Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution be a revolution for women?

Entrepreneurs work on their projects at Nailab, a Kenyan firm that supports technology startups, behind the latest initiative, which targets entrepreneurs for their ideas on providing sex education through technology and social media in Nairobi, Kenya, July 4, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - D1BETNPFICAA

'The tools women need to navigate these changes are there' Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya - D1BETNPFICAA

Njideka Harry
CEO, Youth for Technology Foundation
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Gender Inequality

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Even if you don’t follow the news closely, you have probably heard of Carrie Gracie, a senior journalist at the BBC who resigned because of what she regards as a “secretive and illegal” pay culture. Then there was Oprah’s remarkable speech at the Golden Globe Awards where she spoke out against sexual assault and the “brutally powerful men” whose “time is up”.

In 2014, the Gender Gap Report issued by the WEF predicted that the world would reach gender parity by 2095. But today, that forecast has worsened, with the gap anticipated to close as late as 2133. That’s 117 years from now, multiple generations away. As a mother of three daughters who will change the world and the impatient optimist that I am, I feel frustrated that none of my children or grandchildren will live to see gender parity.

For the very first time, the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos will be chaired by an all-female panel working under the theme, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”.

The agenda includes topics that have never been part of the Forum before, including “Gender, Power and Stopping Sexual Harassment” and “How Do We Stop Sexual Harassment?”

Private sector partners have organised dozens of side events, such as “Women Leaders Dinner – The Next Wave of Change”, “Fast Forward to Equal; the Myths Holding Women Back”, and several others. The issues women are dealing with, from sexual harassment to unfair pay, contribute to this fractured world.

It is critical to consider the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the gender gap. How will the accelerating pace of technological change affect what roles women can play in the economy, politics, and society? One question that stands out for me is how and whether the Fourth Industrial Revolution will worsen inequality, particularly for women.

This is why we must start fostering a culture of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education for girls. Our work at Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) is focused on encouraging young people and women to use technology and entrepreneurship to create economic opportunities; and inspiring girls to pursue careers that are more secure and less likely to be automated.

Industries like manufacturing and construction, businesses that are mostly male-dominated, are likely to be the most affected by automation. Meanwhile, industries resistant to automation like psychology, medicine and nursing will become more competitive.

The tools women need to navigate these changes are there. Worldwide, women generally have more degrees than men. They have more post-graduate degrees than men, more PhDs than men, and more law degrees that men. We are still behind on MBAs but we’re getting there.

Skills that women bring to the table, once called “soft skills”, are now recognised as profitable and important: the ability to understand what is going on based on someone’s body language; emotional intelligence; the ability to build consensus; to mentor people; and more.

Everyone benefits when companies have a diverse workforce, where women are given fair opportunities and paid a wage similar to that of their male counterparts.

Research conducted at the University of Michigan indicates that if you have a mixed group of men and women solving a complicated business problem, that group will always come up with a better solution than a group of men, even if the men are individually more qualified than members of the mixed group on average.

Today, women control about 80% of consumer purchases. A few years ago, Ford conducted a survey on what men and women wanted from their cars. Men looked at the exterior of the car, the horsepower, the engine speed and power, and the driver’s seat.

Women tended to look at the interior, the passenger seat, and the trunk. Ford realised that women were buying more cars than men, so they recessed the door handles because they realised women have longer fingernails than men. When Ford is worried about women’s manicures, that gives women a certain amount of clout. As women, we have power; we just have to use it; and we have to believe in it.

Companies are losing talented women in their thirties because that’s when many have children and face the “kids versus career” decision. Many choose kids. The Fourth Industrial Revolution could work in favour of these women in the short term.

As household work is further automated, it may relieve part of the dual burden of being both a caregiver and a breadwinner. At the same time, changes in the nature of work – such as an increase in opportunities for remote working – make it easier for both parents to better combine work and family.

Several global studies show that companies that employ more senior women outperform their competitors in every major profitability metric. Who doesn’t want that? When we present executive committees with the data, it’s not about political correctness or diversity; it’s about the bottom line. These companies are improving their productivity and profitability by cultivating and keeping female talent.

For many companies, that means adjusting the way they work. For women, it means asking that work schedules be adjusted. The primary reason women don’t get flexible working hours is because we don’t ask for flexible working hours.

Confidence is an integral part of success. Research from Columbia University stresses that while men tend to overestimate their abilities by approximately 30%, women tend to routinely underestimate their own skills. What we need to do is bring the perception of how good we are in line with how good we actually are.

Women need to be authentic and honest. When we do that, we can ask for those flexible hours, or that job promotion, or more control of our schedules, or more pay. Women ask for pay raises four times less than men do, and when we do it, we ask for a third less. We can change that, but we first need to realise that we are valuable.

Women tend to think that if we put our heads down, play by the rules and work hard, our natural talents will be rewarded. Someone will tap us on the shoulder and say, “here’s a key to the C-suite.”

Instead, we see the men around us get promoted. We know they are less competent, but they have the confidence. When it comes to success, confidence matters as much as competence. Confidence is what turns thoughts into action.

So how does this fit into creating a shared future in a fractured world?

Most jobs created between now and 2020 will have a technology component, and it is important that women understand the skills they will need to excel in them. This is an opportunity for women to create new career paths and differentiate themselves.

The new digital landscape will also provide female entrepreneurs with the flexibility to start businesses with a relatively small amount of investment, and to sell their products and services across the globe. Last August, eBay announced that it will have products from vendors across six African countries on its platform, an opportunity that didn’t exist before.

It isn’t easy to map out the exact skill sets that will be needed, especially in industries that haven’t been created yet, but we can assume that demand will increase for highly skilled labour. Women will need skills that enable them to work within technological systems and to fill gaps created by advancing technology.

Demand may also grow for jobs that machines cannot perform, jobs that rely on intrinsic human traits and abilities such as empathy, compassion and cross-team collaboration, skills often attributed to women.

There is the continued risk that jobs that are currently dominated by women will remain undervalued, even if they’re not impacted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That would further widen the gender gap and increase overall inequality, making it more difficult for women to leverage their talents in the workforce of the future.

Overcoming this challenge requires collaboration and participation by all sectors, including the government, the private sector, and civil society.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and Skills
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