Digital Upskilling, Gender Equality, and Leadership in Tech-Driven Organizations

Digital Upskilling

By David De Cremer

Renowned leadership expert John C. Maxwell (2007) is often quoted saying “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This quote underscores the importance of leadership to making organizations, teams and employees perform well. It is then also no surprise that being a leader comes with a certain level of admiration and prestige. Another insight that has arisen in the last few decades is that achieving leadership positions in organizations is affected by a subtle gender bias. Surveys have revealed that despite the fact that in the US women earn more than 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and 59 percent of all master’s degrees, the reality nevertheless is that only 28 percent of CEOs are women (Hincliffe, 2020). These numbers show that a problem exists when it comes down to women’s mobility on the hierarchical ladder, or also called “leadership emergence”. 

Over the years several accounts have been offered to explain why this may be the case and the most popular explanations refer to the reality that as humans we have implicit stereotypes about the qualities that makes someone fit the idea of being a leader (Shondrick, Dinh, & Lord, 2010). Overall, males are considered more equipped to fit the image of what a leader is than women are, and as result women are less likely to emerge as leaders (Badura, Grijalva, Newman, Taiyi Yan, & Jeon, 2018). Nevertheless, research shows that if businesses are dominated by one gender, they are less effective in generating financial outcomes (Badal, 2014). And, maybe even more important, today’s organizations need leaders showing self-awareness, humility and being focused on promoting the interests of others; all qualities that women show more than men (Schwartz, 2012). 

If such relational and communal qualities are increasingly more important to what we expect from leaders, could it be that in cultures where collectivistic and relational values are more prominent, women more easily move into leadership positions. Although this could be a possibility, surveys in the Asian region do show that this is not the case. For example, in Singapore, a survey from business consultancy Grant Thornton (Loh, 2020), revealed that for women it was harder to break the glass ceiling effect than in other Southeast Asia’s countries (Singapore women in senior management was 31% versus 35% in Southeast Asia’s aggregate). Furthermore, the LinkedIn opportunity index 2020 (a survey among 10 000 working professionals in the Asia-Pacific) showed that at least 1/3 of women in the Asia-Pacific region considered their gender to be a barrier in their career development and one that impacted the use of a wider variety of opportunities in a negative way. So, the important question to ask is: “Can we expect any change soon?”

The Digital Revolution in Organizations

Digital Revolution in Organizations

Witnessing the rapid changes taking place today, an opportunity may have been created to address a possible change in the gender bias in leadership. Specifically, it has not gone unnoticed that organizations will have to adjust rapidly to the fact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will change how organizations work and will be led (De Cremer, 2020a). AI indicates “a broad collection of computer-assisted systems for task performance, including but not limited to machine learning, automated reasoning, knowledge repositories, image recognition, and natural language processing” (Krogh, 2018: 405), and is recognized as a tool that can reveal more accurate and faster predictions than humans and they do so by learning from vast amounts of data (Agrawal, Gans, & Goldfarb, 2018). As organizations today are increasingly reliant on data (Bhageshpur, 2019), the use of AI in a variety of (managerial) tasks is therefore no surprise. In fact, a survey including 65 Fortune 1000 companies, more than 90 % of these organizations indicated that they expect to increase their AI-related investments (Bean, 2019). Interestingly, a recent MIT Technology Review (2020) report indicated that especially in the Asia-Pacific region companies are most eager to adopting AI technologies in their business processes. 

Because the organizational landscape is disrupted by technological innovations, leaders today need to be tech savvy enough so they can make the right and safest decisions for their company and workforce.

Given the increasing use of technology at the work floor and with intelligent technologies even being used in decision-making roles, an interesting assumption has surfaced claiming that what makes a person “leader-like” may also be subject to change. Because the organizational landscape is disrupted by technological innovations, leaders today need to be tech savvy enough so they can make the right and safest decisions for their company and workforce. The use of technologies to create value for the company strategy provides organizations a competitive edge and leaders today are expected to guide and explain to employees this transformational trend. At first sight, this trend, however, may not necessarily signal a positive and optimistic message for women to take up more leadership positions. Indeed, recent data by the World Economic Forum estimate that female workers only take up about 26% of the jobs in data and AI roles. Moreover, it is also clear that most women do not see a career in technology to be high on their wish list. A survey of PriceWaterhouseCoopers UK actually revealed that only 3% of women are interested in pursuing a career in technology.

Asia and women empowerment

Although these numbers are clear evidence that the tech sector is male-dominated, Asian companies have, however, taken the lead to point out that women are needed to help design and develop the technological tools that will change the world. One of these Asian champions is Huawei. This Chinese telecommunication company was founded by Ren Zhengfei in 1987 in Shenzhen and employs currently more than over 190 000 employees worldwide. Until 2019, the company was world leading when it came down to development of G5 and cloud applications (De Cremer, 2019), but since 2020, the US sanctions have hit the company badly. As the revenue in 2021 has shown a strong decline (compared to 2020 and previous years), the company has put its focus on surviving (De Cremer, 2020b), and diversifying its pursuit of technology in different areas (De Cremer, 2021a). The company reasons that a mindset of diversification brings along a more open mindset that can help them which strengths exist and how to use them to create more opportunities (De Cremer, 2021b). 

woman

In light of this ambition to survive and rise in different ways than before, Huawei has invested significantly in efforts to provide more opportunities and support to women so they can be competitive in the digital economy. The launch of their Huawei Women Developers (HWD) program is one such example where female participants will be provided training on technological innovation and career development paths. In doing so, Huawei senior vice president Chen Lifang believes that training and educating women with more digital skills will promote inclusive and diversified societies – a situation that the company itself aims to develop as a work culture. That this focus on women development in the tech industry is happening in Asia may not be a surprise when we, for example, look at LinkedIn’s vice president of talent and learning solutions, Feon Ang. She is a gender champion advising women not to shy away from formulating their ambitions and goals in clear ways, and especially so in the tech sector. The business environment today is one of a digital revolution and Ang herself stepped into this dynamic environment to pursue a career in technology – and as such uplifted herself to become a role model.

May these initiatives and programs help female managers to climb the leadership ladder? According to Huawei corporate senior vice president and director of the board, Catherine Chen, it definitely will make a difference. When she delivered a speech at the Web Summit 2020, Chen said that we need more women leaders in the digital era. She believes that providing digital skills education will empower women in ways that they will become more competitive in the digital economy, and, hence take up leadership positions more easily. But, of course, this is more easily said than done. A question that needs to be empirically addressed is whether having the abilities to understand and work with technological solutions will indeed affect the likelihood that female managers will emerge more as leaders. In our own research, we looked at this question and reasoned that as leaders have the responsibility to ensure that new technology solutions are used in ways that helps the workforce to improve on their performance, especially those leaders focused on motivating and connecting with employees may profit from the benefits of being seen as tech savvy. 

Providing digital skills education will empower women in ways that they will become more competitive in the digital economy, and, hence take up leadership positions more easily.

Given that women are attributed with the skills that promote harmony, inclusion and collaboration  – all necessary to empower people – we wanted to see whether they would indeed benefit the most from digital upskilling when it comes down to emerging as leaders. Our research confirmed this expectation (Nagpal, De Cremer, Jieqiong, & Mai, 2021). Across several studies, we, first of all, found that that overall male managers were considered more leader-like than female managers. Most importantly, however, this gender effect was eliminated when the manager was perceived as tech savvy. Specifically, female managers who were considered tech savvy were perceived at least as equally leader-like than male managers (irrespective of whether the latter ones were tech savvy or not). Female managers who were perceived as not tech savvy were considered less leader-like than a male manager (again irrespective of whether the later ones were tech savvy or not). What are the implications of these findings?

Implications

A first implication is that encouraging women to study engineering and technology and engage in digital upskilling programs clearly has a positive impact on materializing their future leadership ambitions. This is in fact also the main goal of Huawei’s Women Developers program, where the company aims to support women to look at careers in tech and empower them in such a way that female role models will help attract more women from diverse backgrounds into the technology area. So, combining their pursuit of diversification (to survive) with a strong focus on women empowerment may thus well create a more inclusive climate when it comes down to breeding future leaders.

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A second implication is that for female employees to be more perceived as tech savvy, not only having the right degree will do the job, but especially so the kind of actions and decisions the company takes to empower their employees (regardless of age and gender). Huawei has taken initiatives in line with such ambition by promoting diversity and inclusion through digital skills training by launching its global education program, ICT Academy, that works together with many academic institutions worldwide, and their Smart Bus program in Europe, which focuses on training for children in the 11 to 15 age group, on topics like data security and protection against cyberbullying. Providing access to these programs for all employees is destined to create a more inclusive work climate that will help propel women and young employees more easily into leadership positions. 

About the Author

David De Cremer

David De Cremer is a Provost’s chair and professor in management and organizations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore. He is the founder and director of the Center on AI Technology for Humankind at NUS Business school. Before moving to NUS, he was the KPMG endowed chaired professor in management studies and current honorary fellow at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He is named one of the World’s top 30 management gurus and speakers in 2020 by the organization GlobalGurus, one of the “2021 Thinkers50 Radar list of 30 next generation business thinkers” (an annual ranking that the Financial Times deemed the “Oscars of Management Thinking”) and included in the World Top 2% of scientists (published in 2020). His latest book is “Leadership by algorithm: Who leads and who follows in the AI era?”

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