ChatGPT and the impact of using language as an interface

In their 1961 memo about the National Space Program, Webb and McNamara advised that “the orbiting of machines is not the same as the orbiting or landing of man. It is man, not merely machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world.” It’s an interesting insight about the greatest scientific achievement of the past century that the PR aspect of making space travel relatable contributed to defining what success would look like 8 years later.

Fast forward to 2023: it was recently announced that AI can now identify breast cancers that doctors miss. You would be forgiven for having missed it though, because a different type of AI has been capturing the imagination of the world lately. Generative AI has mind-boggling use cases that we are only starting to grasp, but it is the human element that makes it a mainstream media darling: will machines develop feelings, can they make art?

Word-work is sublime… because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

Toni Morrison – Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1993

Human language is a demanding interface

When we log into a computer and input a command into a digital interface, everything about the user experience tells us that the entity spitting back the answer is programmed to do so. We are speaking the machine’s language. If we don’t get the expected output then surely we have ticked the wrong box, made a mistake in our code or misplaced a coma in our query.

When language becomes the interface however, we are in quintessentially human territory. Language is subjective by nature and always evolving. Not even the best programmer in the world could anticipate all the possible prompts a chatbot could receive, to be relevant it needs to be able to continuously learn by itself how to process the subtleties of human language.

How do chatbots learn?

The field in charge of optimising the interactions between machines and human language is called Natural Language Processing (NLP). It dates back to 1950 when mathematician Alan Turing devised a test called the “imitation game” which assessed the intelligence of a machine by measuring its ability to interpret and generate natural language.

Between the 50s and the 80s, NLP mostly consisted of researchers trying to map out all the inputs for a specific use case – often translation – and to then hand-write all the corresponding instructions, with varying degrees of success.

Things changed in the 90s with the introduction of machine learning, made possible by bigger computational power and lots of data openly available on the web to learn from.

We are now in the exciting phase of Neural Network NLP. Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) are information processing architectures that mimic human brains. Although some researchers find the comparison misleading, ANNs do look very similar to neurons, connected by synapses and organised in layers.

A biological neuron in comparison to an artificial neural network:
(a) human neuron; (b) artificial neuron; (c) biological synapse; and (d) ANN synapses – source here

Could they learn too fast?

The movie Arrival explores a interesting idea: that language programs us as much as we program it. Linguist Louise Banks is sent to translate what aliens are trying to tell us in their circular written language. She eventually gets to a place where she can use their language well enough to have actual conversations with them. In doing so, it changes her.

Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks in the movie Arrival, 2016

On the off chance that you have not yet seen this beautiful movie I will not reveal here the final plot twist but this idea of the power of language over human brains is important. Think about the impact of saying “died by suicide” rather than a guilty “committed suicide”, of saying “enslaved people” rather than “slaves”. To Toni Morrison’s point, language is meaning.

Left unchecked, ANN-powered Natural Language Processing could end up amplifying harmful biases. A famous example is the word2vec algorithm which assigns vectors to words to understand which words are similar and which words “go well” together. Its applications include the ability to recommend words to complete unfinished sentences. Unfortunately it completed the sentence “man is to computer programmer as woman is to x” with x=homemaker and “a father is to a doctor as a mother is to x” with x=a nurse. Even if machines learn by themselves, as long as they are learning from data sets created and curated by human beings, our biases will be embedded in them.

AI computer scientist Timnit Gebru described several of these issues in her paper Race and Gender. One striking example is that of “a Palestinian arrested for writing “good morning” in Arabic which was translated to “hurt them” in English or “attack them” in Hebrew by Facebook Translate“. The person was arrested and then let go when someone checked the original Arabic message. As Dr Gebru explains: “had the field of language translation been dominated by Palestinians as well as those from other Arabic speaking populations, it is difficult to imagine that this type of mistake in the translation system would have transpired“.

Having machines that can learn by themselves is fantastic, but giving them too much input without oversight is dangerous. It’s great to see that OpenAI took this very seriously with ‘red teams’ dedicated to testing GPT’s ability to generate harmful content. We would do well to ensure that powerful AI is matched with equally powerful AI ethics mechanisms that can audit ANNs and ensure they are helping us be better, not just smarter versions of ourselves.

Paul Röttger‘s full Twitter thread here

Spoken language is one of the most intuitive and intimate interfaces that can be built between humans and machines, and chatbots are fast learners. Looking at the acceleration of NLP since its inception in the 50s, we can also be very excited for what comes next – after all, the field is still young and full of promising applications. In the words of voice assistant -turned-superhero Vision:

Paul Bettany as Vision in the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015

10 leadership lessons from women in comedy

To end a heavy year on a light note, I have gathered a few leadership lessons from some of my favourite women in comedy. Tech and Comedy have that in common that the gender balance is pretty bad and that it sure helps to have a sense of humour if you want to make it. Both fields can either support existing power dynamics or subvert them, and both provide platforms to discuss and shape society, so it is great to see more women role models on both sides. And if you’re not a woman, fear not! In the words of comedic genius Leslie Jones: “I don’t know if y’all heard but Women is the same as Humans” so these 10 leadership lessons work across the whole gender spectrum:

1. Work hard

“Confidence is just entitlement. Entitlement has gotten a bad rap because it’s used almost exclusively for the useless children of the rich, reality TV stars, and Conrad Hilton Jr., who gets kicked off an airplane for smoking pot in the lavatory and calling people peasants or whatever. But entitlement in and of itself isn’t so bad. Entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it.(…) Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.”
From Mindy Kaling in Why not me

2. Keep going

“My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”
From Tina Fey in Bossy Pants

3. Recognize your mentors

About her mentor Greg Daniels who hired her to work on The Office: “The word mentor is funny because it has a pedagogical, formal feel to it. Greg never sat me down and said, “I believe in you, kid. Now, here, take this antique fountain pen that W.C. Fields gave me and go make something of yourself. He’s always just provided opportunities for me, set an example of how to be a leader, invited me to his house for dinner sometimes, and sat in consoling silence across from me when I was going through heartbreak.”
From Mindy Kaling in Why not me

4. Embrace the yes

“I love saying “yes” and I love saying “please”. Saying “yes” doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying “please” doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. “Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.”
From Amy Poehler in Yes, please!

5. Make statements

“Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at John Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.”
From Tina Fey in Bossy Pants

6. Be comfortable being confident

“A general assumption about confidence is that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it. Just the attitude alone makes me sad: “We have to help our girls and teach them to be confident.” Well, guess what, young girls. You aren’t damsels in distress. You aren’t hostages to the words of your peers. You aren’t the victims that even your well-meaning teachers and advocates think you are.”
From Mindy Kaling in Why not me

7. Say “sorry” but not too much

“I say ‘sorry’ a lot. (…) But this doesn’t mean I am a pushover. It doesn’t mean I am afraid of conflict or don’t know how to stand up for myself. I am getting to a place right in the middle where I feel good about exactly how much I apologize. It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for. It takes years to find your voice and seize your real estate.”
From Amy Poehler in Yes, please!

8. Don’t micromanage

“Why is this book called Bossypants? One, because the title Two and a Half Men was already taken. And two, because ever since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, “Is it hard for you, being the boss?” and “Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?” You know, in that same way they say, “Gosh, Mr Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?” I can’t answer for Mr Trump, but in my case it is not. I’ve learned a lot over the past ten years about what it means to be the boss of people. In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.”
From Tina Fey in Bossy Pants

9. Fail and move on

“What I learned about bombing at Saturday Night is that you can’t be too worried about your “permanent record”. Yes, you’re going to write some sketches that you love and are proud of forever – your golden nuggets. But you’re also going to write some real shit nuggets. And unfortunately, sometimes the shit nuggets will make it onto the air. You can’t worry about it. As long as you know the difference, you can go back to panning for gold on Monday.”
From Tina Fey in Bossy Pants

10. Treat your career like a bad boyfriend

“Too often we are told to visualize what we want and cut out pictures of it and repeat it like a mantra over and over again. (…) I am introducing a new idea. Try to care less. Practice ambivalence. Learn to let go of wanting it. Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.

Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you love. (…) Career is different. Career is the stringing together of opportunities and jobs. Mix in public opinion and past regrets. Add a dash of future panic and a whole lot of financial insecurity. Career is something that fools you into thinking you are in control and then takes pleasure into reminding you that you aren’t. Career is the thing that fills you up and never make you truly whole. Depending on your career is like eating cake for breakfast and then wondering why you start crying an hour later.

Remember, your career is a bad boyfriend. It likes it when you don’t depend on it. It will reward you every time you don’t act needy. It will chase you if you act like other things (passion, friendship, family, longevity) are more important to you. If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else.”
From Amy Poehler in Yes, please!

Where are the Black inventors of the Industrial Revolution?

November marks the end of Black History Month in the UK. This year, inspired by an ongoing campaign to teach Black British History in schools, my company’s D&I committee investigated different periods of the curriculum to find the missing contributions of Black people. The piece I worked on and am sharing below has been adapted into an internal learning module. Doing the research was fascinating and surprisingly easy. The documents are there, the stories are there, waiting to be told and taught – which begs the question: why aren’t they?


Innovation is an important concept for humanity. Homo Sapiens climbed to the top of the food chain not because it was stronger than other animal species, but because it invented sophisticated tools and technology. From Thomas Edison to Elon Musk, innovators have a special status in modern societies because they further an idea that started when humans mastered the use of fire: that among other animal species, humans are special – we can elevate ourselves.

The Industrial Revolution was a turning point in our history. Machines and processes were invented that improved manufacturing and made Great Britain the world’s leading commercial power. Inventors like James Hargreaves and Richard Arkwright are celebrated. Their contributions are taught as part of the school curriculum and have inspired generations of innovators, all the way up to today’s Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.

If you type “Industrial Revolution inventors” in a search engine, you may notice a pattern: all the inventors are male, and all are white. An Internet user could see this and think that this demographic was the sole contributor to the Industrial Revolution. More subtly, they could see all these white men and think – perhaps unconsciously – “this is what an innovator looks like”. 

Actually, the search engine obeys the same bias than the school curriculum: we look at patented innovations and connect them with economic developments to rate their historical significance. 

Here is the problem though. The Industrial Revolution happened between the mid-18th century and the end of the 19th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was in full force. In fact, the development of our textile industry is directly correlated with the expansion of labour camps in plantations in America, to produce cheap cotton. Black people were enslaved to work in these camps. Because they were enslaved, they were not allowed to own any property, including intellectual property. 

There are documented accounts for example of a blacksmith called Ned who lived in Mississippi and in the 1850s invented a cotton scraper for ploughing cotton fields. But he was enslaved by Oscar Stewart who tried to claim the patent for this invention, on the grounds that “the master has the same right to the fruits of the labor of the intilect [sic] of his slave”.

It is enraging to think of all the brilliant minds who should have been supported and were instead forced into gruesome, unpaid labour. This is something we unfortunately cannot change now. But here is what we can change: we can rehabilitate their legacies. 

We should do this because it is the fair thing to do, but also because of the positive impact it would have on society today. In the words of Lavinya Stennett who set up The Black Curriculum, a campaign for black British history to be embedded into the UK curriculum: “The school curriculum is very whitewashed, and black history is usually either omitted entirely, or taught only in terms of colonialism and slavery, rather than black people’s achievements.” 

Imagine the difference it would make if next time you typed “Industrial Revolution inventors” in your search engine you saw not only the well-known faces of James Watt and Samuel Morse but also the full diversity of men and women whose innovations ushered us into the modern age. Imagine the impact on Black pupils, and the careers they may choose to pursue. 

Here is a list of 10 Industrial Revolution Black innovators and how their contributions changed lives:

1. Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker, inventor, mathematician and astronomer

We owe him: The first striking clock to be made in America, progress on astronomical observations and calculations.

Short bio: Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731 in Maryland. He was a gentleman farmer and self-taught mathematician and astronomer who at 21 invented a clock out of wood that struck a gong on the hour and kept time to the second. He created the first of 6 Banneker’s Almanac in 1792, which were used by farmers and other residents to see when the sun would come up and set, tide tables, lunar and solar eclipses and phases of the moon. He offered a handwritten manuscript of his almanac to Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter asking for justice for Black men and women “under groaning captivity and cruel oppression”. On the day of his funeral, a mysterious fire destroyed his farmhouse and laboratory, including his clock and every record of his achievements except for his published almanacs and his journal.

To learn more about him:

2. Henry Blair

Henry Blair, inventor and the second African-American to receive a patent

We owe him: Two models of seed planters which boosted agricultural productivity.

Short bio: Henry Blair was born in 1807 in Maryland. We know little about his early life other than he became a successful, independent farmer. He worked on ways to increase the efficiency of his farming and was awarded a patent in 1834 for a corn planter which combined ploughing, placing the seeds, and covering the seeds with soil. In doing so he became only the second African American inventor to receive a U.S. patent. Two years later he obtained a second patent, this time for a cotton planter.

To learn more about him: 

3. Henry Boyd

Henry Boyd, inventor, carpenter and master mechanic

We owe him: The Boyd Bedstead, a sturdier bed construction still commonly used today.

Short bio: Henry Boyd was born into slavery in 1802 in Kentucky. He became an inventor, carpenter, and a master mechanic. He proved early on to have an impressive talent for carpentry, which he used to buy his and his siblings’ freedom, then to open his own woodwork workshop where he invented the Boyd Bedstead. Because he was Black, he was not allowed to obtain a patent for this, which was later claimed by George Porter, a white cabinet maker. His business prospered nonetheless and in 1843 he was one of the most successful furniture makers in Cincinnati, Ohio. His factory was unfortunately burnt by arsonists several times. He rebuilt it twice, but the third time insurance companies refused to cover him, and he closed it for good in 1862.

To learn more about him:

4. Solomon Brown

Solomon Brown, poet, entomologist, civil rights activist and collaborator of Samuel Morse

We owe him: He installed the wires of Samuel Morse’s first telegraph and was the first African American to be hired by the Smithsonian Institute.

Short bio: Solomon Brown was born in 1829 in Washington. At just 15 he started working at the Washington D.C. Post Office as a postmaster assistant where he assisted Samuel Morse and Joseph Henry with the installation of the first Morse telegraph. He followed Morse when he founded the Morse Telegraph Company, where he worked for seven years. In 1852, Joseph Henry hired him to join the Smithsonian Institute, where he worked for 54 years and held many positions. He was very involved in civic and educational programs to support the African American community and served three terms as a Republican member of the House of Delegates for Washington D.C. from 1871-1874. He also published poetry and gave lectures on entomology and geology for which he used his own drawings.

To learn more about him:

5. George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, agricultural and industrial innovator

We owe him: 300 products derived from peanuts – including peanut butter, soaps, flour and insulation – and innovative agricultural methods.

Short bio: George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri, in 1864 or 1865. He studied Botany at Iowa State Agricultural College and would go on to be the first Black faculty member to teach there. He developed an agricultural extension program that taught farmers to restore nitrogen to soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton, by alternating with plantings of different crops such as sweet potatoes or peanuts. He also founded an industrial research laboratory to find and promote applications for these alternative crops. He received many honours and became one of the very few Americans to be made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England in 1916.

To learn more about him:

6. Thomas L. Jennings

Thomas L. Jennings, inventor of dry-cleaning and first African-American to receive a patent

We owe him: the invention of dry scouring, the ancestor of dry-cleaning.

Short bio: Thomas Jennings was born in 1791 in New York City. He trained as a tailor and quickly became a successful businessman. He was not satisfied with conventional methods of cleaning that harmed clothes and started experimenting himself. This is how he invented dry scouring, for which he obtained a patent in 1821 – the first one awarded to an African American. He used the profits from his invention to buy the freedom of his family and supported the abolitionist cause. In 1831 he became assistant secretary for the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour in Philadelphia. In 1854 his daughter Elizabeth was forcefully removed from a streetcar and filed a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railroad Company. She won the lawsuit the next year and the railroad company ordered its cars desegregated.

To learn more about him:

7. Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer, inventor and owner of multiple patents

We owe him: a long-lasting and cheap filament to use in light bulbs, and six other patented inventions

Short bio: Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 in Massachusetts. He joined the Navy at 15 and served for 3 years before joining a patent law firm where he learned how to sketch patent drawings. At just 26, Latimer co-patented an improved toilet system for railroad cars. Two years later, Alexander Graham Bell hired him to draft the drawings for the patent of his telephone. In 1879 Latimer joined the U.S. Electric Lighting Company owned by Thomas Edison’s rival. He received a patent himself for an improved method of production of carbon filaments for lightbulbs in 1882. Two years after that he joined Thomas Edison’s research team and became the head draftsman for General Electric. There, he wrote the first book on electric lightning and supervised the installation of public electric lights in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. He lived in New York with his family until his death in 1928.

To learn more about him:

8. Jan Ernst Matzeliger

Jan Ernst Matzeliger, who automated and revolutionized the shoe-making industry

We owe him: Affordable shoes, thanks to a machine he invented that could make 14 times more shoes in a day than the manual process, thus slashing their price for consumers and doubling wages for millions of people in the shoe industry.

Short bio: Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in 1852 in Dutch Guyana (now Suriname). His father was a Dutch engineer and his mother was an enslaved Black Surinamese. He moved to Massachusetts in 1877, where he worked for the Harney Brothers Shoes factory. He obtained a patent for his machine in 1883 and continued to work on automating the shoe production process. He contracted tuberculosis and died at 36. He was honoured by a U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamp as part of the Black Heritage Stamp Series in 1991, described as “a Black American who revolutionized America’s shoe-making industry in the late 19th century”.

To learn more about him:

9. Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux, inventor of the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator

We owe him: the multiple-effect vacuum evaporator which produced a whiter, more refined sugar with less labour.

Short bio: Norbert Rillieux was born in 1806 into a prominent Creole family in New Orleans. In the 1820s he travelled to Paris to study at Ecole Centrale – one of the best engineering school in France – where at 24 he became the youngest teacher. He published several papers about the use of steam to work devices, which was the premise for his invention. Until then the process to refine sugar was very manual, often burning the workers and wasting sugar in the process. Rillieux travelled back to Louisiana in 1833 and worked on his machine, which he patented in 1843. His invention revolutionised the industry. He came back to France just before the Civil War, frustrated by race relations in the US which made patenting invention difficult for Black people. The method he invented went on to be used for all evaporation processes, including condensed milk, gelatin, soap, glue, and whiskey.

To learn more about him:

10. Sarah Breedlove Walker

Sarah Breedlove Walker, inventor of the hot comb and first woman self-made millionaire in the US

We owe her: She revolutionized the African American cosmetics industry with her invention of the hot comb and a pomade to make hair soft and shiny.

Short bio: Madam C. J. Walker – born Sarah Breedlove – was born in 1867 in Louisiana and was orphaned very young. She married at 14 to escape abuse and had a daughter three years later. In 1904 she became a commissioned agent for the Poro Company, an African American haircare brand. A year later Walker moved to Denver with her daughter and started developing her own hair-care business. She then travelled to expand her business with her new husband Charles Walker, and relocated to Pennsylvania, where she started the “Walker System”, a program to train her sales agents and encourage Black women’s economic independence. In 1910 she relocated to Indianapolis where she established her headquarters and built a factory employing 3,000 people, a hair salon, a laboratory and a beauty school. She was a philanthropist, an activist, and is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America.

To learn more about her:

The warmth/competence matrix for women, from the West Wing to the workplace

The warmth / competence matrix is a useful tool to optimise a leader’s influence in the workplace, especially during a crisis.

Warmth is generally defined as the extent to which a person is friendly, trusted and kind, while competence is an individual’s intelligence, efficiency, and overall power.

For a study by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman 50,000 leaders were each rated by an average of 13 people against various behaviours, that were then grouped under either Warmth or Competence. The conclusion in a nutshell was that:

  1. Leaders on average display both qualities evenly: “53.5% of leaders were dominant in Competence and 46.5% were dominant in Warmth

  2. Female leaders skew higher towards competence than warmth: “Stereotypes of women characterize them as demonstrating more Warmth; however, the data presents a different conclusion (…) 59.3% of women were more dominant in competence compared to 52.8% of men.

    Surely that’s a good thing? Actually no because:

  3. Passed a certain seniority level warmth becomes more important than competence: “61.2% of top level managers were dominant in Warmth

Why do female leaders skew lower towards warmth? One explanation for it was exposed by a famous study that asked people – male and female alike – to read a case about a successful venture capitalist and share their perception of that person. Half were given the case study with a man’s name (Howard), the other half with a woman’s name (Heidi).

The results showed that Howard was perceived by both men and women to be warm and generous while Heidi was perceived to be cold and selfish, not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, who commented this study in her book Lean In: “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

What if warmth / competence for women is not a matrix but a spectrum?

To illustrate the difference, here is a mapping of 3 male characters of the beloved TV show West Wing and where they skew on a warmth / competence matrix:

All 3 have different personalities. Some exhibit borderline antisocial behaviours, but all are leadership material. Their lack of warmth can be compensated by competence: Toby’s anger management issues for example are often forgiven on account of his talent. Reciprocally, a lower skew on competence can be compensated by warmth, like when Bob (top left) is brought to the ticket as Vice President because he seems approachable and not threatening.

For the female characters, a lack of warmth cannot be compensated by more competence, or the other way around:

Abbey (right) is the First Lady but also a world-class physician. Her perceived lack of warmth and excessive comfort with her competence – for example insisting on being called “Dr Bartlet” – is addressed several times in the show.

Donna (left) starts as a naive junior assistant. She gets more knowledgeable as the show progresses but gets stuck for a long time in the green zone of the spectrum, not daring to ask for the career progression she deserves.

CJ (middle) starts as the very competent but charmingly goofy press secretary, making public mistakes like in season 3 when addressing the President’s multiple sclerosis. She also progresses towards the power end of the spectrum throughout the show, losing perceived warmth as she goes. That decision about the astronauts? Cold.

We should note that all these characters are white and that although gender biases are unfortunately intersectional, women of colour face additional biases.

In the illustrations above, the leadership “green zone” – with what we feel is an acceptable warmth/competence balance – is wider for the male leaders, while we prefer that female leaders operate on the narrow portion of the spectrum where warmth and competence overlap.

The warmth/competence bias has a measurable impact on the gender pay gap

Studies have confirmed what has long been an intuition for many female leaders: that negotiating salaries has a “social cost” for women. When a woman self-advocates and negotiates assertively for her salary, it takes away from her perceived warmth. The evaluators feel like she does not care about the business enough and are less willing to work with her. This contributes to explain why senior female leaders tend to earn less than their male peers.

There is more and more willingness to push women to seek top positions both in the workplace and the (actual) West Wing, but the leadership literature advising on how to seek these positions is still very male oriented. This is probably because historically there was simply not a lot of women in leadership positions. I once attended an excellent two-days training on how to grow business where none of the case studies involved a woman as the main character.

It is a known issue in business schools as well, where research revealed that only 9% of case studies described the leadership of a women protagonist, and “None of the teaching notes for the case studies with women protagonists raised their gender as a potential issue in analyzing the case, which (…) is a critical omission, as research shows that similar behavior is interpreted differently when observed in a man or a woman.“.

Female leaders need pragmatic advice

Most of us are aware of the business case to promote female leadership. As illustrated by McKinsey’s research: “A substantial differential likelihood of outperformance — 48 percent — separates the most from the least gender-diverse companies.” The question is how do we get there.

Due to the warmth/competence bias, not all negotiation advice or leadership techniques that work for men will work for women, which can be frustrating for women seeking pragmatic advice. I am ashamed to say that I initially discovered the brilliant comic Sarah Cooper by clicking on this link thinking it would be genuine advice: 9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women.

Unconscious bias are uncomfortable, and rightly so. We are ashamed to have them and feel like they should not exist. We are willing to go through unconscious bias trainings to get rid of them. In parallel, we encourage female leadership through programmes that we hope will help them overcome internal barriers such as imposter syndrome.

Both of these aspects are important and necessary but I believe that there is a missing piece: providing women with actionable tools to counter the immediate effects of unconscious bias that work against them.

An example of such tool is called “relational accounts” and can help overcome the bias that takes away from women’s perceived warmth when they negotiate their salaries. The principle in a nutshell is to adopt the point of view of the negotiating counterpart and explain why in their view it is legitimate for you to negotiate a higher salary, while insisting that you do care about the business.

For example in her salary negotiation with Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg opened with this: “Of course you realize that you’re hiring me to run your deal team so you want me to be a good negotiator. (…) This is the only time you and I will ever be on opposite sides of the table.” There are more examples and strategies in this article about the research.

To quote the professor who conducted the study and tested the impact of this tool: “I should acknowledge that this idea of using “relational accounts” or “I-We” strategies drives some women crazy. It makes them feel like they are bending to unjust stereotypes or simply being inauthentic. I sympathize with that reaction. We were surprised while doing the research that it would be so hard to make the backlash effects go away. But, every movement needs its idealists and pragmatists, and I am playing the pragmatist here.

Ideally one day we will have removed all unconscious biases that prevent proper diversity in leadership positions, including gender diversity. We may even see a woman accessing the top job in the White House in our lifetime. Women would then be able to make full use of the warmth / competence matrix as it was intended and be their true, multidimensional selves. But while we are working on this long term goal, we should work on gathering more tools to accelerate these transitions.

The man who predicted the death of TV in 1995

Yesterday, NFL Media announced a carriage agreement with Youtube TV. This is a massive shift because live sports content is seen as one of the remaining pillars of linear TV. NFL execs have explained the move very simply: they want the broadest distribution possible, and are therefore following their audience where it goes.

For a while now audiences have turned to video on demand, whether ad-supported (AVOD) or not (SVOD). The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that trend. As a parent of two small children, I was happy to pay Disney+ for quality content that would keep my children entertained during lockdown.

The question is then: what is left of TV if entertainment goes to SVODs and live sports go to Youtube? Is TV defined by the content or by the screen? The debate is raging in the advertising industry because this question is quite literally a billion-dollar one.

Interestingly – as often in media – this debate is not as new as we would think. In an almost prescient interview with Wired 25 years ago, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte addressed this very question:

For the past five years, people who build TV sets have been putting more and more computation into their TVs, and people who build personal computers have been putting more and more video into their personal computers. When these two industrial trends converge, there will be no distinction between the two. Don’t worry about the difference between the TV set and the PC. That’s not fundamental, because basically a TV set is a personal computer you look at from the sofa. Focus on the broadcasting side of it. In the future, we won’t be pushing bits at people like we’re doing today. It doesn’t matter whether you call the receiver a TV or a PC. What’s going to change is how those bits are delivered. (…) They don’t have to be in real time. They can trickle in. They can come in bursts. They can come on demand.

In the rest of the interview – which touches on other current topics such as privacy regulations and artificial intelligence – Negroponte asserts that the Internet is “a medium of choice”, and goes on to pretty much predict the death of TV. I hope he is wrong.

When Covid-19 lockdown measures were enforced in March, people started watching more streaming services but also more TV. When Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away last week, fans around the globe organised to watch the movie Black Panther at the same time. TV can be a comforting collective experience, even when your football team loses.

As a consumer I understand the appeal of SVOD and content personalisation. But TV is expensive to produce and surely quality content should not be reserved to those who can pay subscriptions fees. Having worked in programmatic advertising for 10 years I understand the power of addressability. But as a citizen I also worry about the fragmentation of society, that different groups will end up lacking a common cultural layer to even dialog with each other. Can we find a balance between subscription models and ad-supported models, and between personalised content and shared culture?

To be fair to Negroponte I suspect his point was not so much in favour of über-personalisation than it was against TV content forced on consumers for lack of an alternative offering. With SVODs, content creators get a direct connection to the audience and its behaviours, shortening the feedback loop and tipping the power balance in favour of the users. This could improve content production choices but also promote a better representation of minorities.

To finish with a heart-warming quote from a 2017 Nielsen study: “Much of the American narrative lately has focused on a growing cultural divide. But Nielsen’s data on television programming show something different. Storylines with a strong black character or identity are crossing cultural boundaries to grab diverse audiences and start conversations. That insight is important for culture and content creators, as well as manufacturers and retailers looking to create engaging, high-impact advertising campaigns.

TV as we knew it may be dead, but TV as it could be has never been so interesting.