4 ways inclusive innovation ecosystems can accelerate gender equality

Shot of a diverse group of people holding up speech bubbles outside - inclusive systems, gender equality
Innovation ecosystems are the building blocks of the innovation economy. They need to be gender-inclusive.
Image: Getty Images
  • International Women's Day (IWD) takes place on 8 March every year, and is devoted to celebrating the achievements of women and seeking equity and equality.
  • The campaign theme this year is #EmbraceEquity – while the United Nations' theme is 'DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality'.
  • Businesses are putting systems in place to bridge the STEM gender-divide, challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and ensure gender-inclusion.

Innovation ecosystems are the building blocks of the innovation economy. They are key spaces where meaningful engagements between people, resources, institutions, and infrastructure lead to the advancement of ideas, processes, and technologies for all fields of life - from food systems, to health, and the environment.

As countries move to make bigger investments in their innovation ecosystems, an opportunity arises to ensure they are gender-transformative – that is, that they go beyond closing gender gaps, to shaping gender-equitable solutions.

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 Gender Parity Accelerator model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in twelve countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Japan and Kazakhstan in 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 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 making recruitment, retention and promotion practices more gender inclusive.

If you are a business in one of the Gender Parity 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 Gender Parity Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

To ensure that women are equal stakeholders in innovation ecosystems, there are four pathways to build in gender equality:

1. Equitable access to jobs of the future: Women are underrepresented in the innovation workforce, representing in countries like the US only 34% of science and engineering workers. In recent months, layoffs have disproportionately affected women in the tech sector. Inclusive innovation ecosystems can actively increase the gender diversity of the workforce and improve women’s career opportunities.

2. Inclusive approach to design: Innovation products, services and technologies must better reflect the diverse needs and preferences of communities instead of deepening gender biases. This can be done by conducting user research and placing women and gender-diverse people at the centre during testing throughout the development cycle, designing without assumptions of gender roles or preferences, checking for bias, and building gender-diverse design teams. A prerequisite to inclusive design in an innovation ecosystem fueled by the digital revolution is to ensure equitable access to the internet and digital services.

3. Equitable access to capital: Women entrepreneurs often face barriers when it comes to accessing funding and resources. In 2022, 2% of venture capital funding went to women-only founded startups in the United States, and only 8.6% of the venture capitalists were women. Innovation ecosystems must help bridge this gap by bridging access to funding products and services that fit the profile and needs of women-led ventures, promoting networking opportunities, and resources such as incubators and accelerators that offer mentorship and training.

4. Partnerships for gender inclusion: Cross-cutting the other levers of change is the role of critical partnerships between key stakeholders within an innovation ecosystem: governments, businesses, investors, entrepreneurs, educational institutions, and civil society. Key partnerships can leverage resources, expertise, networks, and new funding sources to develop innovation ecosystems that are gender transformative. They also hedge against the exclusion of critical voices in decision-making processes. This is imperative to drive and scale systems change and sustain the momentum towards gender-inclusive innovation ecosystems amidst competing national and business priorities.

What have been some of the emerging opportunities that industry leaders are spearheading to develop gender-inclusive and gender-transformative ecosystems? Two leaders weigh in.

'With the right investments and public-private partnerships, we can advance gender parity in our changing world'

Marni Baker Stein, Chief Content Officer at Coursera

Disruptive technologies like generative AI can advance the world and create opportunity, but they can also exacerbate existing inequalities, including gender. It’s crucial to take steps to accelerate gender parity now so women have equal opportunities to participate in the new economy.

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online learning and remote work, which can address many of the barriers women face in traditional education and workplaces. Online learning can make access to education and skills more equal, and remote work can make access to jobs and career advancement more equal too. A McKinsey and LeanIn.org report found that 9 out of 10 women want to work mostly remotely, and more than 70% of companies offering remote work options have been able to attract and retain more employees from women and underrepresented groups.

At Coursera, we're seeing firsthand how online learning can reduce the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Our entry-level professional certificates, developed by companies such as Google, IBM, and Meta, have helped women break into new careers such as IT, UX design, and software development.

It’s crucial to take steps to accelerate gender parity now so women have equal opportunities to participate in the new economy.

—Marni Baker Stein, Chief Content Officer at Coursera

The share of STEM-related certificate enrollments from women increased from 25% in 2019 to 38% in 2022. Governments including the Guyana Ministry of Health and Human Services and the UK Girls’ Education Skills Partnership are offering tens of thousands of scholarships for women and girls in emerging economies to pursue these certificates on Coursera. The Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream also offers pathways for scholarship recipients to earn credit toward a bachelor’s degree when they complete a certificate.

Governments, businesses, and academic institutions must work together to create systems and infrastructure needed to facilitate social and economic mobility amid rapid transformation. This includes investing in programmes that offer online STEM education to women and girls for free, wrap-around support services that promote access and attainment such as broadband access, local mentorship, and job placement, and raising awareness of these programmes so that more women take advantage of these critical resources.

With the right investments and public-private partnerships, we can advance gender parity in our changing world and ensure that any woman or girl has the opportunity to shape the next frontier, no matter their location or experience.

'A skills-first hiring approach is critical to creating equitable opportunities and career pathways for all talent, particularly women'

Sue Duke, Head of Global Public Policy and Economic Graph Team, LinkedIn

The labour market has long been burdened by the inefficient and unequal ways we match talent to opportunity. That is especially true when it comes to women. Current hiring methods disadvantage women, resulting in an underrepresentation of women in top positions; new data from LinkedIn estimates that less than a third of leadership positions globally are held by women. It's clear that while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.

A skills-first hiring approach is critical to creating equitable opportunities and career pathways for all talent, particularly women. According to LinkedIn’s insights, if companies hire for skills instead of prioritising traditional credentials such as previous job titles, the proportion of women in the talent pool would increase 24% more than it would for men in jobs where women are underrepresented.

For example, in Germany, a candidate search for ‘Engineering Team Lead’ based on previous experience has 14% female representation. But that increases to 35% if the search adopts a skills-first approach. More generally, if companies hire for skills, the overall talent pool grows by 10x for women, compared to a threefold increase for men.

While gender equality in the labour market remains a long way off, there are simple ways that employers can help to address gender imbalance right now. As well as hiring for skills, clearly listing skills in the job description can be impactful, resulting in more women applying and successfully securing roles.

"If companies hire for skills, the overall talent pool grows by 10x for women, compared to a threefold increase for men."

—Sue Duke, Head of Global Public Policy and Economic Graph Team, LinkedIn

International Women’s Day is always an important moment to recognise the progress that’s been made so far but more importantly, to galvanise around what more we can still do. Next year we need to see more progress, and skills first hiring is a clear-cut, evidence-based and impactful way to do just that.

Unlocking gender-equitable outcomes

Women have long been contributing to technological innovation, although their role has been often undervalued or uncredited. Today, women represent a large segment of tech consumers driving preferences in product, service, and process ideation – yet innovation ecosystems are missing a golden opportunity, and assuming a large risk, by remaining exclusive of women and gender-diverse groups.

Technological innovation should enable and unlock gender-equitable outcomes, develop solutions that are complementary to our talent and capacities, and accelerate strategies to eliminate stubborn gender gaps.

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