Technological disruption holds few fears for female leaders

KPMG chairman Alison Kitchen says the female leaders’ positive attitude is a welcome surprise.

Nearly half of senior female executives are comfortable with disruption occurring in their business caused by new technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and 3D printing, despite the low numbers of younger women who study computer sciences and go into technology roles.

A global study of 700 women in the C-suite by professional services firm KPMG found that 48 per cent of respondents were either comfortable or very comfortable with technology developments and the impact these might have, while only 14 per cent were uncomfortable or very uncomfortable.

KPMG chairman Alison Kitchen says the female leaders’ positive attitude is a welcome surprise.

“If you go back to all of the discussion we have around the need for more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), I think it’s very pleasantly surprising to see the level of comfort with these sorts of areas,” Kitchen says.

“The results of this milestone survey show that global female leaders have a thorough understanding of the strategic and operational requirements of the digital age,” she says.

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Analysis by Catalyst, a global organisation that aims to remove employment barriers for women, found that in Australia in 2016 women made up fewer than one in five students earning degrees in information technology and accounted for fewer than one in eight engineers. As of August 2017, women made up 21 per cent of those employed in computer system design and related services.

Compared with the overall leaders’ survey, senior female leaders were more cautious about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the workforce. While 62 per cent of global chief executives expected AI would create more jobs than it eliminated, just 47 per cent of senior women thought the same.

Opportunity versus threat

Compared with the overall survey, where female executives comprised 15 per cent of respondents, senior women were far more inclined to view organic growth as the main driver of growth over the next three years.

Senior female leaders were more cautious about the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. Senior female leaders were more cautious about the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce. Kiyoshi Ota

Some 45 per cent of women said they expected growth would come from innovation, research and development, capital investments and recruitment, against 28 per cent of leaders overall who said the same. One third of respondents to the global overall survey said that strategic alliances with third parties would be the most important growth driver over the next three years. Just one quarter of senior women leaders felt the same.

“Global female leaders seem to have a strong entrepreneurial approach regarding growth,” Kitchen says.

More than three-quarters of female leaders said they saw technological disruption as more of an opportunity than a threat, although only 51 per cent said their company was actively disrupting the industry in which it operated.

Asked to nominate the most important attributes for their success, active personal networks and strong communication skills were the most common answers among senior women. Just 4 per cent cited quotas for female leadership.

Globally, 67 per of leaders were confident about the international economic outlook, up from 65 per cent in 2017, the KPMG survey found.

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