Her A.I. Analyzes Your Performance Review for Gender Bias

Her A.I. Analyzes Your Performance Review for Gender Bias

By Ellen Lee

Katica Roy.


Because the gender pay gap is real — and it’s not going away.

By Ellen Lee

When Katica Roy returned from maternity leave several years ago, she found her office in disarray. Her boss, among others, had been let go, and Roy was tasked with managing two additional teams of employees.

Her male colleague was also assigned an additional team. But while he was rewarded with a raise for his new responsibilities, Roy received nothing. 

Roy brought up the issue with her new boss, but it went nowhere. So she called human resources, citing the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and ended up getting a raise — with back pay. “It’s a story of success,” says Roy, who declines to name the company she fought. “But the bigger question in my mind was why I had to research my rights in the first place.”

That experience fuels her work now. As founder and CEO of Denver-based Pipeline Equity, Roy, 46, is using artificial intelligence to attack gender equity and the wage gap by remaking companies’ decision-making processes.

When you change how talent is valued, you begin to change the system.

Katica Roy

The problem affects industries from entertainment to high finance, with women in the United States still earning only 85 percent of what men earn.

The daughter of a Hungarian refugee, and a political science major in college, Roy always had an interest in equity and women’s rights. But once she graduated, she focused on climbing the corporate ladder, eventually earning her MBA and and becoming the primary breadwinner in her family of four. Then came the moment she had to fight for equal pay. 

Katica Roy_child

Right then, Roy committed to making sure the employees she oversaw as a manager were paid fairly too. Several years later, as vice president of large software company SAP, she found an opportunity to do more when she appeared on a radio show to discuss women and equity. Asked what it would take to close the gap, Roy responded that the issue needed to be addressed from an economic perspective — CEOs needed to see that it could improve their bottom line.

In 2017, she founded Pipeline. Digging into data from more than 4,000 companies, Roy found that as businesses moved the needle closer to gender equity, their revenue also went up. (The Peterson Institute for International Economics and McKinsey have also found a correlation between more women in top leadership and increased profits.)

Roy set out with the data and developed software that helps businesses check their biases. For instance, Pipeline’s AI technology will analyze the language of an employee’s performance review, flagging any biased phrases. It will also assess whether employees are being held to the same standards. That’s important since Pipeline found that women tend to receive lower ratings for the same quality of work as men — starting a downward spiral. “They receive less pay and they’re less likely to be put in the leadership pipeline,” Roy explains.

Roy’s timing for launching Pipeline was apt, as it coincided with the surging #MeToo movement calling attention to the sexual harassment many women are subjected to. The movement “changed the conversation around gender equity,” says Roy, who secured an undisclosed amount of seed funding and was selected for Techstars, a startup accelerator and mentorship program. 

Pipeline joins more than 100 companies in the new and fast-growing market of diversity and inclusion technology, according to a 2019 report by RedThread Research and Mercer. The majority of the estimated $100 million market is made up of young startups like Pipeline that are developing technology to help companies recruit, hire and create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Faced with increased scrutiny from shareholders and customers, more and more companies are beginning to adopt practices such as unconscious bias training and consider technology like Pipeline’s. “There has been a lot of talk but now we’re seeing a lot more companies under pressure to take action,” says Carole Jackson, senior principal in Mercer’s diversity and inclusion consulting practice.

Web Summit 2019 - Day Two

From left: DJ and entrepreneur Christopher Leacock, Pipeline Equity’s Katica Roy and Bloomberg News technology editor Amy Thomson at Web Summit 2019.

Source Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty

The greater challenge for Pipeline and others is developing technology that can make corporate culture more equitable and inclusive, says Stacia Garr, co-founder of RedThread Research. “You can have lots of diversity coming into the organization, but if you can’t create a place where people feel appreciated and respected, they’re not going to stay,” Garr says.

Can technology have that sort of impact? Roy thinks so, with Pipeline changing the corporate landscape one unbiased decision at a time. Past efforts tended to put the onus on women, such as coaching them to do a better job negotiating. Roy hopes that Pipeline can intervene before crucial decisions are made — such as annual performance reviews. The goal is to do it on a grand scale, across thousands of employees and multitudes of decisions. With Pipeline’s technology already implemented at several Fortune 500 companies, it’s beginning to make a difference: Customers using Pipeline have moved 67 percent closer to gender equity. “Women are not broken,” Roy says. “When you change how talent is valued, you begin to change the system.”

Just one decision can make a difference, as Roy knows well: On Christmas Day 1956, shortly after the Hungarian Revolution, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered Air Force One to bring a group of Hungarian refugees to the States. Among the refugees on the plane were Roy’s father and three sisters.

That legacy has stayed with Roy, who was born in the U.S. and saw the opportunities and advantages that her citizenship gave her. She hopes that Pipeline will help her pay it forward. “One person and one decision can have a profound impact on someone’s life,” she says.

OZY’s 5 Questions With Katica Roy

  • What’s the last book you read? Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
  • What do you worry about? Growing Pipeline fast enough, not just about building the business but also about making a positive impact.
  • Whats your one must-have tool? Slack.
  • Whos your hero? Michelle Obama and Oprah.
  • Whats one item on your bucket list? I’ve never been to Paris. I want to walk along the Champs-Élysées, visit the Louvre, everything.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Roy filed a formal complaint with human resources when she was given a promotion without a raise in a prior job. She merely called HR. It also incorrectly implied that Roy conducted her research on equal pay and corporate revenue at 4,000 companies before founding Pipeline. She did the research after starting the company in 2017.