Saadia Zahidi: Advancing Gender Equality

Jane Lu

Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender and work at the World Economic Forum, joins Michelle King, a leader in UN women’s gender innovation work, to discuss the unique skills women can contribute to the changing world of work, and offer insight on how leaders can help close the global gender gap.

According to “The Global Gender Gap Report 2017“, between 2016 and 2017, the average gender gap increased from 31.7% to 32% worldwide: The report examines the gap between men and women in four fundamental categories (subindexes): economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The gaps between men and women on economic participation and political empowerment faces a second year of reversed progress in 2017, led by the world’s largest economies—China, India, and the United States. Meanwhile, France, Canada, and the Nordic countries represent “bright spots” for gender equality, offering targeted policies and more opportunities for women in the workforce.

Zahidi points out the need for gender parity in the labor force to prepare for an increasingly innovation-driven economic future. While women have long been a largely untapped resource in STEM fields, this could soon change: Over the past few decades, women outnumber men in college enrollment.

How can leaders help close the gender gap?

Zahidi believes “out-of-the-box” thinking will become increasingly important in the future and that diversity is critical for innovation. She cites three trends that will impact gender parity in the workplace:

  • The number of STEM positions in engineering fields, which tend to have a smaller pipeline of women, will increase. This means a widening gender gap in high-growth, high-pay jobs.
  • The next wave of digital disruption will greatly reduce the number of service and administrative positions, which have historically attracted more female workers.
  • While more women are employed in education and healthcare professions, they remain underrepresented in leadership roles.

These trends could become opportunities to “hardwire” gender parity into the future of work. Businesses need to start thinking differently when they look for talent to fill emerging roles. To address stereotypes and ensure a diverse pool of candidates, for example, companies could partner with schools and training programs. This would help broaden talent pipelines and encourage more females to seek careers in STEM fields.

To help advance gender equality in the workplace, Zahidi recommends that business leaders aim for three “levels:”

  • Commit to gender equality goals, because the tone for pursuing change is set by leaders.
  • Embed diversity initiatives into your organization’s hiring practices and workplace culture. Conducting a baseline analysis can help determine which issues your organization should tackle. One aspect of embedding is ensuring a level playing field for women and men—for example, offering the same opportunities for promotion and career advancement.
  • Scale your gender equality advancement strategies to extend beyond your own workforce, through participation in CSR initiatives and support of young entrepreneurs.

Honing your “human skills”

“A lot of traditional thinking around the fourth industrial revolution would say that if there’s a lot more technology embedded in what we do, we all need to be learning a lot more about technology,” Zahidi says. While adoption of digital tools is certainly increasing, she does not believe that means everyone should become a coder: “We did a survey…on the future of jobs…skills with greater premiums are human skills.”

Emphasizing the importance of diversity in today’s world, Zahidi recommends developing both digital and human skills, such as creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, for anyone looking to get ahead of the curve. For women, she adds, offering fresh, creative ideas with confidence is key to building a stronger presence in STEM fields.

As workplaces become more diverse. companies must implement solutions that can adapt to change and that harness the value women bring to the workplace.

Listen to Saadia Zahidi’s interview on the SHE Innovates podcast.

SHE Innovates is a podcast that shares the stories, challenges, and triumphs of women in innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. Listen to all our podcasts on PodBean.


Jane Lu

About Jane Lu

Jane is a writer and marketing intern at SAP. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in English at the University of Waterloo. While Jane is currently studying in Waterloo, she is originally from Toronto.