International Women’s Day serves as a much needed opportunity to celebrate women in technology, but perhaps more importantly, it’s an opportunity for female leaders in the industry to share their expertise.
With that in mind, we’ve turned the floor over to some of the key women in the tech field, asking them all the same question: “If you were asked about how to ensure American students and workers are equipped to thrive in the modern, digital economy and what tech’s role is in creating and enabling the workforce of the future, what would you say?”
Not coincidentally, it’s the same question posed to Ivanka Trump at CES 2020, an appearance filled with controversy.
But it remains a relevant question, given the speed at which the digital economy evolves. With tech playing an increasingly important role in driving the US economy, it’s also a sector providing many employment opportunities for women, from engineering to design to leading some of the world’s biggest companies. Women can also play a crucial role in improving tech for better in the future — reducing bias in the field of, for example.
Estimates from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, however, suggest that women are more at risk of losing their jobs to automation than men are. In the US, 55% of American women are part of the labor force, according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Labor.
For all American workers to thrive in the coming decades, it’s important to prepare them now for what’s yet to come. That means reconsidering what we think we know about education and being prepared to listen to new ideas.
Here are the answers we got to our question (edited in some cases for brevity).
Founder of the Webby Awards, author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week
“We need to remember that the most valuable skills for American students in the digital economy are our human skills. Skills like empathy, creativity and intuition will never be replaced by automation, AI or robots.
For most of human history, we survived by creating an agricultural economy. Three hundred years ago we shifted to an industrial economy. Just 50 years ago, we initiated the knowledge economy. And today? We’re approaching another seismic shift … some people are calling the Human Economy.
The skills we need most in today’s world in any profession boil down to being human. These skills have been the engine of innovation and survival since the beginning of civilization … but we’ve arrived at a time when your human skills are just as important as your knowledge. To develop these human skills we need to build in a regular practice of turning off the screens, looking people in the eye and remembering how to connect authentically.”
Founder of the Heart of Tech, a technology market research and consultancy firm focused on tech in education and diversity in tech
“One cannot talk about how tech will impact the future of work without talking about the need to rethink our education system. While over the past two years there has been a big focus around STEAM, most schools are still using the same teaching methods we have for years, where the teacher is the center of the learning experience rather than encouraging kids to problem solve, teach one another and by doing so develop skills like communication and collaboration.”
Founder and former chair of the US branch of advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty and founder of If We Ran The World and Make Love Not
“I believe tech has a huge role to play for students and workers in driving the new American dream.
The old American dream has historically been individually focused — the idea that you, on your own, strive and achieve entirely through your own efforts. In the new digital age, the internet enables us all to connect in a way we never could before. The new American dream is about the fact that you’re not alone, and it’s not all up to you — there are others like you who share the same values, want the same things and will band together with you to make it happen.
Technology enables you to find those people, to collaborate with them, to work with them, to collective shared benefit. I believe the business model of the future is Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial profit, and social profit). That, to me, is the new American dream, and tech is what can make it happen. But the key thing is not just the technology, but who creates it and what they do with it.
The future of work is being transformed now through the vision, lens, creativity, talent and skills of women, people of color, LGBTQ, the disabled — everyone who is ‘other,’ those of us who don’t have access to equal opportunity in the white male-dominated corporate world, who are therefore starting our own businesses, and who are demonstrating in those businesses a move away from traditional white male corporate values, and a redesigning and reimagining of business and of work from the ground up. We are literally starting our own industries. A key part of this transformation is fluidity in the concept of “workplace” and the environments in which we choose to work.
Tech, automation, AI, the blockchain and, concurrently, a revaluing of human participation and roles, combined with the spread of universal basic income, have the power to completely reconfigure what we call “work,” and we’re drawing on all of those.”
Director, research and analytics at Slack
“For students to thrive in the modern, digital economy, I’d recommend they take design thinking, computer science and writing classes. Design thinking will teach them the value in understanding their customer, brainstorming and prototyping; computer science will teach them the skills required to solve many hard problems, even if you they don’t become a programmer; and honing their writing skills will enable them to communicate and collaborate in a clear and effective way.
I’d also recommend adopting a learner’s mentality. Technology is changing every day, and to keep up, we need to be evolving and learning alongside it. I believe: Never assume you know everything, take the time to continue to develop skills and be open to different ideas and perspectives.
When it comes to tech’s role in creating and enabling the workforce of the future, we need to look at the current landscape. Firstly, the workforce of the future is remote and distributed, and technology enables strong collaboration, alignment and transparency, which is what people need and expect. Secondly, the workforce of the future is diverse and inclusive, with tech enabling a level playing field. Additionally, tech will continue to solve many of our problems and allow us to reduce the amount of time on rote tasks and the ‘work of work’ — this frees up people to actually work on interesting problems together.”
Chief technology officer at Intuit
“First, we must realize that students today live in a different environment: one that is tech-rich and rapidly evolving. In fact, kids today are growing up as digital natives and spending their formative years in the digital era — an era marked after the invention of the Internet, social networks, smart phones, smart homes, CUI and an abundance of apps and tools and more things to come. In this digital era, they are used to having access to new and ever-evolving apps and tools, and a nonstop flow of information always at their fingertips.
As a result of this different environment, students should be prepared to evolve and adapt to the future of the workplace, which includes: (1) utilize and benefit from new technology, (2) acquire new skill sets needed for an evolving workforce, and (3) be ready to embrace change including understand the challenges new technology might bring. New technology and tools allow students to learn faster and accomplish tasks better and more effectively during their education and afterwards. They should take advantage of that by getting access and using technology that is applicable. As they become part of the workforce, their skill sets have been changing as well.
Students want to start acquiring new skills early, such as programming, AI and more. Importantly, while all of this going on, it’s important to apply critical thinking and understand the benefits, challenges and what is appropriate to use when, including evaluating risks, applying judgment and evaluating the consequences of some of the technologies. For example, they need to understand the current debate and challenges surrounding technology today, like keeping data secure, deep machine learning, algorithm bias, explainable AI and long-term impact from innovations.
Continuous evolution and learning is the overall theme. One of the biggest hallmarks needed in the next generation of the workforce is the ability to embrace change, adapt and be teachable. Our environment will continue to evolve at an even quicker pace, which means that their skill sets will need to change, and new challenges will emerge that they will need to be considered.”
Co-founder of iRobot and former CTO of Aria Insights
“Tech acts as a catalyst for the next generation of engineers and scientists. As practitioners, our professional obligation is to ensure that every kid has the opportunity to consider a career in STEM.
Even greater encouragement is needed for girls and underrepresented minorities because they don’t always consider a STEM career track, they may feel unwelcome, and they may get family and peer pressure pushing them in another direction. In talking to young women, many want a career that helps others. We need to help kids realize that a STEM career is one of the most scalable and impactful ways to help others — as a scientist or engineer you can discover a cure for a horrible disease, sanitize or desalinate water to make it safe to drink, invent sustainable energy systems or build robots to dispose of bombs safely (like me).
Robotics is the gateway drug to get kids hooked on science and engineering. As such, I feel the obligation to get kids involved in STEM keenly, being a roboticist. Kids are naturally drawn to robotics, where your imagination is the limit … When I speak to schoolchildren, there are always many ideas of what kind of robot they want (homework and chore robots top the list).
Companies such as iRobot (Roomba), Tesla (autopilot) and Skydio (drones) inspire with relatable and exciting robotic products. Kids are inspired to invent themselves and many find an outlet in maker spaces, online hobby forums and robot contests. Having attended robot competitions such as First and BotBall, it always strikes me just how happy the kids are to have someone who cares talk about their design decisions. We need to be listening.”
Founder and managing director of Gallium Ventures, a PR and marketing agency for tech startups
“It’s not necessarily how we prepare the American students and workers to thrive, but how do we encourage companies to adapt and grow with a society that is taking charge of its own education. This is the uphill struggle, as convincing employer-led change to hire apprentices, reskilled or self-taught talent, whatever their age, is likely only to happen when you convince companies with incentives such as government grants, free training or other incentives.
Companies are limiting themselves by only hiring cookie-cutter candidates who meet a specific background and educational criteria, when the reality is brilliant employees can be found in nontraditional locations. Apprenticeship programs allow staff to learn through real-world experience (without the crippling student debt), while candidates without a formal degree might actually be self-taught in subjects such as programming, graphic design or SEO (search engine optimization). This will only accelerate as children today are given coding toys before they can fully spell their own name, and their questions are answered by the rising popularity of online courses.”
General manager of education experiences at Microsoft
“We’re in the midst of a digital revolution where jobs — and the skills required to succeed in the workplace — are changing every day, and we must change the way we teach and learn as a result. Our mission at Microsoft is to empower every student to learn and succeed in the jobs of tomorrow, which means we are committed to creating technology tools that can bridge the gaps in equity, whether socio-economic status, gender, physical or cognitive ability.
Because literacy is the foundation of all learning, we’ve created tools like Immersive Reader that empower English language learners, early readers and those with dyslexia to read and stay engaged and motivated throughout their education.
We also know that social-emotional skills are the most desired in today’s and tomorrow’s jobs — skills like creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and data literacy — which is why we’re focused on developing curriculum, professional development resources for educators and tools like Minecraft: Education Edition and Flipgrid to teach these skills through technology experiences.
Finally, it is critical that we’re empowering learners at all ages and stages to keep pace with the transformation occurring across industries by offering opportunities for today’s workers to reskill and upskill throughout their careers.
CNET Editor in Chief Connie Guglielmo contributed to this report.