Improving Gender Parity Through Leadership to Increase Innovation
Three years ago, when the whole world stopped during the pandemic, I undertook further post-graduate studies in the field of Business and Management to prepare myself for the post-pandemic world. Little did I know that my essay topic about gender parity, leadership, and artificial intelligence would be topical today in 2023. As International Women’s Day is coming up, I’m sharing my essay that looks at how gender parity can improve innovation in organisations, particularly in Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR), and leadership's role in facilitating gender parity.
The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) was coined in 2011 (Nazarov & Klarin 2020, p. 536) to describe the integration and collaboration between physical, digital, and biological ecosystems for improved efficiencies and productivity (McCredie, Sadiq & Chapple 2019, p. 648; Kraftt, Sajtos & Haenlein 2020, p. 1). The proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) during 4IR will see the human-machine collaboration that alters the nature of work as we know it. A report by McKinsey and Company (Taylor et al. 2019, p.7) highlighted that in Australia, 25 to 46 percent of jobs will be replaced by automation, resulting in mass unemployment. Routine and predictable jobs, such as clerical and administrative functions will be eliminated, while jobs that require cognitive intelligence or “soft skills” will be in demand (McKinsey & Company 2017; Eberhard et al. 2017, pp. 50–55). Indeed, the need for human social distancing and isolation due to COVID-19 is the impetus for accelerated implementation of 4IR, which has already seen many jobs displaced (Sobrosa Neto et al. 2020, p. 2). This essay analyses the impact of 4IR on women and how leaders can improve gender diversity to increase innovation in their organisations.
According to a report by the World Economic Forum (2018, p. 1), women will be largely impacted by the decline in administrative and service roles, with every five jobs lost for every job gained. 4IR’s implementation is already accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, where women working in jobs such as accommodation and food services in Australia have been displaced by COVID-19 (Wooten 2020). As the speed at which jobs are created and displaced increases and skills-gap widens, we will see mass unemployment in ‘pink-collar’ jobs, particularly secretarial and administrative roles (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). These roles, which have largely provided social mobility for women, are predicted to be replaced by automation. As a result, women would be reduced to low-paying and labour-intensive hospitality and caregiving roles (Howcroft & Rubery 2019).
Despite current technology enabling more women to do telework, women are still doing more unpaid care work, particularly childcare, compared to men. A study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (Hand et al. 2020) found that having the ability to work from home has minimal effect on the gendered nature of childcare at home, with only 10% of fathers being the primary carer. This study is consistent with Müller’s (2019, p. 849) study, which concluded that women are assumed to be a natural fit for emotional labour work that involves caring, listening, and being empathetic. Men are therefore ‘released’ from this form of labour to pursue tasks that afford them rapid career advancement (Müller 2019, p. 849). On the flip side, this gendered view of work is reflected in the disproportionately low number of men in the caring and education profession (World Economic Forum 2018, p.2).
Human performance is expected to be augmented in 4IR through the automation of certain parts of a task. In the age of automation, Individuals can therefore focus on more ‘human’ aspects of the task that require empathetic problem-solving skills, strong social skills, and emotional intelligence. These skills are traditionally attributed to female competencies. However, current gender stereotypes in leadership reward stereotypically male attributes such as assertiveness, ambition, and competition (Howcroft & Rubery 2019), resulting in a low representation of women in leadership positions (World Economic Forum 2018).
A study by Na and Shin (2019) argued that characteristics of human capital such as gender and race diversity can influence innovation. This view is echoed by another study on businesses in emerging countries that showed gender diversity to have a positive effect on innovation (Ritter-Hayashi, Vermeulen & Knoben 2019, p.1). When organisations embrace gender diversity, they are also diversifying their knowledge capability. Currently, male attributes, experiences, and perspectives are the norm. An example of an androcentric design putting women at a disadvantage is the crash test dummies, which are designed to a man’s body shape and height, neglecting the physiological differences between men and women (McDonald et al. 2003, p. 551). Gender parity helps to reduce androcentrism in products and experiences. In fact, having equal gender representation in an organisation will bring new insights and increased accuracy to products and services to serve different gender needs (Fine, Sojo & Lawford-Smith 2020, p. 51). This is evident in the inclusion of female crash test dummies in auto vehicle collision tests. The tests proved that male and female bodies experience different levels of collision impact (McDonald et al. 2003, p. 551), thus proving the importance of diversity representation in vehicle design to improve auto vehicle safety.
A study by the World Economic Forum (2018, p. 4) reported that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematic (STEM) related roles will continue to be in demand, yet women only account for 30% of the world’s science researchers. This gender bias extends to the Information Technology (IT) sector where less than a quarter of ICT professionals are women (Cann 2018). However, despite an increasing number of women completing STEM-related qualifications, STEM career participation remains low for women. Moss-Racusin et al.’s (2018, p. 658) study showed that women’s underrepresentation in STEM is not due to them being disinterested in the field, rather they actively choose to avoid STEM because of the systemic bias in their working environment, resulting in them losing a “sense of belonging”. This is problematic because gender biases in STEM can interrupt the progress of women who are currently in STEM-related roles, and also deter women from entering STEM-related careers (Moss-Racusin et al. 2018, p. 667). The low representation of women in STEM contributed to the in-built gender bias of AI where machine algorithms are male-centric, which further displace women in the labour market. Gender bias is evident in Amazon’s algorithm-based recruitment, which discarded competitive women applicants after learning that the percentage of women in these positions was lower (Dastin 2018).
However, when examining the sample data in the study by Moss-Racusin et al. (2018), it is found that women in STEM reported feeling as included and fulfilled as men in their job if they are in a working environment that fosters gender equality (Moss-Racusin et al. 2018, p. 664). Therefore, it can be argued that leadership is important in creating an environment for gender diversity to thrive in order to improve innovation. A study of Spanish firms showed that when the leadership team in an organisation was more diverse, the knowledge capability in the organisation was more diverse too, and resulted in a higher level of innovation (Ruiz-Jim enez, del Mar Fuentes-Fuentes & Ruiz-Arroyo 2016, pp.512–513). Yet, this is a very generic view of the subject, as the level of innovation in an organisation is subject to how much the leadership team is involved in the organisation’s mission-setting, strategy formulation, and implementation (Fine, Sojo & Lawford-Smith 2020, p. 56).
This means leaders must acknowledge that followers can be harmed by poor leadership action (Peters 2000). In the age of 4IR, human capital is an organisation’s intellectual property, and “cognitive empathy” is a prized quality in leaders (Goosen 2018, p. 32). A leader with empathy can provide emotional support, understand a follower’s work situation — regardless of their follower’s gender or race — invest in emotional understanding, and provide emotional security for the follower to increase job satisfaction and foster innovation. Leaders who practice empathy are able to understand and respond to workers’ needs better to further workers’ performance, using appropriate feedback to give workers greater confidence in how to accomplish tasks. This in turn boosts workers’ confidence and self-efficacy, giving workers a sense of safety and belonging, and enabling them to try creative ways of doing tasks (Mayfield 2009, pp. 346–347). Therefore, empathetic leaders are able to understand their followers better and guide them toward achieving workplace innovation (Kock et al. 2019, p. 221).
Innovation is an important factor to improve business productivity and efficiency, which in turn leads to sustainable growth and improves an organisation’s long-term financial performance (Na & Shin 2019, p. 2). Gender diversity in the workplace creates a diverse knowledge capital that contributes to greater innovation. Whilst women are more vulnerable to mass unemployment in 4IR, leaders who lead with empathy will be able to foster a work environment that is gender-inclusive, and ultimately benefit from a higher level of innovation in their organisation.
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