue to hold women back at work, but a handful of tech firms say they have developed artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can help break biases in hiring and promotion to give female candidates a fairer chance.

Employers and the wider economy could stand to gain, too.

“We are at this moment in artificial intelligence, that we either have the ability to hardwire our biases into the future or … to hardwire equity,” said Katica Roy, chief executive of Colorado-based software firm Pipeline Equity.

“A lot of the time that we talk about equity, we talk about it as a social issue or the right thing to do, which it is, but it’s actually a massive economic opportunity.”

Organisations are increasingly turning to AI to help make hiring decisions, prompting concern among digital rights experts who warn that algorithms can perpetuate biases.

An AI hiring tool developed by Amazon had to be scrapped after it taught itself male candidates were preferable to women.

But women’s rights groups and digital experts said well-designed tech aimed at targeting bias can “shine a light” on the hidden factors holding women back.

“Bias is as old as human nature, and traditional hiring practices have been shot through with a number of different biases,” said Monideepa Tarafdar, a professor in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I think AI can be part of the solution. Definitely. But I do not think it can be the only solution.”

INCLUSIVE ALTERNATIVES

These equality-focused technology firms are using AI to bypass or review decisions such as scanning CVs or deciding pay rises, and offer personalised, data-based advice.

Software developed by Pipeline Equity, a startup founded in 2017, has a number of human resource uses – from checking for biased language in performance reviews to offering advice on hiring and promotions.

Textio also uses AI to analyse companies’ corporate statements and job postings to identify whether they are adopting a masculine tone that will alienate women or members of minority groups, and suggesting more inclusive alternatives.

Pymetrics, another leading firm in the space, offers gamified assessments that it says evaluate potential hires more fairly than reading CVs.

Studies have found that businesses led by diverse teams tend to be more profitable, while boosting women’s presence and role in the workplace could be worth billions of dollars to national economies.

“We have heaps and binders full of this business case, and it has shifted some mindsets,” said Henriette Kolb, head of the Gender and Economic Inclusion Group at the World Bank’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.

But much more needs to be done to improve women’s financial inclusion worldwide, from increasing corporate representation to widening their access to banking, she told the Trust Conference, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual flagship event.

COVID-19 has spurred a “shecession” that has seen a disproportionate number of women pushed out of the labour force. The International Labour Organization found gender gaps have widened and women’s employment is set to recover more slowly.

Meanwhile, companies are struggling to fill open positions with record numbers quitting in the United States in what has been dubbed “the great resignation”.

“Businesses have so many roles that they’re unable to fill, I mean, empty seats can’t do your work for you,” said Kieran Snyder, chief executive of Textio.

“You need to hire great people if you’re going to have any kind of success.”

HELPING OR SPYING?

But AI will not be a silver bullet in creating fairer workplaces, women’s rights advocates and researchers said, warning that the technology could raise as many problems as it solves.

The idea that technology offers some kind of unbiased factual truth or objectivity is an illusion, said Manish Raghavan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Center for Research on Computation and Society.

“All AI has to learn from data in some way; it has to learn from past decisions,” he said.

“That’s not to say it’s impossible to use technology to mitigate your own implicit biases, I think it just has to be very, very carefully designed. And I honestly just don’t think we’re at that point yet where we’re able to do that.”

A lack of transparency about how most commercial algorithms work makes it hard to scrutinise their performance, he added.

Tarafdar, who is leading a research project to analyse how AI can lead to unintentional workplace bias, said effective solutions cannot just pinpoint key hiring decisions but must also look at the wider workplace culture.

Bosses should also carefully consider how much data they can gather on workers before their actions slip from helping towards surveillance, she added.

The real key to change is opening difficult, honest, conversations about bias that can challenge misconceptions, said Allyson Zimmermann, a director of women’s workplace rights organisation Catalyst.

But AI tech can help to upend those preconceptions and open opportunities, she added, citing the case of a young woman who got an interview after being selected using technology that “blinded” recruiters as to her gender and age.

“When she showed up for the interview, they just burst out laughing. And it wasn’t, you know, a rude kind of laughing. They were so shocked that she was this young woman,” she said.

“It really opened their eyes; they thought they would have a middle-aged man coming in … She went into the interview, she got the job. She told me it was an extremely positive experience.”

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Helen Popper and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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Omicron arrives in Canada and B.C.'s flood forecast: In The News for Nov. 29 – Coast Reporter

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In The News is a roundup of stories from The Canadian Press designed to kickstart your day. Here is what’s on the radar of our editors for the morning of Nov. 29 …

What we are watching in Canada …

TORONTO — Ontario’s chief medical officer of health is set to speak to the media this morning, after Canada’s first two cases of a new COVID-19 variant of concern were detected in the province.

Dr. Kieran Moore is expected to speak about the cases of the Omicron variant, which were found in patients in Ottawa who had recently been in Nigeria.

The World Health Organization has cautioned that the variant could be more contagious than others.

It was first detected in South Africa, and has been linked to a spike in cases there.

The federal government on Friday barred visitors from seven southern African countries in an effort to prevent the variant from crossing into Canada, but Nigeria was not among them.

The province has called on Ottawa to implement point-of-arrival COVID-19 testing for everyone entering Canada regardless of where they came from, instead of just requiring them to get tested before leaving for Canada.

Also this …

ABBOTSFORD — Residents of another handful of properties in Abbotsford, B.C., were ordered to evacuate late Sunday night while some others were placed on evacuation of alert due to the ongoing flood threat.

Meanwhile, crews in the city, including members of the Canadian military, worked through the night to pump water into so called tiger dams that have been set up in a desperate effort to try to hold back floodwaters from the Sumas River. 

The second in a trio of intense rainfalls subsided in many areas Sunday, however Environment Canada warned that associated warming had pushed freezing levels well above mountain tops. That means snowmelt is flowing into runoff, causing rivers to rise and increasing the risk of flooding. 

The District of Hope declared a state of emergency yesterday while new evacuation orders were issued in parts of Abbotsford and west of Merritt.

A third storm in the series of devastating atmospheric rivers is forecast to arrive on Tuesday and Wednesday and officials have warned that it could be the worst one yet. 

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth says the province is prepared to use Alert Ready, a system that pushes emergency notifications directly to cell phones, if local authorities believe the next storm poses a threat to life or public safety. 

And this … 

OTTAWA — The federal government is preparing to table a new, tougher bill today in its latest effort to ban conversion therapy in Canada.

The legislation, if passed, would make practices designed to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity illegal. 

The latest bill is widely expected to close some loopholes present in the last piece of legislation to tackle the issue, which fell short of becoming law during the last parliamentary session.

The last bill failed to get through the Senate before the federal election in September and died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved ahead of the vote. 

It banned conversion therapy for children and those adults who did not consent to it, but the latest version of the bill is expected to bar the practice outright.

Justice Minister David Lametti and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien are expected to explain their intention to change the law today alongside survivors of conversion therapy. 

The bill is likely to win support from the NDP, the Bloc Québecois, the Green Party and many Conservative MPs, including party leader Erin O’Toole. More than half of the Tory caucus opposed the government’s previous attempt to clamp down on the practice. 

What we are watching in the U.S. …

WASHINGTON — Both sides are telling the U.S. Supreme Court there’s no middle ground in Wednesday’s showdown over abortion. 

The justices can either reaffirm the constitutional right to an abortion or
wipe it away altogether.

Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that declared a nationwide right to abortion, is facing its most serious challenge in 30 years in front of a court with a 6-3 conservative majority that has been remade by three appointees of President Donald Trump.

“There are no half measures here,” said Sherif Girgis, a Notre Dame law professor who once served as a law clerk for Justice Samuel Alito.

A ruling that overturned Roe and the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey would lead to outright bans or severe restrictions on abortion in 26 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.

The case being heard Wednesday comes from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. 

The Supreme Court has never allowed states to ban abortion before the point at roughly 24 weeks when a fetus can survive outside the womb.

What we are watching in the rest of the world …

JOHANNESBURG — The World Health Organization is urging countries not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new omicron variant. 

WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions. 

WHO praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the omicron variant. 

Cases of the omicron variant popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders. 

Many countries, including Canada, have announced plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries.

Also this …

GENEVA — The World Health Organization is opening a long-planned special session of member states to discuss ways to strengthen the global fight against pandemics like the coronavirus, just as the worrying new omicron variant has sparked immediate concerns worldwide. 

In the wake of diplomatic wrangling, a draft resolution for the special World Health Assembly stops short of calling for work toward establishing a “pandemic treaty” that could beef up the international response when — not if — the next pandemic erupts.

European Union member states and others had sought language calling for work toward a treaty, but the United States and a few other countries countered that the substance of any accord should be worked out first before any such document is given a name. 

A “treaty” would suggest a legally binding agreement that would require ratification — and would likely incur domestic political haggling in some countries.

In entertainment …

LONDON — Cowboy boots are hitting the southern Ontario streets of London as the Canadian Country Music Association kicks off its annual awards show tonight — this time in person.

The country music celebration returns to the live-event sphere for the first time since Calgary hosted in 2019. 

Brett Kissel from Flat Lake, Alta., heads into the bash already having won best video for “Make A Life, Not A Living,” at a ceremony last night that handed out the bulk of the awards. He also won best country music program or special for “Brett Kissel: Live At The Drive-In,” and a new award for live innovation.

Tonight, Kissel competes for entertainer of the year against Dean Brody of Smithers, B.C.; MacKenzie Porter of Medicine Hat, Alta.; the Reklaws from Cambridge, Ont.; and Dallas Smith of Langley, B.C. 

The CCMAs say they will return to Calgary for next year’s bash in 2022, when a weeks’ worth of country music events are set to culminate with an awards show at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Tonight’s bash is hosted by Lindsay Ell of Calgary and “Canada’s Drag Race” winner Priyanka, known out of drag as Mark Suknanan of Toronto. The show streams live Nov. 29 on the Global TV app and Amazon Prime Video, and an encore presentation airs Friday on Global TV.

The ceremony is expected to take place in front of a fully vaccinated crowd at the downtown Budweiser Gardens.

Last year’s show was a modified virtual event due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Also this …

MIAMI — He has expressed himself through his music for more than a half century. 

Bob Dylan has also shared his talent in a series of paintings. And the most comprehensive exhibition of his visual art will be on display starting tomorrow. 

It will be at the Patricia & Philip Frost Art Museum in Miami. 

There will be 40 new pieces of Dylan’s being showcased for the first time.

ICYMI …

NEW YORK — It’s an omnipresent truth: Merriam-Webster has declared vaccine its 2021 word of the year. 

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for the dictionary company, says lookups for the word vaccine increased 601per cent  over 2020. 

Even more telling, searches on the Merriam-Webster website increased by 1,048 per cent over 2019, before the COVID pandemic took hold. 

The selection follows “vax” as word of the year from the folks who publish the Oxford English Dictionary. 

And it comes after Merriam-Webster chose “pandemic” as tops in lookups last year on its online site.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021

The Canadian Press

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BC floods: Evacuation ordered in Abbotsford area – CTV News

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VICTORIA —
British Columbia says it’s prepared to use a national emergency alert system should the third in a trio of ongoing storms pose a risk to life and safety in the coming days.

Alert Ready is a Canada-wide system that allows government officials to issue public safety alerts through major television and radio broadcasters, as well as compatible wireless devices. B.C. has faced criticism for not using it during deadly natural disasters this year.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth says provincial officials are working with local governments, First Nations and emergency managers, adding the province is prepared to use the system should a community feel there is an imminent threat.

Farnworth made the comment during a briefing on an ongoing series of storms in the province in which officials warned that the third one, due to make landfall Monday, could reach intensities similar to those that destroyed highways, flooded communities and prompted mass evacuations two weeks ago.

Armel Castellan of Environment and Climate Change Canada says there is a lot of uncertainty at this stage, and while meteorologists hope the impacts remain as low as possible, they are urging maximum caution, vigilance and readiness for a “very strong storm and swell.”

The River Forecast Centre issued a new flood warning for the Coquihalla River and says the Nooksack River in the United States is at risk of overflowing its banks late today and spilling into Sumas Prairie.

Meanwhile, a new set of evacuation orders were issued for 56 properties in the Petit Creek-Spius Creek area west of Merritt, B.C.

“We’re in the middle of one of the most intense series of storms that we have seen along coastal B.C.,” Farnworth said.

“Once again, it’s time to be ready.”

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Canada's first cases of the omicron coronavirus variant confirmed in Ottawa – CBC.ca

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There are two confirmed cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in Ottawa, the Ontario government announced Sunday.

“Today, the province of Ontario has confirmed two cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in Ottawa, both of which were reported in individuals with recent travel from Nigeria. Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact management and the patients are in isolation,” the statement said.

These are the first cases of the omicron variant confirmed in Canada, coming just days after the country implemented new travel restrictions on foreign nationals who had visited several countries in southern Africa over the preceding two weeks.

Those travel restrictions went into effect on Friday. The omicron variant was first identified by South African researchers and has provoked global concern.

Passengers line up to get tested for COVID-19 at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Friday. The new coronavirus variant, omicron, was first identified by researchers in South Africa and has led a growing list of countries to ban travellers from several nations in southern Africa. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)

Little is known about the new variant, dubbed omicron by the World Health Organization and labelled as a variant of concern. It is being linked to a rapid rise of cases in a South African province.

It is not known at this time whether the variant is more transmissible, or more dangerous to the health of those who are infected by it, than other coronavirus variants.

“The best defence against the omicron variant is stopping it at our border. In addition to the measures recently announced, we continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers irrespective of where they’re coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant,” said the statement from Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health.

The provincial government urged residents to get vaccinated, including with booster doses, and to continue following public health guidance.

“Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to this new variant.”

More confirmed cases likely: health minister

In a statement released Sunday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the confirmation of two omicron cases is a signal that the country’s monitoring system is working but to expect more cases of the variant.

“As the monitoring and testing continues with provinces and territories, it is expected that other cases of this variant will be found in Canada,” Duclos said.

Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos, shown last year, said in a statement on Sunday that the confirmation of two omicron cases is a signal that Canada’s monitoring system is working but to expect more cases of the variant. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“I know that this new variant may seem concerning,” he added, but said existing vaccines and public health measures were helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In a separate statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada said border measures could change as the situation develops.

“The Government of Canada will continue to assess the evolving situation and adjust border measures as required,” it said

‘Better to be safe than sorry’

Reacting to the news, epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Labos emphasized the lack of information the world has so far about the omicron variant, noting that some other variants failed to take hold and out-compete the dominant strain.

“While it’s important not to under-react, it’s important not to overreact. We don’t have a lot of information about whether this variant is actually more dangerous than the variants that we’ve dealt with,” he said in an interview on CBC News Network.

Still, he said it was “better to be safe than sorry” and take precautions. But he said that until there was more information, it was not necessary to radically change behaviour, so long as you are vaccinated and otherwise acting in accordance with public health guidance.

“The stuff that worked before should work now.”

WHO urges countries to keep borders open

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on Sunday summarizing what it knows about the variant. It said it is studying whether the variant is more transmissible than those currently spreading, such as delta, as well as whether omicron increases the risk of reinfection, as suggested by “preliminary evidence.”

The idea of travel bans in response to new variants has long been criticized by some as an ineffective measure at stopping the spread of the virus. South Africa has said the travel measures are “unjustified.”

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, said instituting travel bans targeted at southern Africa “attacks global solidarity.”

“COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” Moeti said.

In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live that aired prior to the government announcement on Sunday, WHO special adviser Dr. Peter Singer said it “wouldn’t be a surprise” if the variant was in Canada.

He said the United Nations agency believes travel restrictions should be “risk-based and time-limited,” part of a comprehensive package, rather than the only measure taken to mitigate the risk of a new variant.

“They’re definitely not a silver bullet,” he said. Singer argued the international community should not create situations that disincentive countries from being transparent about new variants.

Singer said the most important things Canadians can do to protect themselves are the same as they have been throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: get vaccinated and follow public health measures.

“This is a call for individuals to raise their guard. There are things individuals can do which help with any variant or any version of this virus, including omicron.”

He urged Canada and other countries to redouble their efforts to provide resources to the global vaccination campaign, saying that’s the best way to stop the spread of omicron and potential future variants.

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