The robots are coming! (Or not)

In September I had the wonderful opportunity to present at the Royal Academy of Engineering for the Innovators’ Network. I was asked to put up a copy of my speech (a lovely little ego boost – something we all need from time to time!), so here it is. I’ve also included the relevant slides from my deck.

Be warned: you may very well disagree with what I have to say and that is totally cool. I love a good discussion! I’m not stating anything as fact below – only my opinion and my thoughts based on what I see and understand of the world around me.

My name is Anouk. I’m People & Culture Lead for Episode 1 Ventures working with their portfolio of businesses and I also run my own business called Unleashed. When I was first approached to talk on this topic, I thought, yeah, I’m in a relatively good place to share some thoughts. After all, I’ve been in the people space generally for many (many!) years and I work with early stage tech start-ups and help them with 3 of their biggest challenges.

  1. How to recruit the best talent when you don’t have a brand
  2. How to ensure that the people that you have in your business are hugely productive, high performing and happy & motivated
  3. How do you develop the skill set of founders and managers from that of do-ers to a leader of do-ers (the skillset is drastically different).

So, when I started pulling my thoughts together to be able to hopefully say something both coherent and meaningful about recruitment and retention in engineering & tech, I found myself being distracted by thinking about the future and the roles that may exist in 10, 20, 50 years time.

I did some research – well I googled it anyway. And unhelpfully, all the experts (including scholarly articles) had differing opinions on the topic – differing to the point of opposite and conflicting.

As the thoughts swirled around in my head, I realised that in order for the drivel that I was writing to be in anyway meaningful I’d either have to be (or employ) a psychic or a data scientist.

And that is when it hit me. And I’m sorry, I mean no offence by this next sentence…

[Actually a data scientist told me it was a compliment so I hope everyone see it this way!]

Both the psychic and the data scientist take data, an understanding of the world or relevant context around them and try and make predictions as a result. Divination doesn’t come into either.

Granted this is crude, but it stuck in my mind and it is based on my experiences and the data points that I see in the word around me that I share my thoughts… fingers crossed you find them interesting.

There are two frequently stated perspectives:

1.  That robots will take over our jobs and there’ll be nothing left for us.

2.  That women are most at risk of this in particular.


I vehemently disagree with both!

So, let’s take the first one…

In so many parts of life, technology has allowed us to do a great many things.

I was about 2 months old when I was diagnosed with a hole in my heart. If I had had been born now – this would have been diagnosed immediately and I wouldn’t have entered heart failure as a tiny baby. But it was in fact in 1978 (please don’t calculate my age) and my heart surgery consisted of my entire chest cavity being sliced apart and large adult hands doing their magic on a 2 month old heart.

My mother always recounts how the only thing she could look at when talking to the surgeon was his hands to see how steady they were.

Now, had I been born this year and had immediate surgery the surgeon would have barely touched me. Instead of a large scar down my chest I would have had a tiny nick made in my groin, a catheter inserted through an artery and the hole would have been closed by being able to see what was happening inside my heart via a camera.

Risk of infection would have been far less, recovery faster and so on.

I know I am simplifying this, but the point I am trying to make is that technology didn’t replace the job of the surgeon – it has improved the ability of a surgeon to deliver more successful outcomes. There are not less people in the world with these heart problems, there are not fewer surgeons, there is just better medical practise as a result of technology.

Let’s take another example close to my heart – excuse the pun.

Recruitment. Narrowing it further, lets look at recruitment technology and LinkedIn as an example.

Thanks to LinkedIn, never has it been easier to find and connect people at a professional level all across the globe. Also, never have we had more hrtech start-ups, recruitment platforms, applicant tracker systems, and so on. There are platforms that scrape CVs, find key words, tell you which words to use more of to attract more female applicants, there are systems that can sync calendars and automatically invite the right people to the right interview at the right time and place, there is tech that decreases unconscious bias, tech that analyses interview techniques and the list goes on.

If you believe that all these tech advancements place job roles at risk, then you perhaps wouldn’t believe that the recruitment industry has grown by 200% in the last 5 years compared to the 5 years prior to that.

We have never had so many recruiters (talent acquisition experts) and recruitment agencies. Even with all of this tech (and it is early doors still for TalTech– talent technology, I just made that up – did I?), there are more and more vacancies for recruiters – both internally and via agency.

There is however, a skills shortage of amazing recruiters. Tech hasn’t eliminated these roles, and a recruiter’s ability to harness tech isn’t enough to make them stand out from the crowd. It is their human characteristics – their ability to empathise, build relationships, listen, really listen to client needs, and so on, that separates the good from the great.

So rather than seeing tech as a threat to these roles, I see it as enabler, which helps recruiters to focus on the more fulfilling parts of their jobs – the human parts. The tech also will enhance the job seeking process for candidates – providing them with new opportunities to find meaningful work and hone their skills.

So, now, my second point of the two that I disagree with…

When forming conclusions, people tend to link a number of different and potentially true points to create a causal relationship where there isn’t necessarily one to make.

In this instance, the very valid and true points are:

1)  Tech is enabling mundane, administrative, low engagement, highly repetitive tasks to be a thing of the past. In return, enabling us to improve our skill sets and do more of the stuff that matters most and less of what doesn’t.

The second of these very valid and true points is that…

2)  There are more men in leadership roles.

Linking these two together could allow you to surmise that if more men are in leadership roles, then the rest of the roles must be less skilled and the majority of these must be filled by women.

As a result of that thinking, the conclusion becomes that more women are more at risk.

Actually, when you think about it. Women are not necessarily performing less skilled roles. In fact, the roles with high levels of automation ability are filled just as much by men and women and therefore at that level, the risk does not discriminate.

However, something else that we all know to be true is that there are far more women in roles with a higher level of social expertise such as nursing, teaching, caring – roles in which superior performance is measured by emotional intelligence and relationship building. (The fact that these roles are highly under valued and under paid is a different issue.)

Automation won’t be able to take those roles over yet, if ever – robots won’t be teaching my kids in the classroom, robots won’t be my nurse when I’m injured and robots won’t be caring for my husband when he gets older. Those roles will be filled by people who will have more time for their patients because technology has done away with any menial tasks perhaps associated with these roles.

In addition, there is not one business that I speak to who doesn’t explicitly state that they want more females in their team. In tech startup land, a female engineer is likely to get hired over and above the male applicant all other things being equal.

(Although to be fair, in practice, if you have two great people and they are both engineers you will probably hire both – they are a scarce resource.)

Why? Because there isn’t enough diversity.

Why does that matter? Consumers of a product are diverse, the greater the ability of the product makers to be diverse and as much as possible representative of their consumers, the better and more relatable the product. Pretty clear. Plus not to mention the oodles of research out there that links greater diversity (not just of gender) to better business outcomes.

So, if you are a female and you do find yourself at risk, assuming that you have the ability to retrain, you may in fact be less susceptible than many other people conclude.

So, other than my beliefs that technology will actually augment meaningful work and that women are not at higher risk compared to men as a result of certain tasks being automated there are also 3 trends which although nothing new, as a result of what I do, I see escalating that I think are worth highlighting:

  1. There are complete skills shortages in most industries and given I work with tech start-ups I feel this impact mainly around computational engineering, and the like, but I know it isn’t limited here.  This is a real and serious problem and it is this that is likely to slow technological progression if we don’t involve AI and robotics in our jobs in the future.
  2. The most talented people want to keep on developing and learning so jobs for ‘life’ are no longer being created – and when I say life, often for people in the world today, that means 5 years max. People leave businesses because they want more – more autonomy, more purpose in their everyday work and the ability to master what they do (my favourite book – Drive by Daniel Pink). That last point is hugely important for retention – people want to get better and be better and develop and progress. Businesses that don’t proactively enable their people to do this suffer heavily with retention issues at great business cost. Automation of tasks can allow people to step up and do more so shying away from it is a mistake.
  3. Contracting and freelancing is increasingly becoming the norm, in particular for those with sought after skillsets. These workers are entering the gig economy by choice because high demand for their skills means they can charge more and fund a more flexible, balanced life. Wealth is determined by the amount of discretionary time at your disposal. We shouldn’t be trying to make these roles more like permanent roles, but instead, focus on how we can make permanent roles more flexible and align them with the intrinsic benefits associated with gig-like roles.

Technology is enabling us as a human race.

In the world of work (certainly in the UK at least and it is similar in other western nations) technology is putting the power in the hands of your teams and those that you need on your teams but don’t have.

Industry 4.0 is not killing our jobs. It is killing menial tasks.

It means that we have a greater opportunity as a human race to achieve things that are more meaningful – like saving the environment, curing disease, eradicating poverty, and  ensuring people around the world, no matter where they are born, are treated with dignity and respect.

And with that… I am going to get off my high horse. Thank you for listening (or reading as the case may be).

Thank you to Elspeth Finch (MBE; CEO & Founder of IAND; and co-chair with John Lazar, CBE, for the Royal Academy of Engineering Innovators’ Network) for inviting me to present and be part of a panel Q&A. (That was a mouthful!)


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