Key challenges and uncertainties for women

The authors of a recent book explore how business and society can adjust to ensure a more positive future for women.

By Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington, April Koury, and Helena Calle of Fast Future

In the last 12 to 18 months, the issue of ensuring a truly equal future for women in society has risen up the agenda of global challenges – whilst at the same time indicators suggest the actual gap is growing globally.

From #metoo, #timesup, the rights to equal pay and equal access in education, the workplace, and the boardroom: women have been succeeding in spotlighting the issues and arguing for their rights.

So, as we look to the future, some fundamental questions arise: What is the future of women? Are women’s futures different from men’s futures? How do we proceed in the coming years to embed a gender equality mindset while accounting for the unique challenges women face?

This article draws on insights from our recent book – The Future Reinvented – Reimagining, Life, Society and Business to explore how business and society can adjust to ensure a more positive future for women, focusing on what we consider to be critical agenda issues.

Areas which could benefit significantly from the increased participation

As we look to the forces shaping our world, it is clear that society as a whole could benefit significantly from the increased participation of women in the future of technology development, elected governmental roles, and higher education. For example, we need to better understand that even an algorithm can be racist or sexist before integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into our social systems and institutions. The new book by Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression, is a great example of the kind of critical thinking about its broader social implications that the technology sector needs.

An increased participation of women in technology development could contribute significantly to the creation of more female-oriented products. For example, Natural Cycles, created by a woman, is an effective contraceptive app that gives women a natural choice over family planning, without the hormonal side effects of the pill. Many other clever technological solutions could be developed with an increased participation of women in technology.

If automated systems, including those powered by AI, are representations of those who created them, then maybe those systems need to represent the gender split we see in society. More women in fields such as programming machine learning could help to create a gender balance within our intelligent technologies.

The evolving role of women in the workplace

One view on the evolving role of women in the workplace is that men’s role is also evolving. Work in general is changing because of the different economic and technological drivers in place, for example remote and gig working. The evolution of work has cross-gender impacts. Nations should look to follow Iceland’s fair pay example and eliminate the idea that women and men at work deserve different treatment in the first place.

In some domains and countries, the evolving role of women in the workplace is engendering a more confident and empowering attitude. Women are taking control of their own workplace situations and actively tackling inequalities. A variety of studies suggest that women’s confidence when asking for a raise or a promotion is growing year by year. Women are realizing that the first step to change starts from within and these small changes can have a major impact on their work environment.

Many predict a future where much of the work that goes into creating products and services will be automated. Hence, what we offer our customers and clients could become increasingly commoditized, so our new propositions will need to focus on something different. Being more human and focusing on the relationship between businesses and customers could become a critical differentiator. Hence, the focus might shift to building propositions on a foundation of competences and values that are typically thought of as feminine – such as collaboration, relationship development, and empathy.

Such an approach could help firms create the competitive advantage they need in the future. The role of women in business could become increasingly vital in

leading the culture change required to underpin the development of new propositions.

Significant challenges facing women professionals

Women professionals face the continuing challenge of leading a household and maintaining a career. Pressure to “have it all,” however, may be taking a new shape. Women from the millennial generation have not married or reproduced at the same levels as their predecessors. Hence, in future, a woman’s versatile balancing act across personal and professional roles may not necessarily be due to motherhood, but a choice made for personal fulfillment.

Women professionals face the challenge of establishing a new relationship with the men in their lives. Men, as working colleagues or relationship partners are used to the stereotypical idea of providing economic support and assuming leadership roles. The challenge is to create new ways of relating based on an authentic mutual partnership.

Cultural norms vary significantly across the world, but evidence on the rise of women in business and more prominent in society is clear, for example, in Asia. Yet, in the developed world, we still see institutional discrimination. The cultural and deep-rooted context for discrimination is likely to take time to clear and is only likely to change through a combination of active campaigning, legislative change, behavioural modification, and generational trends.

Will the man-woman divide continue into the next decade?

The gap is a big one. In November 2017, The World Economic forum estimated that, at current rates, it will take 217 years to close the gap on pay and employment opportunities. Sadly, this estimate has risen by 47 years over figures calculated a year earlier. They also estimate that the broader gender gap – that takes account of factors such as healthcare, education, and participation in politics – has risen from 83 to 100 years over that same period.

Defining “the man-woman divide” as sexual dimorphism, e.g. that our differences extend beyond our physical organs, then it seems likely that this will persist. Although there is some concern that male fertility in the West could be threatened by hormonal disruptions in the food chain and our natural ecosystems. However, the roles of each of the genders might become more similar. There could be less men or women-oriented services, products or

roles. This might be the beginning of the next era where, in 20 years from now, the man-woman divide becomes much less perceptible.

As with many norms, a gradual erosion of alpha male domination looks set to take place. Society through the empowerment of women, supported by increasing enlightenment among men, could help to accelerate the agenda for equality, aided by the power of technologies such as social media as platforms for campaigning. At another level, the dominance of strong male leaders of major economies such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, suggests that traditional male hierarchies may be hard to dislodge.

Women’s ability to manage risk

Is society responsible for preparing women for the risks and challenges of the future? How should we help women respond to economic shocks, the failure of social institutions, and the challenge of adapting to the automation of work – potentially displacing many jobs? Perhaps the best way to do this is to increase the participation in and completion of post-secondary education by women worldwide.

It has been thought that men are more prone to taking risks and overcoming challenges than women. Psychological research has debunked this myth and now we know that these differences depend of the type of risky behaviors we include in the research questionnaires. It is not that one gender is more prone to risk taking than the other. We are all capable of developing these capacities depending on the experiences we have and the situations we face.

Advice on tackling the future

The future is waiting for women to take on any leadership role where they feel they can contribute to society. The world as we know it is changing, and now is the time to evolve a new generation with higher expectations of what women can do. The critical challenge here is for women to believe in themselves and encourage other women to do so as well.

The key here is for women to focus on maximizing their potential as women. This means celebrating their natural skills and sense of the importance of relationships, empathy, collaboration, and caring. Ultimately these are the traits that could make the difference between a dystopian technology enabled world and a very human future.

Achievements in the progress of women we hope to be talking about in five years’ time

In five years we hope to see better legislation to protect women’s health and access to education. Also, we hope to see greater priority placed on bringing maternal and infant mortality rates down to near zero globally within five years, using strategies that empower women and make best use of local knowledge.

We hope that all women in the world have full access to education. And that women participate in at least half of the leadership roles in the corporate and political sectors.

Across the next set of electoral cycles it would be a pleasant surprise if half of all the developed world’s major democracies were led by a woman and if the supporting legislatures were gender balanced.