Innovation requires gender, diversity lens

It’s about rethinking future skills by looking at competencies instead of credentials

I recently had the opportunity to experiencethe world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women — Women Deliver 2019. 

While presenting on the topic of gender inclusivity at conferences at home and abroad has almost become old hat for me, I must admit this event and its high calibre of expertise, research and dialogue was truly memorable.

The WE EMPOWER programme of UN Women, the European Union and the International Labour Organization teamed up with G(irls) 20 to host “The Future of Work: Women in the 21st Century Workplace” and I was honoured to be a panel member with colleagues from UN Women, McKinsey and UNSCR 1325.

Here are some of the key messages on the topic of the changing world of work and its implications for women’s economic empowerment and access to decent work:

In Canada, despite three decades of well-intentioned efforts, women are still underrepresented in leadership roles, in entrepreneurship, in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

We cannot continue to do the same thing over and over and expect different outcomes. We need new approaches.

New and emerging technologies present threats and opportunities to women. On the one hand, some of the jobs most at risk are women-dominated. On the other hand, some of the greatest growth areas are where women can excel.

We must understand that complex systems shaping behaviour are multilayered. An ecological model enables us to apply a critical lens at every level of the ecosystem to drive inclusive innovation.

At the macro level, we need to look at government policies, at stereotypes and media representation, and at how we socialize men and women. 

At the organizational level, we need to apply a gender and diversity lens to everything we do, whether in large or small organizations, public or private sector. We need to consider governance and strategy, goals and target and accountability frameworks, human resources practices and culture.

But we also need to apply a gender and diversity lens at every stage of the value chain — to procurement policies, research and development, products and services, sales and marketing — to ensure inclusion is “baked into” the organization. And we need to look at how the organization uses its position and financial power to influence the larger environment. 

At the individual level, we all have choices to make.

We need to focus not just on developing skills, but on understanding bias and privilege and using our individual spheres of influence to drive change for ourselves and others.

We also need to rethink our approach to innovation. 

Innovation is not actually about creating new technology or about building new products and services. Innovation is about doing things differently. 

If you have new technology and no one uses it, you do not have innovation. 

Science, technology, engineering and math are necessary but insufficient.

We also need to understand human behaviour, markets, organizations, regulatory and policy frameworks, ethics, law and social impacts. 

Nowhere is this more important than in dealing with complex technologies such as artificial intelligence.

While we need to continue to encourage more women to study STEM, we also need to recognize that focusing only on this area excludes women and does not actually give us what we need to advance innovation.

It is also critical to see that the digital skills gaps we face are not just in terms of shortages of engineering and computer science or a lack of coding skills but also among “hybrids” — people who understand the technology but, even more importantly, the problems technology needs to solve.

For every example of a technology that has sparked transformation, there are countless others that have sat on the shelf because they were problems looking for solutions or there were impediments to adoption that were not well understood.

We need people with deep understanding of human behaviour, of organizations, of project management, social impacts, law and regulation, as well as specific domains, such as health care or finance, who also understand technology.

We need to recognize that the “soft skills” are actually hard, and to create inclusive alternative pathways for diverse women to build on what they know and acquire additional technology skills.

We also need to recognize that this is essential not only to extending the talent pool, but also to avoid the risk of replicating, embedding and entrenching bias in the products and services we develop.

We need to understand the importance of an intersectional lens and to recognize the ways in which diverse women have dramatically different experiences.

We know women are underrepresented in leadership roles and that in the United States there are more male CEOs of large companies than females.

But we also know that in Toronto, where half the population is racialized or people of colour, white women outnumber racialized women 17 to one in senior leadership roles. If we consider women with disabilities or Indigenous women, the numbers are even worse. 

We can and must do better, and it is critically important to recognize the ways in which we can be allies.  

Rethinking how we understand innovation and future skills through a gender and diversity lens, developing new approaches to training, to recruiting and to advancing employees, putting more emphasis on competencies rather than credentials, and focusing on what people have to offer rather than just what they need, will not only improve the participation of women and other underrepresented groups, but will advance inclusive innovation and our economic and social growth agenda.  

Wendy Cukier is the academic director at the Diversity Institute, Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub and Future Skills Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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