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Building Back Better: Why Gender Diversity Needs to Be at the Heart of the Innovation Agenda

Diversity & Inclusion
Published on:

Innovation thrives in teams where diverse thinking is not only encouraged but proactively encouraged. Gender diverse teams are shown to have improved performance. Despite the evidence demonstrating the impact of diversity, we still witness mixed reactions to gender diverse teams with the situation exacerbated following the pandemic. As organizations are rebuilding after the initial waves of the pandemic, we focus on why gender diversity needs to be at the heart of this transformation.

gender diversity qatar- adobe

©FS-Stock on Adobe Stock

Research shows gender diverse teams demonstrate 25% above average profitability (McKinsey, 2020) and a 38% increase in innovation revenue (BCG, 2018). These indicators create a clear business rationale for gender diversity to achieve improved business performance. The consequences of the pandemic - working from home, schooling from home, supporting the needs of older, more vulnerable, family members – all these combine to create greater domestic responsibilities that are inevitably picked up by women. Within the workplace this situation leads to greater pressure of women. In France for example, research by BCG shows that 20% of women with children aged 12 years old and under are more likely to leave their jobs to focus on the family. Now that organizations are rebuilding, we investigate why and how gender diversity is at the heart of innovation.

Innovation needs out-of-the-box thinking

“Innovation” is the prevalent term organizations adopt when discussing strategy and performance. Our world today has more complex problems that are not easily solved by applying thinking that has worked before. As we adjust to the volatility of the global pandemic, business leaders are finding different ways to anticipate and plan for successive waves of disruption. Innovating is about identifying an opportunity that others have missed or not considered in their deliberations. Out-of-the-box thinking that creates innovation doesn’t happen by chance. In fact, contrary to the perception of stumbling across brilliant ideas, successfully creating new ideas is the result of diverse teams, nurtured cultures, and conscious leadership. 

Her Excellency Reem Al Mansoori, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Transport and Communications in Qatar, and HEC EMBA alumna, highlights the importance of innovation; “Knowledge is the fuel for innovation, and since women represent almost 50 percent of our society, we need educated, capable, and motivated women in the workforce to turn our society’s challenges to opportunities by becoming our future entrepreneurs, innovators and artists.”


Our world today has more complex problems that are not easily solved by applying thinking that has worked before.


How inclusive leadership triggers innovation

Innovation thrives in teams where diverse experiences and thinking combine for solutions. Building a diverse team is important, however the role of the leader is paramount. Leaders who create inclusive cultures allow colleagues to feel safe in expressing different ideas. Inclusive cultures are built on the idea of safety and trust, allowing individuals to share new thinking, and challenging group think – as the most senior person the rest of the team will defer to the leader. Creating opportunities for team members to ask questions and find solutions themselves helps to address group think.


Leaders who create inclusive cultures allow colleagues to feel safe in expressing different ideas.


Biases: we all have them, and they are part of our ability to function effectively, but if they go unchecked, they can lead to group think (where team members follow the leader’s thinking) and in turn stifle innovative thinking. In his book “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli describes ninety-nine biases and provides concise insights into how each one impacts our decision making. We can’t become a walking encyclopedia of biases but if we understand which ones predominantly affect our thinking, we can mitigate for our biases in our decision making. 


©peshkov on Adobe Stock


In Qatar, a strong population of female students forecasts diverse and innovative teams 

There is of course a bigger piece to this puzzle, creating a robust pipeline of qualified women who can advance into leadership roles. Qatar has a strong base, with 58.6% female labor participation (World Bank, 2021) and the highest figures in the Arab World, the foundations for transformation are strong. The book I co-authored on “Championing Women leaders” (with Chisholm in 2015) identifies two important resources for women to succeed into leadership positions; the support of a champion – a senior leader advocating for the individual - and the opportunity to move into new roles that provide different opportunities. 

The impact of role models, and in particular women in senior leadership positions, is essential to help adjust how we see successful teams. Women achieving leadership roles is not straightforward, but the biggest shift comes through two areas; changing mindsets and specific resources to support women. 

Sheikha Alanoud, Deputy CEO and Chief Business Officer of Qatar Financial Centre Authority (QFC), and currently a participant on the EMBA program at HEC Paris in Qatar, explains the impact of advancing women into leadership roles, “I was given the chance, as the first female and the youngest person in this executive role by my CEO. I’ve translated that opportunity into the highest growth trajectory consistently. This is a good thing for the organization, my performance is also about bringing in different perspectives.” QFC has a commitment to gender diversity through policies leading to 13.5% of senior level positions in QFC companies held by women, compared to 8.2% of Qatar’s financial sector (KPMG, Qatar 2021). She continues, “It’s not just about strong female leaders that inspire others, but it’s also a testament to the changes in society. Reforms guided by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser in terms of human and community development through education, equal opportunities, family welfare and regulation have seen women establish themselves as a formidable part of the workforce in Qatar. Working in leadership positions means deserving respect from male colleagues for our contribution to the economy. We see more women in leadership positions today and this is not due to a quota system. Women are being given the chance because they are performing well, and the country benefits from this talent.” Expansion in the female workforce outperformed overall growth in QFC employment between 2018 and 2019, with nearly 11% increase.


Women are being given the chance because they are performing well, and the country benefits from this talent. - Sheikha Alanoud


Diverse teams and inclusive leadership create the framework for innovation, and agile thinking is an essential part of this equation. Creative and agile thinking is learned through education, and with a strong population of female students, Qatar is well placed to nurture an entrepreneurial thinking among its students and to create the foundation for effective innovation among diverse teams.

Hend Zainal, Executive Director of Strategy, Management and Partnerships in the Higher Education Division at Qatar Foundation and HEC EMBA alumna, is an advocate of agile thinking in leadership. Through her work she is bringing to life the notion of ‘multiversity’ education, providing students with the opportunity to cross-fertilize their thinking by combining courses from different universities and providing exposure to different approaches to thinking: “We need a new way to consider leadership, a renaissance approach, where current and future leaders combine different disciplines to find innovative solutions. Higher education leadership has been a male-dominant sector throughout history, despite the fact that the oldest continually operating university in the world, The University of Al-Qarawiyyin, was founded by a woman, Fatima AlFihri. Women in higher education and other business sectors have the ability to bring empathetic and multidisciplinary perspectives and a different understanding into the needs of all users, whether they are students or customers and create systematic and innovative change that effectively addresses their needs.

Successful innovation needs to spread across society, and this requires organizations with diverse teams to lead by achieving the ambitions set in the 2030 Vision. HE Reem Al Mansoori underscores why women need to be at the heart of this transformation, “Women are powerful advocates for the voice of our society and have deep understanding of the challenges. Having a diverse work-force, therefore, will enable Qatari organizations to be creative and deliver innovative solutions that make everyone’s life better.” Gender diversity in leadership is at the heart of progress and provides the momentum for our economy and society to innovate and prosper creatively – providing a win-win for everyone.

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