Women in Digital: The obstacles and opportunities for an inclusive, digital world
In this article, we interview four successful female leaders who share their vision for the future of digital leadership, and their views on gender in the digital workplace.
The world around us is, indisputably, going (increasingly) digital. The technological revolution is affecting us all, and is reshaping the way we live and work. Many organisations have undertaken, or are in the process of undertaking, a digital transformation. These changes bring deeper shifts in attitudes and behaviours, as well as ways of working.
Gender equality is one fundamental consideration amidst this change. Gender equality is not only a basic human right, but is also key to building prosperous, modern organisations. The diversity of thought and experience that a fully inclusive workforce brings inevitably increases performance and enhances organisational culture. With this in mind, it is worrying to see the reality of digital gender inequality. This is evident in data released by the OECD which reveals that in some parts of Europe only 50% of women are internet users, compared with 68% of their male equivalents.1 Therefore, understanding the facts of the digital gender divide of is key, and is the first step in addressing it.
In addition to exposing the structural and attitudinal causes of gender inequality, the digital age also offers us significant chances to empower women. The opportunities for women in digital include the propensity to earn additional income, to enhance their employment prospects, and acquire knowledge.
The cost of inaction, on the other hand, is significant. According to a recent study, “in the face of sluggish growth, ageing societies, and increasing educational attainment of young women, the economic case for digital gender equality is high.”2 Therefore, it is vital that we understand the obstacles that women in digital are facing, as well as the opportunities to foster female participation in the pursuit of equality. The best way of doing this is to listen to the experiences of women, and use successful role models as the basis for organisational learning and change.
In this article, we interview the following women in digital:
- Nicole Herzog - Tech entrepreneur and Chairwoman of the Board at Sherpany
- Cornelia Ritz Bossicard - Managing Partner of 2bridge AG, board member of various multinational companies, and President of swissVR
- Sunnie J. Groenveld - Entrepreneur, board member, speaker, and Associate Dean of Studies of the Executive MBA Digital Leadership at the HWZ University of Applied Sciences in Zurich
- Cécile Bernheim - President and Founder of S2E Partners.
In these conversations, we hear the opinions and experiences of four successful female leaders in order to better understand:
- their views on gender in the digital workplace
- their vision for the future of leadership, and
- their insights on successful digital leadership.
This article seeks to educate organisations to enable them to unlock the potential of an inclusive, digital world.
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What do you believe is the key to successful digital leadership?
Sunnie J. Groeneveld: A digital leader minimises the risks of digital transformation while also maximising its added value for the organisation. To do so requires a new approach to leadership. In particular, digital leaders need to not only have a more in-depth understanding of technology, they also need to be more enthusiastic, inspirational, flexible, and more willing to take risks than earlier generations of managers in order to drive innovation forward.
Moreover, they respond openly to new models of work, they understand the advantages of iteration as well as data-based decision making, and they combine this expertise with a high level of empathy and excellent communications skills, both virtual and face to face. Another crucial element of digital leadership is an entrepreneurial spirit and a high level of customer centricity across all channels. Digital leaders never stop learning and are slightly paranoid that a new digital innovation could disrupt their business model at any time.
Cécile Bernheim: I think a good digital leader is someone who is able to inspire, to have a vision, to include digitalisation in his/her vision, and be able to share this with all employees. The leader needs to make sure it's not something which is imposed top-down and that everyone has an active role to play, understand their role in the development of the company and its digitalisation process. It's not only a question for leaders, but for everyone: how can I impact the company through what I do?
These types of leaders are curious people, open to what's going on inside and outside of the company; they are able to call upon talent and expertise, either internally or externally, so that they can enrich their vision and the programs they're building. I also think that they need to be humble enough to try things and recognise when something is not going the way it should be, stop, change and go in another direction. This takes agility and humility, because the world is not - as French say - a "long fleuve tranquille" (a long calm river).
How has technology changed the way organisations operate in the course of your career so far?
Cornelia Ritz Bossicard: Technological developments can either be an enabler or, as I call them, a catalyst, for a company. Developments have changed the competitive landscape, which clearly transformed over the last 15 years with all the different digital ecosystems and platforms.
Technology has also impacted consumer's behaviour, and my observation is that their needs have shifted over the past 15 years alongside technological developments. To give you an example on the consumption of news: 15 years ago most of the consumers were reading a newspaper bought out of the store. Nowadays, people read the news almost in real time on the internet. That shift has an impact on the value chain of a company. For example, the board's role is to support companies take advantage of the opportunities which come along with change, but also, to minimise the risks. From that perspective, technological developments in various areas have clearly impacted our work.
Cécile Bernheim: A few years back, digitalisation was a topic for specialists. Now, it has become a topic for everyone, since digitalisation has impacted us all with the development and usage of smartphones, apps, the web, e-commerce and technology, in general. Even in the case of companies, digitalisation has shifted from an expert's question to everybody's question. It is marking everyone, one way or the other, through big data, the development of software, factory 4.0. etc.
More and more individuals are involved in digitalisation, so it is fundamental to take the human factor - people - into account.
It's even more important when you are in a leadership function to make sure that, first of all, you involve everyone, not just the IT department, the Data managers or the Chief Digital Officers, but also people from R&D (research and development), production, commercial. Secondly, you need to bring everybody on board, so you have to inspire your staff by explaining what's going on. That way you involve them and get their commitment faster. You can do more and more with digitalisation, and that would be expected in terms of technological progress, but it's not only about technological progress, it's also about people. In my view, that's the main difference in digitalisation practices over time.
How are leadership teams changing as they embrace digitalisation?
Sunnie J. Groeneveld: Leadership is best done by example. So for an organisation to engage in a comprehensive digital transformation process, or drive a major innovation forward, invariably requires leadership from the top. Throughout the innovation process the leadership approach I have found to be most effective is: 'Be more of a coach and less of a commander.'
When you innovate, no single person has all the answers. This means you have to lead by asking the relevant questions and trust in your team as opposed to pretending you know all the right answers. When you lead as a coach, you inspire others to engage with your questions, fostering curiosity and openness, and enabling them to find new and better answers for the future of your business.
Cornelia Ritz Bossicard: This is an interesting question because there are many different points of view as to what competencies, especially digital competencies, a board needs. In my view, it's a prerequisite that a board member has an openness towards progress and change. They don't need to be digital experts, but they have to be curious, able to inform themselves, eager to learn about the possibilities of those technologies that are currently being used or developed by the company, a competitor or a third party. These technologies might help the business model, but might be or become disruptive as well.
Digital is such a vast terminology that it's really about having the openness to recognise and imagine what new developments can do and will do, and for boards to be a sparring partner to management. On the other hand, I am also convinced that it's important to have a certain homogeneity in values, be open and supportive to management. That's because leading companies through change is not easy, so to have board members understand what it takes for change management to happen and not only ask inquisitive questions, is to help the company move forward. Further, diversity is not only valid for boards, but also for the management teams as it is becoming an important factor in understanding how businesses and industries are more and more working together, rather than separately.
Nicole Herzog: Technology is helping leaders to structure their meeting process, and by structuring it, ultimately get time back. For example, I prepare all my leadership meetings with Sherpany because time matters.
Technology is the main driver for efficiency.
Cécile Bernheim: Digitalisation is reinforcing that it's key to have a clear vision, and ask the right questions: where do we need to introduce digitalisation in our systems, processes, and ways of working so that we keep abreast of what's going on, and keep ahead of competition? This will help a company to be more efficient, quicker, and more precise. Digitalisation is a way to reach a company’s goals and improve operational excellence.
Take for example the automotive industry. If you go to an automotive company’s plant, you can see that everything is automated. Automation is based on digitalisation. Consider companies that are very good in the distribution arena, as well. One example is E.Leclerc, the French company, that has very powerful customer relationship programs. They are mastering data through very precise Customer Relationship Management (CRM), building promotion and retention plans that fit every individual - it's really micromarketing based on digitalisation.
What are the challenges and opportunities for women in digital?
Nicole Herzog: I don't think that the challenges for women in tech are different than the challenges in other industries. We all struggle with the same topics.
I'm strongly convinced that it's a matter of generation because the next generation of leaders are much more open when it comes to diversity. Today’s young leaders live and think more globally and more cross-culturally than the generations before. Gender matters less. It's changing, I'm positive.
Cécile Bernheim: I think companies are, slowly but surely, changing, and a lot of top companies have diversity programs to promote women. Women really need to dare, to put forward their talent and skills, so that they can get leadership positions. Companies are developing their business with the help of digitalisation, and women who are digital experts, or are digitally agile, will clearly have more opportunities offered to them, just by the essence of the numbers. Women are as equally as competent as men, no question about that.
What should digital leaders embrace or avoid in order to be successful?
Sunnie J. Groeneveld: I envision a future where leadership teams recognise that engaging with ecosystems and networks collaboratively – be this internally across hierarchies and departments, or externally across industries and sectors – benefits their business performance. Besides that I envision leadership teams to be ever more digitally connected, working collaboratively from anywhere thanks to documents in the cloud, useful meeting management tools for leaders like Sherpany, as well as video-conferencing solutions.
In the future, perhaps, leaders will hold meetings in virtual reality where each participant is represented by an avatar.
Cornelia Ritz Bossicard: What matters is that transformation is happening, and I've seen in practice several companies which have created labs, or as I call them "startups within their own organisation". It's important to realise that people working in a startup are motivated and incentivised differently than those working in a more traditional environment. So you need to lead them in a different manner, and cultivate the startup innovative spirit. It can work, but the challenges come when companies have to answer the question of "how do you make sure that what is being developed in the startup or that lab helps transform the rest of the organisation?"
Another aspect is that companies don't just innovate for the sake of innovation. They do it having in mind the end consumers and their needs; focusing on where they are going, on what the competition is doing and on developing partnerships. It comes back to having the right mix of competences, experiences and vision to develop a winning strategy. That's why it's incumbent upon leaders to remain current with what's going on worldwide, and not only in one's own market, and use that information to set and adjust its strategy.
Cécile Bernheim: The future is uncertain, marked by changes such as globalisation, the evolution of economy and technology. Therefore, if you are not ready to understand the different facets of any given situation, then you won't be able to lead this uncertainty, even more so in a digitalised world.
1 'Women in the digital era: Internet use and skills at work', OECD, 2018.
2 'Bridging The Digital Gender Divide', OECD, 2020.