Soft skills matter in the age of AI

Research suggests women are equipped to thrive in a world of intelligent machines

soft skills
  • As machines take on more lower-level tasks, people will need to choose which problems they want to solve, and how to solve them
  • All organizations should be preparing for the rise in demand for problem-solving and other soft skills in the workplace
  • Global studies suggests that women have these skills in more abundance than men

The world of work is changing as technology advances, and the skills needed for future jobs are evolving. As many as 375 million workers—or roughly 14 percent of the global workforce—may need to switch jobs as digitization, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work by 2030, according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute report.

Some jobs of the future are changing faster than others. New jobs will be created that haven’t even been imagined yet. A Korn Ferry study of 55,000 professionals worldwide found that the skills which come naturally to most women, such as creativity and problem-solving, may give them a critical advantage over their male counterparts.

According to AI pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum, “it is the capacity to choose that ultimately makes us human.” As machines take on more tasks that were traditionally a human preserve, humans will need to choose which problems we want to solve, and how we solve them. We’ll also need to decide what work we would like to do and what work we want the machines to do for us.

The inevitable rise in demand for these problem-solving skills—and the people best equipped to deliver them—is an issue all organizations should be paying attention to as they prepare for the future.

Wanted: Creative problem-solvers

Women now outnumber men in the college-educated labor force, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet data suggests there are not enough women in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Women are more likely to have the creative problem-solving skills needed to flourish in the workplace of the future.

As society develops, it will become more technical and information-based. Over the next decade there will be a greater need for workers with these skills, according to research by the McKinsey Global Institute. These hard skills include specialized knowledge and technical abilities in fields such as software development, tax accounting, and patent law. Most of these skills are based on logic, which will enable them to be augmented by machines.
Soft skills are more about empathy and communications, and the associated social and emotional skills. While they are more difficult to measure, soft skills are fundamental to problem-solving and can help workers thrive in a variety of roles and industries.

These soft skills will become increasingly valuable in organizations. And it turns out that women are more likely to have the creative problem-solving skills needed to flourish in the workplace of the future.
This claim may sound like gender stereotyping, but global studies have clearly shown that girls are better than boys at problem-solving in teams. The findings suggest girls are better equipped for the modern workplace, according to research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD study evaluated the academic abilities of teenagers. The researchers assessed 125,000 15-year-olds to see how well they solved problems in teams. They found that girls were 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem-solving.

While hard skills focus on the ability to do a specific task, soft skills typically address how to achieve the desired outcome, a question that rarely has one right answer. Strengthening a soft skill is one of the best career investments a person can make. The rise of AI makes soft skills increasingly important, as they are the most difficult skills to automate.

Technology is the easy part

Machines are becoming increasingly intelligent and will take over or augment many tasks, including computer programming. As a result, non-developers will be able to create custom apps that automate complex business processes. This work will be done in low or no code environments by people who don’t have advanced software development skills.
That’s another reason why employers will increasingly value soft skills such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, and adaptability. Career success will depend on the ability to understand the problem, take inputs from a diverse range of people, communicate ideas, and analyze information.

STEM skills are still critical for many companies, but the shortage of female graduates in these subjects doesn’t need to be a crisis. We should all focus on what we are good at, and there are many skills beyond STEM that are needed to make the world of work, work better for people.