How to develop the next generation of female digital leaders

How to develop the next generation of female digital leaders

This story is co-authored by IMD researchers, Elizabeth Teracino, and Jialu Shan, and IMD professor Michael Wade.

Digital leaders need a combination of technology, people, and entrepreneurial skills. To nurture these skills in more young women, we need to tackle three challenges

As it stands, the current reality for female digital leaders and tech entrepreneurs can be discouraging. Despite a healthy demand for digital talent, the lack of diversity in tech continues to be pervasive. A recent BCG article highlights that women constitute only 25 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce, with just nine percent occupying leadership positions. And in a recent survey, entrepreneurs believe it will take 10 or more years for the tech industry to reflect the general population, in terms of gender.

For many, digital leadership is synonymous with technological expertise. However, research on leadership in the digital age by IMD’s Global Center for Digital Business Transformation reveals a much broader and richer set of characteristics, including humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement. How can we help young women develop the hard, soft, and entrepreneurial skills necessary to become future digital leaders?

The answer, we believe, lies in overcoming three barriers.

1. Keeping girls active and confident in STEM-related subjects

Research suggests that girls are most interested in STEM careers in middle school, but that number drops sharply between middle school and high school. A 2015 OECD study examined how girls’ lack of self-confidence in their own abilities in science and mathematics may explain why they are underrepresented in STEM fields in high school. Other studies point to the fact that even though girls scored as well as boys in STEM subjects, they often scored even better in reading. Thus, when they move to drop subjects in the latter years of high school, they would often rate reading comprehension as their strength. What these results suggest is that early high school years are an important intervention point to maintain girls’ interest in STEM.

One way to do this is to introduce mentorship from the early teenage years. Work also needs to continue on aspects such as ensuring adequate working conditions in STEM fields for women planning for a family in their future. The Nordic countries may provide a model to be emulated here.

2. Developing business and entrepreneurship skills

The second barrier is under-developed business and entrepreneurship skills. Becoming a digital leader is not only about providing coding and digital marketing skills, but also about using these skills to create and capture business opportunities.

How to overcome these barriers? Inspiration can come from surprising places.

Since 2013, the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) has been making technology a central part of how girls, volunteers, and parents engage with the Girl Scout movement. It hired a Chief Technology Officer to upgrade its technology infrastructure and developed online tools to help adult volunteers with troop activity planning and on-boarding.

The Girl Scouts Digital Cookie platform helps girls market via a personalised website and take orders using a mobile app.

One important initiative has been the introduction of its Digital Cookie platform to support girls with their iconic cookie sales. The Digital Cookie platform enables girls to market their online cookie business by inviting customers to visit a personalised website, or by taking in-person orders using a mobile app. The platform also includes educational elements such as interactive quizzes, videos and other activities allowing girls to learn budgeting and business planning.

As the 2019 cookie season draws to a close, we are hearing about gutsy tactics like slapping photos of Jason Momoa onto the iconic Samoa cookie boxes and rebranding them as “Momoas.” The Digital Cookie platform is not replacing face-to-face sales. The GSUSA is using technology thoughtfully to enhance the Girls Scout experience for the 21st century, while preserving the core element of people skills. Such youthful entrepreneurship in cookie sales not only fuels the GSUSA’s largest fundraising effort, but is also the cornerstone of its entrepreneurship program.


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