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Research Points to Gender Diversity as Motor for Innovation and Growth

Published on:

Dr. Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj has spent decades analyzing women for leadership roles. Shortly after joining HEC Qatar as Associate Professor in Gender Diversity and Entrepreneurial Leadership, she published her third book “Futureproof Your Career”. We caught up with the prolific academic at the 2021 Women’s Forum in Paris to discuss cognitive diversity, her research on Asian communities and leadership and teaching entrepreneurial leadership at HEC.

shaheena janjuha-jivraj cover

Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, Associate Professor at HEC Qatar

Listen to the podcast:

You have published several research papers on what you coin “cognitive diversity”. Could you define this concept?

Sure. When we talk about diversity, we've got lots of layers. We can look at it from a gender perspective: race, or examine it through the lenses of ethnicity, religious, sexual, sexual orientation, and so on. But ultimately, what really makes a difference is when you bundle all those categories together and start challenging each other, as well as challenging assumptions. And over the last decade or so, I've seen that we can get very caught up on the question of ‘Should we be looking at gender or should we be looking at race or at something else?’ When, really, what we need to start focusing on is cognitive diversity because that's where you get innovation. That's where you have explored fantastic ideas and new thinking. Statistics consistently show that gender diverse teams provoke an average profitability of 25%. Another study shows innovation revenue goes up by 38%.

So how does your research explain the reticence of leaders and major companies in creating gender diverse teams when profits and innovation are so high? 

When we talk about gender diversity, we're asking leaders to shift generations, if not centuries of behaviour, and that doesn't happen overnight. When we ask people to change decisions, we're asking people to invest resources, to change the way they do things. That requires resources, not just in terms of financial resources, but also human resources, emotional resources, expectations… And sometimes that's far greater than financial investment.

Of course, we need to be very, very clear, especially in terms of businesses that, yes, this is absolutely the right thing to do, there's no question about it. But from a business perspective, the amount of resource that's going into this transformation needs to generate a better return on investment because businesses are accountable to their shareholders, to their customers, to wider stakeholders. Now, there is a raft of data coming through that still speaks to the fact businesses with gender diversity do perform better.

As businesses get better with gender diversity, their performance continues to increase. But ten years ago, it was very difficult for businesses. We often talk about gender diversity but there isn’t a silver bullet approach. When we first started working in this space, people thought, well, if you run a leadership programme for women, you'd fix the women. But it's not about the women needing to be fixed, it's about the organization needing to be fixed. And, as leaders start to step up and talk about what they're doing, they create collective peer pressure on other leaders and that starts to build the momentum around this issue. So, it's a combination of things. What we're now seeing are companies who have to start to sweat their assets in terms of human capital because they've spent so much time, money, resources, and effort in building diverse teams.


We talk a lot about inclusive leadership, because that's what should start to encourage trust. It should encourage creativity. And lead to innovation.


And, now, it’s about using that conscious leadership to build inclusive leadership. At the moment, we talk a lot about inclusive leadership, because that's what should start to encourage trust. It should encourage creativity. And lead to innovation. Eventually, I hope we'll stop talking about inclusive leadership and, instead, we'll be talking about pluralistic leadership. This form of leadership encourages even greater creativity that is really built on being much more human centric. It allows for much more international and cultural adaptation. So that's where my focus is, and it certainly builds on the work I've been doing over the last decade.

You have recently accepted a post at HEC Paris. How do you integrate your research with this teaching post in Qatar?

It's such a privilege to be working in a business school because you are able to interact in a room full of future leaders on a regular basis. Whether it’s in France, in Qatar, in the UK… The conversations on how we make the business environment better for ourselves as leaders are so rich. Whether we're talking to male or female students. our responsibility is to be a good teacher. It's about listening well, listening with curiosity, and listening to the questions that are coming forward. It's not about being prescriptive in our answers, saying you must do it this or that way, but actually empowering the students to recognize they have the ability to find the solutions. That's where the creativity, the entrepreneurial leadership kicks in. Because if the students recognize they're empowered to have the solutions, then they'll keep that going in their leadership journey as they progress.

Learn more about how HEC Paris implements Diversity and Inclusion policies on campus here.

References mentioned in the podcast, in chronological order:

  • HEC Paris Insights webinar with Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj "Why do we keep hitting roadblocks when it comes to AI, HR and diversity?" 
  • Anne-Gabrielle Heilbronner, Women’s Forum 2021
  • British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour's interview with Helen Lewis and her book, "Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights". 
  • Time’s Up evening on the power of women’s anger in New York. 
  • Craig Newmark message on the need for men to support women’s leadership. 
This is a partial transcript of an interview of Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj conducted at the 2021 Women's Forum.  

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