Achieving societal success in the disruptive economy 

By Katherine Manuel – Senior Vice President, Innovation, Thomson Reuters 

According to the World Economic Forum’s ‘Case for Gender Equality’, the most important determinant of a country’s competitiveness is its human talent—the skills and productivity of its workforce. What happens when the full scope of human talent is not participating in the global economy? We all lose out. 

 We are currently facing a skills deficit globally. The Hays Global Skills Index, a report that assesses the dynamics of skilled labor markets across 33 countries, found that in 2016 businesses were struggling globally to find the talent they need. This applied strongly in technical engineering, specialist technology and professional finance roles. Additionally, Code.org, a US-based non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities, estimates that there will be one million more computing jobs than applicants who can fill them by 2020. This is problematic for all of us. How do we ensure a strong talent pipeline to fuel the economy over the next several decades? A good first step would be ensuring that the full pool of human talent has access to the opportunities and education needed to fill these critical roles.  

We are living in an age of massive disruption. Innovations such as artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, high-quality online education, and computerized medicine are opening an abundance of new opportunities that require skilled technologists to imagine, develop and operate them. These new innovations are shaking up professional markets and changing the way entire industries have operated over the last century. We have entered an era where some are calling information and data more important than oil. “Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are the five most valuable listed firms in the world. Their profits are surging: they collectively racked up over $25bn in net profit in the first quarter of 2017.” (The Economist, May 2017) This is due in large part to their access to and abundance of data, consumer and otherwise.  

While change is always daunting, there is tremendous opportunity on the horizon. Companies have the ability to change the professional landscape for the better. We can rethink the future of work and how businesses interact within their ecosystems of customers, partners, employees and recruits. Thanks to technology, companies can recruit and train the best and brightest talent from anywhere without being tied to a geographic region. Specifically, we need to ensure that women are prepared to participate in what is often called a Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Where are the Women? 

Women make up half the world’s population. Even with all of the talent shortages looming on the horizonwe are still not making the shifts we need to ensure gender parity – even inclusion – in these emerging skillsets. Yes, there has been some encouraging dialogue around women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths [STEM] over the last decade, but are we simply ‘talking the talk’ without ‘walking the walk?’ U.S. News broke down the numbers and found “not only that boys outnumber girls by more than 4 to 1 among computer science test-takers, but by more than 2.5 to 1 on Physics C tests, which test specialized fields of physics. Boys also outnumber girls by nearly 2 to 1 among test-takers in the more general Physics B, and by nearly 1.5 to 1 on the Calculus BC exam.” Additionally, “in 1984, 37% of computer science graduates were women, compared to only 18% today.” This trend is not moving in a direction that tracks societal progress. How will this help us fill those employment gaps business will feel increasingly by 2020?  

Ensuring gender inclusion in STEM education and female career advancement is not just the right thing to do, it is necessary for the long-term success of our society. This lack of inclusion is based on societal stereotypes of gender preferences, which are more manifested than real. Again, if half the population is not getting equal access to where the biggest industry opportunities exist, we are collectively losing out. Gender parity in technology education and follow-on careers are necessary to fuel the next evolution of our economic growth. 

The United Nations (UN) specifically recognizes this problem and addresses it head on in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs seek to end poverty while building the global economy and addressing key issues that impact all of us. Goal No. 5 tackles gender inequality because ‘advancing gender equality is critical to all areas of a healthy society, from reducing poverty to promoting the health, education, protection and the well-being of girls and boys.’ This especially holds true in the STEM fields where the most economic opportunity abounds and where women can make a real impact on the future economy. 

Fixing the Problems 

Corporations are beginning to take gender parity seriously. While the trouble at Uber and the manifesto written by a “Googler” put an exclamation point on the problem, changes have been underway at many progressive companies to identify and address issues. The leaders of corporations recognize that their financial health improves with diversity at the top. The McKinsey Workplace Study on Diversity found that ‘Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.’ Additionally, the British Chamber of Commerce found that ‘businesses run by women were more likely to launch a new product or service and to harness the benefits of technology to do so. It also found that women were nearly three times as likely to collaborate with research institutions than men. Increasing numbers of women in business will shift business models to be more responsive, customer-driven and tailor products and services to the expectations of future generations.’  

Taking all of this into account, companies like General Electric, Accenture and AOL, as well as my own company, Thomson Reuters, have publicly set ambitious goals around gender parity in leadership. Our CEO announced a target of 40% female leadership across the organization by 2020. Companies will need to go a step further and ensure that even while promoting and recruiting top female talent, they are building an inclusive workforce throughout where women can grow and develop the skills they need to succeed.  

While it’s great that corporations are taking a lead to ensure that they have the right women in place to lead their organizations, we need to start earlier in order to create a healthy pipeline of future talent and future leaders.  

Central to this is targeting girls in early education; teaching them that technology is not just a ‘boy thing,’ but rather an incredible capability that can allows them to solve puzzles, use logic, and enact positive changes in ways which appeal to their own sensibilities and desires. How can people and programs attract more kids into technology, including both boys and girls? We are fortunate that today, many organizations support girls’ technology education, including Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Girl Scouts of America, and Girls Make Games. They’re doing incredible work, yet still just on the fringe of reaching mainstream education channels.  

Universities are also getting on board. For the first time, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California had more women graduate from its computer science program than men in 2016 by actively rethinking the curriculum. Duke University has launched a “D Tech Scholars” program that actively selects and supports women to attain Computer Science majors and actively connects them with employers through internship and mentoring programs.  

 We need collective action to drive real change and reach full gender parity in STEM. This is not a problem that can be fixed by education, alone. It cannot be fixed solely by corporations or even governments. We need to come together: let’s recognize the broader societal deficit if we do not change, and then empower our corporations, educators, governments and parents with the tools and tactics to make changes.  

We all can take part in supporting this change. What can you do?