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Tuesday Thought Leadership Teardown: The Coming Workplace Gender Gap

Here’s a really big problem:

The world’s progress over the past 11 years on closing workplace gender gaps for seniority and salary has been glacially slow — so slow that we’re not on track to achieve parity for another 200 years.

But there’s an even bigger related problem. And it’s one that might make those of us committed to gender equity look back on this period with nostalgia, not impatience.

That move — “here’s a known problem, and here’s an even bigger problem on the horizon that threatens to dwarf the known problem unless we act to solve it now” — is a classic trope in effective thought leadership content.

The World Economic Forum’s Saadia Zahidi’s recent piece for the WEF website uses this “problem/bigger problem” move to maximum impact.

By the end of the piece, she’s used data and rhetoric to make it difficult to disagree that we can ignore the problem or act now to solve it.

It’s the subject of (drumroll) today’s Tuesday Thought Leadership Teardown.

There Will Be a Problem in the World and It Needs to Be Fixed Before It Crushes Us

You might remember my week-long series last month on the op-ed template I use with my clients — which follows these five elements:

  1. There’s a Problem in the World and It Needs to Be Fixed
  2. What’s Causing the Problem — and Why Haven’t We Solved It Already?
  3. So What’s Next? Here’s a Solution That Will Work
  4. Resistance to the Solution and How to Overcome It
  5. What’s at Stake/The Call to Action

Zahidi follows this template fairly closely, but combines and modifies #1 and #2 beautifully to accommodate a looming problem the data show her — a problem upon which, once she shows it to us, we’ll want to act.

The looming problem? The advance of AI, which could bring about what Zahidi calls “a potential future gender gap timebomb.”

  • The advance of AI means labor markets are shifting the kind of work humans will do in the future vs. that performed by machines;
  • A significant portion of the 75 million roles projected to be displaced — such as bookkeeping, accounting, customer service and admin — are currently performed by women;
  • Into their place: data scientists, software developers and AI specialists — roles currently with significant and persistent gender gaps.

“Without pre-emptive action now,” Zahidi writes, “we may face a scenario in which these slow gains are instead reversed and the white-collar, high-skilled and high-paid gender gap increases.”

Scary. However, Zahidi gets this all down in 325 words. Nice work.

So What’s Next? Here’s a Solution That Will Work

The solution, Zahidi argues, is to “turn this moment of flux in labour markets into an opportunity to proactively hardwire gender equality into the future.”

  • 54% of employees in large companies will require significant re- and up-skilling;
  • Companies are facing critical talent shortages in these new technology skills;
  • Therefore, she says, we have a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to design a future in which gender parity is the norm rather than the exception.”

What Zahidi does here is noteworthy for a couple of reasons:

  • Why now. She’s not just laying out a solution, but arguing why now for it, creating maximum urgency. We have a narrowing window through which to define the future.
  • Great framing. Zahidi’s framing a crisis as an opportunity, which decision makers love. And she’s welding the solution of two problems together, creating a sticky cognitive pairing that will be hard to unstick once you’ve heard it.
  • Sticky language. Zahidi is also framing her high-level approach with memorable language — “we can proactively hardwire gender equality into the future,” we have a “once-in-lifetime chance to design a future in which gender parity is the norm rather than the exception.”

You could see the talk she could build around this language and that frame.

The solution — attack the demand as well as the supply side — is intriguing. WEF is working to get commitments from 50 major multinational corporations by International Women’s Day 2020 to “take an accelerated, future-oriented approach to gender parity” toward every step of the talent pipeline for their highest growth roles of the future.


There are two to my mind: the call-to-action of the piece itself, and the CTA of the webpage.

  • The call-to-action for others outside the 50 corporations WEF will recruit to its initiative is lame: “We invite all organizations — SMEs, schools, universities, the public sector or NGOs — to apply the same approach in their talent pipelines of the future.” What about a blueprint those organizations could use, or guidelines for forming their own related pledge to the WEF initiative? What if the 50 pledging corporations also pledged to commit a portion of their marketing budgets to telling the story of the initiative?
  • It’s also not clear to me what WEF wants visitors to do after they’ve read the piece. There are lots of CTAs — a generic email signup, some inline call outs to WEF’s 2018 Future of Jobs report, and a mixture of left rail content that are or are not related to the story. What constitutes success for WEF with this piece? What’s the one thing they want me to do next? That single step should be much clearer — especially since Zahidi’s piece is part of a cluster of pieces around the Future of Jobs report’s release.

But for self-published thought leadership by an international organization, Zahidi’s piece is exemplary.

Grade: A-