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Changing Paradigms with New Role Models

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

In the reskilling stakes, women are in danger of being left behind unless stereotypes change, warns Fauzia Kerai Khan.

The work paradigm has shifted dramatically across industries in the last 18 months, increasing reliance on technology and fuelling the demand for new skills. People, including leaders, have to acquire the ability of unlearning in order to successfully adjust to the changing environment, identify skill gaps and talent shortages, as well as solutions to close them. The first thing that leaders should relearn is that existing skilling frameworks that they are accustomed to may no longer be relevant. As a result, it is critical to ‘unlearn’ what has become obsolete.

According to a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum, a job skill’s half-life is now around five years and it’s decreasing rapidly. Organisations throughout the world will need to invest in reskilling and upskilling their staff in the digital landscape’s most in-demand technologies, such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, machine learning and blockchain, in order to prosper during and beyond the 2020s.

On the other hand, the grim reality is that the labour market is failing to keep up with the digital revolution, according to strategic experts like McKinsey & Company. This means that we are facing an acute shortage of experts to fill some positions that need specialised technological abilities and this will only get worse in the coming years. Organisations are already having trouble finding enough candidates with the sophisticated digital skills needed for a growing number of positions. As a result, upskilling current talent is the way ahead for both employers and employees, because transferring existing employees into new jobs is more cost-effective than acquiring new staff.

According to the IMF, 11% of women’s occupations are at risk of being eliminated as a result of digital technology, which is a larger percentage than men’s jobs. ‘Equitable’ is the essential term here. We often talk about reskilling as if it were a gender-neutral issue, but until we bring a gender equality perspective to reskilling programmes, women will continue to fall behind. After all, women account for 48.5% of the skill pool and reskilling and upskilling provides an interesting opportunity to reintegrate women who have left the workforce in the middle of their careers for caregiving duties.

The difference between upskilling and reskilling is that upskilling aims to teach employees new skills to optimise their performance, while reskilling – also known as professional recycling – sets out to train employees to adapt to a different post within the company. In other words, upskilling is said to create more specialised workers and reskilling more versatile ones.

Upskilling is the practice of obtaining more training or education in order to improve and expand upon one’s present abilities. It can include things like attending a coding course to improve programming skills or attending a virtual conference to learn about upcoming business trends. It’s something that women can do for themselves or that groups can give and it has the ability to transform women’s career prospects.

The window of opportunity to bridge the gender gap in AI is now, according to research from the International Data Corporation, with worldwide investment in AI expected to treble by 2024. This is an issue of upskilling not only from a financial aspect but from an ethical standpoint in order to avoid flagrant errors caused by AI prejudice. The irony is that technology can prevent women from gaining the job in the first place; evidence exists that AI algorithms in talent management, for example, have produced outcomes prejudiced against female applicants as a consequence of cumulative bias in the data.

Since STEM professionals stand to have a significant edge in the future employment landscape, it would make sense to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics to enhance the potential of women workers. In an ideal world, women would account for at least half of all engineers, designers, technicians, scientists, and innovators but in the local scenario, they make up less than 18% of Pakistan’s STEM workforce. This reskilling imperative might be precisely where we need to make real progress in the fight for gender parity and moving more women into excellent jobs, retaining them in the workforce, and bringing back those who have left. We can tap into latent female brilliance and ensure that women do not lose employment in disproportionate numbers.

A good example is Women Will, a Google Grow initiative whereby over 1,000 businesses committed to providing digital training and retraining to 10 million people in Japan by 2022 after polls in 2014 indicated that two out of every three Japanese women did not return to work after having a child.

We also need to shift outmoded gender stereotypes that characterise women as unsuitable for STEM careers. Not only is this stereotype incorrect – teenage women outperform men in STEM – it also discourages women from pursuing technology-related occupations. Why? Because role models are important.

A panel of five economists from Harvard, MIT, the London School of Economics and the US Treasury Department determined in their research Who Becomes an Inventor that childhood exposure to innovators was the most important factor in determining someone’s chance of becoming an inventor. Furthermore, these economists discovered that if women were exposed to female innovators at the same rate as men, female invention rates would increase by 164% and the gender gap in innovation would close by 55%. Seeing is truly believing.

However, closing the skills gap necessitates both the acquisition of new skills and the unlearning of old ones. Unlearning may look simple on the surface, but it takes more than simply forgetting what we know in today’s world of constant creation. Unlearning is the practice of taking a step back and looking at things from a different perspective in order to better understand innovation in the context of the skills gap, and experiment with new ideas without being bound by the way things have traditionally been done.

Fauzia Kerai Khan is CE, I&B Consulting, Assessing, Learning, Consulting.