3 Human Skills That Matter for Women in the Age of Automation

By Bernice Ledbetter

Oct. 31, 2018

human skills women
Soft, or human skills are seen as the way for women to compete in a growing automated workplace.

This is the dawning age of artificial intelligence.

Chatbots can conduct full conversations, computers sync schedules to set multiple meetings, and autonomous cars will soon shuttle people to work. In the next 10 years, we’ll see an even greater focus (and reliance) on big data and machine learning. This increasingly robotic world begs the question: “Where do people fit in?”

Technology has a profound impact on the workforce and this new era of automation presents unique challenges and opportunities. According to a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report about automation, “400 to 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030 around the world.” This means that nearly a third of the workforce will need to redefine their roles as nearly all predictable or repetitive tasks will be done for us.

This is particularly important for millennials who are in the process of shaping their careers. According to a national poll conducted by the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, 35 percent of millennials think automation will take over their future job.

However, only 11 percent of millennial women consider automation the greatest threat to their career. Near-term economic downturn or a recession was a much greater concern according to 37 percent of millennial women.

So, what skill sets will women need in this changing automated landscape?

While computer programming, math, and engineering are certainly important the reality is that over the next 10 years the most valuable skills will be human skills. In other words, soft skills — interpersonal communication, empathy, and forgiveness — are taking the spotlight.

According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, soft skills ranked the No. 1 priority among talent developers and executives. This echoes several studies conducted in the last few years including Project Oxygen, Google’s 2013 large-scale management research report that surprised the world by finding that “among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM skills came in dead last.”

The need for soft skills, also known as human skills, creates a unique advantage for women leaders since research shows that women outperform men in emotional intelligence readings. In 2016, the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry collected data from 55,000 professionals across 90 countries and concluded that “women more effectively employ the emotional and social competencies correlated with effective leadership and management than men.” There is a tremendous upside if the transition to an autonomous world can also bring about greater gender equality in the workplace.

Here are three important human skills to build in the time of machines:

  1. Collaboration

Big business decisions are rarely made with a single mind. We live in a time of fast-paced communication and an increasingly globalized world and collaborating with others is a requirement. In IBM’s 2012 Global Chief Executive Officer study, the ability to collaborate was found to be the number one most important skill to succeed in the workplace according to over 1,700 CEO’s from around the globe. Instinct often tells us to shy away from team projects, but leaders rely on other leaders to help tackle complex decisions and problem solving. The innate creativity involved in humans collaborating presents a relatively low risk for automation.

  1. Networking and Socialization

Machines don’t understand people or develop relationships. They can’t positively influence a team-member with a sense of understanding and kindness. A human can. Leveraging a professional network affords the opportunity to achieve personal success and company benefits. According to the Pepperdine Graziadio research, 44 percent of millennial-age women said their professional network was best able to aid in career advancement and 33 percent said their professional network alone would aid in career advancement (more than their employer). Relationships built today may transcend the skills learned tomorrow. 

  1. Mindfulness

Machines cannot replicate human-to-human interaction. Managers and employees are responsible for sincere human engagement. In a workplace dynamic, employees react positively to undistracted and emotionally focused interaction. Learning how to motivate, empower, and relate to others is increasingly important in the age of automation. The first step is to be mindfully aware of emotions and how others are feeling and acting. Fully engaged managers and employees can build meaningful relationships that will never be replaced by a robot.

Darren Good, my colleague at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, published research in the Journal of Management that shows employees who practice mindfulness at work have better performance, stronger interpersonal relationships, and a healthier well-being. In my management and leadership classes at Graziadio Business School, I start with mindfulness breathing. By teaching my students how to be fully engaged in the present moment in an academic and business setting, my hope is that they will incorporate some of these mindful practices into their personal interactions.

In order to compete with artificial intelligence, we will need to master what technology will never provide: the intuition, empathy, creativity and teamwork that make us imperfectly human. By being collaborative, mindful and focused on relationship building, women can hone their human skills, which will propel their career and development as a leader. The good news is that you don’t need to fear a future full of robots — humanness will always be in need.

Bernice Ledbetter is Practitioner Faculty of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School where she chairs the M.S. in Management and Leadership degree program. Her research and teaching interests focus on values-based leadership, peace leadership and gender. Ledbetter also founded the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership.

Bernice Ledbetter is the director of the Center for Women in Leadership at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School in Malibu, California.

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