Sahar Albaharna, Innovation and Technology Expert, Bahrain
During the COVID-19 pandemic and its response we have seen significant shifts in the way we learn as well as the way we work. The world of work, as we knew it, has changed beyond recognition and probably for ever. The unprecedented acceleration in digitalization has upended our daily routines, our presumptions about where and how we can work, and what we need to do our jobs effectively. Economy-wide digitalization represents many more opportunities than challenges in relation to the creation of a better world of work for everyone.
It has, however become equally clear since the start of the pandemic that women’s economic participation has been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, with many of the roles traditionally undertaken by women being restricted or even halted during government lockdown measures. As countries around the world emerge from these restrictions, women’s economic participation and recovery will be an essential part of the solution to the global unemployment crisis that is emerging post pandemic. It is also clear that urgent reforms to employment opportunities for women are needed as they have the potential to produce significant macroeconomic gains.
We know that when more women join the workforce, there are many economic and social benefits, not just to the women themselves, but to their families and to the broader society. When women are enabled to participate in the workforce and utilise their skills and abilities, economies tend to grow more, while it also contributes positively to women’s well-being. Despite this, according to the International Labor Organization1, women’s participation in the workforce globally is still only around 49% of capacity, compared to 75% for men. And this comparison does not take into account the disparities in income levels between both groups and the resultant disparities in opportunities and outcomes.
As the impact on women’s participation in the economy became apparent, Women4Impact was co-founded by a global group of changemakers and innovation experts, with the purpose of unlocking women’s full potential, leading to a better world. In line with our purpose, the team’s activities are driven by a belief in the benefits of cocreating solutions, collaborating, and finding new and innovative ways of solving problems regarding women’s economic participation. First, we wanted to understand the challenges women face in order to come up with relevant solutions.
Women as primary caregivers
Many women leave the workforce early in their careers to take care of their children or sick family members. Of course, many women do not find these family commitments, to children and elderly relatives, a burden, and choose to stay at home with their children or take care of family members and some decide to continue work on a part time basis only; both choices are perfectly fine. It is only when women find they don’t have a choice and are not given the opportunity to contribute to the economy that it becomes a serious problem for them personally but also for the economy.
Research shows that women have less access to funding when launching their businesses compared to males. They also have less access to mentoring and fewer connections that would support them in their entrepreneurial journey. A recent study by Boston Consulting Group2 presents that if women and men around the world participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by approximately 3% to 6%, boosting the global economy by $2.5 trillion to $5 trillion.
Women in the workplace
Diversity programs within companies are still not achieving the desired results. An article in the Harvard Business Review, Why Diversity Programs Fail3, states that some of the most common tactics for improving diversity — compulsory diversity training, hiring tests and grievance systems — can actually make diversity worse. The number of women holding senior positions in many companies are still low. In some regions around the world such as Sub Saharan Africa, female university graduates have less employment opportunities than males. We need for more effective solutions.
Future of work
We organized our first “Reimagining the Future of Work for Women”4 Sprint from September 28 to October 2, 2020. The timing of the event coincided with the release of McKinsey & Company and Leanin.org’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report, which sought to highlight the potential for women arising from the pandemic:
The crisis also represents an opportunity. If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term.
The objective of the Sprint was to analyse the challenges around women’s economic participation and create innovative solutions. The Sprint followed the Exponential Organizations5 and Exponential Transformation 10 weeks Sprint6 methodology. The objective was to identify the challenges related to women’s economic participation, explore the current trends and emerging technologies that are shaping the future of work, and finally come up with solutions for these challenges.
There were 16 female participants from Bahrain, Spain, Colombia, Cameroon, South Africa, the Philippines, and Tunisia and a team of 2 male and 5 female coaches from Spain, Mexico, Austria, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In addition to location, there was diversity in the participants’ career background and level of experience. Discussion focussed on technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and 3D printing, which are making many jobs obsolete, while they are also creating a need for new jobs and can be tools to improve women’s economic participation. For example, a team from Spain was addressing the aging population in Spain and the fact that most women leave the workforce at some point to become caregivers for their elderly family members. Their solution to help these women was to create a wearable application that would detect falls, heart attacks, and loss of consciousness by monitoring vital signs and other data which allows the person wearing them to become more independent.
Women4Impact focuses on three main areas to find solutions to the challenges confronting women:
- How to upskill and reskill women who are already in the workforce
- How to assist women to enter the workforce: Innovative Recruitment models that hire women based on their skills. Solutions need to target female university graduates and women with employment gap that want to return to the workforce
- Providing support to female entrepreneurs.
Upskilling and reskilling
According to the McKinsey Future of Work Report 2020, “Between 40 million and 160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles.”
Through our work with multinationals, we know that the need for business transformation and innovation for companies is on the rise. Critical thinking and problem solving are essential skills needed for the future workforce. Moreover, according to the OECD Report in 2018, Bridging the Digital Gender Divide7: Include, Upskill, Innovate: The importance of innovation for economic growth and for the advancement and well-being of societies is well understood and supported. But very little is known about the role that women play in shaping innovation dynamics.
The scarce attention devoted to the role of women in innovation stems from a number of factors, including the relative “invisibility” of individual innovators, as compared to the emphasis generally put on innovations themselves, the processes that lead to them, and the companies or universities and innovation systems in which they happen (see Agnete Alsos et al., 2013). With this in mind, we believe that women play an important role in creating innovative solutions to drive business transformation. Therefore, one of our solutions aims to upskill women in STEM and business to become innovation and transformation leaders in their organizations.
New recruitment models
Many companies may want to hire women, but they may not know how to identify the best talent. Research shows that biases exist when recruiting women. Traditional recruitment methods are increasingly viewed as ineffective, with companies moving to skills-based hiring. Indeed, business school graduates may struggle to find employment, while companies are hiring talent through hackathons, datathons, and design sprints. This gives women an opportunity to be hired based on their skills.
Female Led Social Impact Start-ups
Women are more likely to start and succeed in creating a business with a social and environmental impact. Government entities are calling for more social impact start-ups. Creating funds and initiatives such as the Cartier Women’s Initiative8, is a trend we expect to see grow in the near future.
Grasp the opportunity
We cannot predict exactly what the future of work for women will be, but the opportunities and solutions mentioned above can be a path towards a more diverse and inclusive economy. The shift towards becoming purpose driven, new policies to support remote working, global employment opportunities, and hiring women based on their skills are key in driving this change. Also, the female leadership archetype is becoming more popular and we are seeing empathy and collaboration celebrated as essential leadership attributes for now and the future. I believe that the future of work for women is bright and we have an ideal opportunity to do something about it now.
Sahar Albaharna is passionate about creating positive impact through problem solving. She believes in the power of abundance to achieve that. Professionally, she has over 9 years of experience in the technology industry where she managed and worked on projects in the telecom, financial services, and government sectors. Since 2009, she set up two businesses in Bahrain and was a founding member of the first tech accelerator in Bahrain in 2016. She is now working with tech entrepreneurs and organizations to solve business and social problems. Sahar holds a Computer Science degree from the University of Kent and an MBA from IE Business School.