• Women will be disproportionately affected by digital transformation.
  • They are also currently under-represented in STEM-related professions.
  • Targeted reskilling could accelerate gender diversity.

We know automation and technological disruption will alter the world of work. In the 2020s, winning organizations will be those that can compete on an increasing rate of learning. Companies that continuously provide their employees at all levels with the latest digital skills will be most likely to thrive and continue to attract top talent.

This reskilling imperative may offer just the opportunity we need to finally usher in meaningful change in the struggle for gender diversity. It will enable companies to move more women into good jobs, keep them in the workforce and bring back those who have left.

But it’s not yet happening in the numbers we need it to, and the gender diversity gap in the corporate world is still far too great.

A reskilling revolution could dramatically increase the rate of change.

If corporate leaders double-down on their investments in reskilling in the coming decade, they can ensure women aren’t disproportionately losing jobs and take advantage of untapped female talent. At the same time, a focus on upskilling measures can provide promising female employees with the skills they’ll need to be leaders in a new digital era.

The STEM shortfall

Organizations are already finding it harder to pull in enough recruits with the advanced digital skills required of an increasing number of jobs. By 2022, at least 54% of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling. The half-life of a job skill today is about five years – and falling. For organizations around the world to thrive throughout and beyond the 2020s, they will have to invest in comprehensive training programmes in digital and data and analytics for millions of workers, continually developing generations of agile learners with the latest skills.

The IMF projects that 11% of jobs currently held by women are at risk of elimination as a result of digital technologies – a higher percentage than for jobs held by men. Technology can even keep women from getting the job in the first place; there’s evidence AI algorithms in talent management, for example, have generated results biased against female recruits as a result of a cumulative bias contained in the data.

Though STEM experts may be at a distinct advantage in tomorrow’s workforce, most of them are men. Women hold 56% of university degrees overall, but just 36% of STEM degrees, and they make up only 25% of the STEM workforce. Just 22% of AI professionals and 12% of machine-learning experts are women, according to a WEF-LinkedIn study.

Reskilling for women

Instead of allowing digital disruptions in the workplace to cast women aside, reskilling presents a clear way to build advantage in challenging times and drastically speed up the pace of progress on diversity – a strategy that will be good for women and crucial for the longevity of organizations.

Reskilling can flip the odds and offer significant opportunities for women, particularly in the in-demand STEM roles. As administrative or clerical jobs mainly held by women begin to disappear, women can learn new skills that pay as much or more – and be retrained as the needs of organizations change.

Leaders should follow these steps to ensure their reskilling programme is successful and keeps women in the workforce:

  • Target reskilling offerings to business functions with an over-representation of women – such as human resources and administrative – where roles are most vulnerable.
  • Require a high number, such as 50%, of female participants.
  • Involve female leaders in the curriculum, providing women who participate with important role models.
  • Design content that includes gender-neutral job descriptions.
  • Offer flexible formats, so employees with busy jobs can manage the workload.
  • Reskilling talent should include senior leaders, too. It is absolutely critical for leaders themselves to keep learning and remain relevant as the world of work changes.

Reskilling also offers an exciting strategy for bringing women who have stopped working mid-career back to work. (See below.) Women drop out of the workforce at higher rates than men do, and the pace of change within skilled digital jobs is so fast, it likely makes them feel less confident about returning. A targeted reskilling curriculum aimed at women who are eager to re-enter the workforce can make a huge difference.

Women drop out of the workforce at higher rates than men – but the majority want to re-enter.
Women drop out of the workforce at higher rates than men – but the majority want to re-enter.
Image: Pew Research Centre, World Economic Forum, BCG

Peter Fitzgerald, president of Google Japan, recently shared with me the exciting details of a commitment by his company – in partnership with more than 1,000 other businesses – to provide digital training and retraining to 10 million people in Japan by 2022. Part of this is an initiative called Women Will. Launched in 2014, when studies showed two out of three women in Japan did not return to work after having children, Women Will runs a programme that helps new mothers return to the workforce by leveraging technology, such as internet-enabled tools, to allow for a more flexible work style.

A win for women, a win for companies

One of the defining features of a company that will survive and thrive through the 2020s will be diversity – a quality we know drives both innovation and resilience. But increasing diversity has been one of the most difficult line items to check off. Although we have to keep up with both ground and air battles against gender imbalance at every level, reskilling and upskilling have the potential to accelerate the sluggish rate of progress – and position organizations for a winning decade.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Employers will not be able to rely on the traditional marketplace to fill the digital gaps within their organizations. Investing in comprehensive, carefully targeted training programmes in digital technologies will give women with endangered jobs valuable skills and offer former workers a practical way to return. With a balanced workforce armed with the most important skills of the day, organizations can find success in the digital age of tomorrow.