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Key Uncertainties About the Future of Women

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, Helena Calle, and April Koury
How can business and society ensure a more positive future for women?
Rethinking the Future of Women

In the recent past, the issue of ensuring a truly equal future for women in society has risen up the agenda of global challenges—while at the same time indicators suggest the actual equality gap is growing globally on many indicators. From harassment and #metoo to #timesup and the rights to equal pay and equal access in education, the workplace, and the boardroom, women have been succeeding in spotlighting the issues and arguing for their rights. So, as we look to the future, some fundamental questions arise: What are the many possible futures of women? Are women’s futures different from men’s futures? How do we proceed in the coming years to embed a gender equality mindset while accounting for the unique challenges women face?

This chapter explores how business and society can adjust to ensure a more positive future for women, focusing on what we consider to be critical agenda issues. We conclude with our advice and dreams for the future of women.

Which Areas Could Benefit Significantly from the Increased Participation of Women?

As we look to the forces shaping our world, it is clear that society as a whole could benefit significantly from the increased participation of women in literally every domain, and in particular in the future of technology development, elected governmental roles, and higher education. For example, the 2018 book Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism by Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, highlights the kind of critical thinking the technology sector needs to be embracing about its broader social implications. The technology sector and governments need to better understand that an algorithm can be racist or sexist before rushing to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into our social systems and institutions.

An increased participation of women in technology development could contribute significantly to the creation of more female-oriented products. For example, Natural Cycles, created by a woman, is an effective contraceptive app that gives women a natural choice over family planning, without the hormonal side effects of the pill. Many other similarly clever and effective technological solutions could be developed with an increased participation of women in technology. If automated systems, including those powered by AI, are representations of those who created them, then maybe those systems need to represent the gender split we see in society. More women in fields such as programming machine learning could help to create a gender balance within our intelligent technologies.

The Evolving Role of Women in the Workplace

In some domains and countries, the evolving role of women in the workplace is engendering a more confident and empowering attitude. Women are taking control of their own workplace situations and actively tackling inequalities. A variety of studies suggest that women’s confidence when asking for a raise or a promotion is growing year by year. Women are realizing that the first step to change starts from within and these small changes can have a major impact on their work environment.

The future, as currently envisaged by many, depicts a world where much of the work that goes into creating products and services will be automated. Hence, what we offer our customers and clients could become increasingly commoditized, so our new propositions will need to focus on something different. Being more human and focusing on the relationship between businesses and customers could become a critical differentiator. As a result, the focus might shift to building propositions on a foundation of competences and values that are typically thought of as feminine—such as collaboration, relationship development, and empathy. Such an approach could help firms create the differentiated and more sustainable competitive advantage they need in the future. The role of women across business could become increasingly crucial here in leading the culture change required to underpin the development of new propositions.

Significant Challenges Facing Women Professionals in the Years to Come

Many women professionals face the continuing challenge of leading a household and maintaining a career. Societal pressure to “have it all,” however, may be taking a new shape. Evidence suggests that women from the millennial generation across the globe have not married or had children at the same levels as their predecessors. Hence, a woman’s versatile balancing act across various personal and professional roles in the future may not necessarily be due to motherhood, but rather, a choice made for personal fulfillment.

Women professionals face the challenge of establishing a new relationship with the men in their lives. Men, as working colleagues or as relationship partners, are used to the stereotypical idea of providing higher economic support and assuming leadership roles. The challenge now is to create new ways of relating to each other based on an authentic mutual partnership.

Cultural norms vary significantly across the world, but evidence on the rise of women in business and being more prominent in society is clear in Asia, for example. And yet, even in the developed world, we still see institutional discrimination. The cultural and deep-rooted context for discrimination is likely to take some time to clear and is only likely to change through a combination of active campaigning, legislative change, behavioral modification, and generational trends.

Will the Man-Woman Divide Persist in the Next Decade?

The gap is a big one. In November 2017, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that, at current rates, it will take 217 years to close the gap on pay and employment opportunities. Sadly, this estimate has risen by 47 years over the figure calculated a year earlier. Perhaps nations should look to follow Iceland’s fair pay example and eliminate the idea that women and men at work deserve different treatment in the first place. The WEF also estimate that the broader gender gap—that takes account of factors such as healthcare, education, and participation in politics—has risen from 83 to 100 years over the same one-year period.

If we define “the man-woman divide” as sexual dimorphism, for example that our differences extend beyond just our physical organs, then certainly it seems likely that this will continue. The man-woman divide will probably persist, although there is some concern that male fertility in the West could be threatened by hormonal disruptions in the food chain and our natural ecosystems. However, the roles of each of the genders might become more similar. There could be less men- or women-oriented services, products, or roles. This might be the beginning of the next era where, in 20 years from now, the man-woman divide could become much less perceptible.

As with many norms that become unacceptable as our collective sense of right and wrong evolves, from one perspective, a gradual erosion of alpha male domination looks set to take place. Through the empowerment of women, supported by the increasing enlightenment among men, societies could start to accelerate the agenda for equality. This will be aided by the power of technologies such as social media as platforms for campaigning and “outing unacceptable practices.” At another level, the dominance of strong male leaders of major economies such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, suggests that traditional male hierarchies may be hard to dislodge.

Women’s Ability to Manage Risks and Challenges

Is society responsible for preparing women for the risks and challenges of the future? How should we help them respond to economic shocks, the failure of social institutions, and the challenge of adapting to the automation of work—potentially displacing many jobs? Perhaps the best way to do this is to increase the participation in and completion of post-secondary education by women worldwide.

It has been thought that men are more prone to taking risks and overcoming challenges than women. Psychological research has debunked this myth and now we know that these differences depend of the type of risky behaviors we include in the research questionnaires. It is not that one gender is more prone to risk taking than the other. Rather, we are all capable of developing these capacities depending on the experiences we have had and the situations we face.

Are there innate abilities that women have that can be nurtured through education, in work training, and coaching? Could this help raise women’s awareness of their own capabilities, while also allowing them to demonstrate competence in managing risks and challenges in leadership positions?

Advice to Women on Tackling the Future

In a world increasingly dominated by the hype and reality of technology, women need to adjust their expectations of this growing force in society. Even though we encounter abundant conventional wisdom that says humans will be replaced by technology, this is a line pushed by the technoprogressives with a vested interest, and women in particular shouldn’t fall for it. The future, especially one highly imbued with AI, needs humanity, and especially women, more than ever.

The future is waiting for women to take on any leadership role where they feel they can contribute to society. The world as we know it is changing, and now is the time to evolve a new generation with higher expectations of what women can do. The critical challenge here is for women to believe in themselves and encourage other women to do so as well.

The key here is for women to focus on maximizing their potential as women. This means celebrating their natural skills and sense of the importance of relationships, empathy, collaboration, and caring. Ultimately these are the traits that could make the difference between a dystopian technology-enabled world and a very human future.

Achievements in the Progress of Women We Hope to be Talking About in Five Years’ Time

In five years, we hope to see better legislation worldwide to protect women’s health and access to education. Hopefully more countries will adopt gender-blind wage policies like Iceland. Also, we hope to see greater priority placed on bringing maternal and infant mortality rates down to near zero globally within five years, using strategies that empower women and make best use of local knowledge.

In five years, we truly hope that we will finally have zero tolerance of female genital mutilation everywhere. We hope that all women in the world have full access to education. And that women participate in at least half of the leadership roles in the corporate and political sectors.

Across the next set of electoral cycles, it would be a pleasant surprise if half of all the developed world’s major democracies were led by a woman and if the supporting legislatures were gender balanced.


  • What are the hurdles that women face in reaching their potential in your organization?
  • What can we do to ensure that enlightened views on the role of women in society can penetrate the traditional and cultural norms that exist in some countries?
  • How might more women in senior roles in politics and business change how society responds to challenges and opportunities?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.

A version of this chapter was originally published in Fresh Business Thinking.


Image: by uroburos


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