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Strong Female Lead

6 Workplace Realities Women Will Face In 2040

Will my daughter preside over her own company? Unless things change, she probably won't, and neither will yours.

6 Workplace Realities Women Will Face In 2040
[Photo: Flickr user Hernán Piñera]

My 4-year-old daughter Serena will be 30 in 2041. Assuming that she has a college degree and eight years of work experience, how might she fare in a world dominated by contract workers, fluid teams, human-centered work, persistent pay gaps, blurred work-life boundaries, and biases that have been around since the beginning of time? Well, let’s investigate.

1. International Competition

Serena was born in 2011, the year the U.S. birth rate dipped to its lowest recorded level. As the U.S. birth rate keeps trending below 2.0 births per woman, that doesn’t mean young women will face less competition for school acceptance and jobs in the coming decades.

Instead of vying with other Americans her age, my daughter will fight for a place among hyper-qualified professionals from around the world. While her generation struggles to support the population of adults over 65—projected to triple by mid-century—it will face a global talent pool from which companies can hire the best people no matter where they're based.

2. Continuing Gender Gaps In Leadership

Will my daughter preside over her own company? She probably won't, and yours isn't likely to either—unless current trends make a dramatic turnaround.

According to Judith Warner at the Center for American Progress, women’s presence in top management positions today remains below 9%, and their percentage on all U.S. corporate boards has been stuck in the 12.1–12.3% range over the past decade. A 2014 Babson College study showed that, on average, just 60 female CEOs got VC funding in the years 2011–2013. This is surprising given that women are the majority owners in 36% of all businesses in the U.S.

It’s been estimated that at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles. That’s too late for Serena.

3. Revolving Doors Of Employment

Rather than heading up her own venture, Serena is far more likely to be a contract worker—a segment of the workforce that's been projected to overtake the single-employer workforce by 2040. And she won’t just have to compete for jobs every few years. She will be in a constant cycle of promoting her services, securing a project, and promoting her services again.

"Businesses will consist of owners, talent assemblers, and contract workers for everything else," the writer Tad Milbourne has argued on Techcrunch. "Platforms will spring up that know what contractors have certain skills, what they’ve done, and whether they’re available. Contractors will get instantly matched with talent assemblers.

For my daughter's generation of working women, networking with these "talent assemblers" will likely become a top priority.

4. Short-Term Virtual Teams

In preschool, Serena likes to flit from station to station, playing with a different group of kids every five minutes. That’s good, because in 2040 she'll work on a variety of remote project teams that form and disband quickly after accomplishing a specific business outcome. She will have no physical office outside her home, yet she’ll interact with thousands of professionals of all ages and across many cultures each year.

What will Serena do on these teams? Your guess is as good as mine, but according to futurist Gerd Leonhard, she’d be smart to pursue something related to growing technology segments like data science, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, deep learning, and robotics.

Or she could pursue a career that makes good use of human skills like imagination, curiosity, understanding, empathy, and social and emotional intelligence—like design, therapy, negotiation, or invention.

What will she want to avoid? "It’s pretty clear than hundreds of millions of jobs that are primarily routine-based, repetitive, and rules-based will increasingly be done by machines," writes Leonhard.

5. Age-Old Gender Bias

And in the narrowing breadth of roles reserved for people, women are set to continue lagging behind men despite equal educational opportunities. How come? One reason is that "unconscious bias", or the implicit people-preferences we form through socialization, is deeply embedded in the human experience. It starts early, too—research shows that it’s present in children by the age of three or four—and enters the workplace already deeply rooted in each of us.

While some companies are now pioneering new methods for controlling for it in their recruitment and management processes, unconscious gender bias has proved a tough nut to crack.

A recent study by VitalSmarts researchers Joseph Grenny and David Maxwell found that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived deserved compensation by $15,000 when they're seen to be assertive or forceful—violating ingrained cultural expectations for women to be caring and nurturing.

This is a problem that’s unlikely to be solved in my daughter's lifetime, even though, according to London Business School professor and The Key author Lynda Gratton, we shouldn’t lose hope. "It’s surprising how quickly societal norms can change," she says. "I see my sons being taught not to make any assumptions about what men and women do—and of course, more young people are now being brought up by working mothers. So in some parts of society, gender bias may be seen as something from the past."

Let's hope so.

6. Better Work-Life Integration

According to the 2014 OECD Better Life Index, when compared to 35 other developed nations, the U.S. ranks as the eighth-worst country for work-life balance. The pressure to conform to standards set by countries like Germany and Denmark is likely to grow. As workforces become less global, top U.S. employers may feel more impelled to compete with foreign companies' perks in order to retain the best talent. So we may well have come a long way on work-life issues within the next 25 years.

On the other hand, future workers will be even more continuously connected to their work through technology than we are today. But by then we may have worked this way long enough that my daughter's generation will be better equipped to manage it.

Lynda Gratton believes that some work-life conflicts may be alleviated by a longer window for childbearing and more involvement from fathers. "Women may have more leeway in terms of sequencing their family and careers, and we will see more see-saw couples in which both partners take turns supporting one another."

All in all, there are likely to be more opportunities than obstacles for professional women in 2040, but there's plenty that we can do right now to make sure of that.

Alexandra Levit is a business futurist and bestselling author who has consulted for the Obama Administration as well as Fortune 500 companies including American Express, Deloitte, Microsoft, PepsiCo, and Whirlpool.

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