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LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends Report found that 92% of hiring professionals felt soft skills mattered more than hard skills in determining the success of a hire, with 80% saying they were increasingly important to a company’s success. As commentary on the report acknowledged, categorizing soft skills – and identifying them in individuals – is a tricky proposition (“Soft skills: what everyone wants but no one knows how to find”) but the one constant in any discussion on the topic is that they are more readily attributed to women. 

Definitions of what is meant by the term soft skills abound, but the consensus is that they stand in contrast to technical, measurable ‘hard’ skills and relate to traits such as communication, empathy, collaboration, and other qualities more commonly associated with women. While that may sound like a generalization – and this is a topic fraught with that risk – research by McKinsey provides real-world context.  

In a 2019 study of effective leadership in business, the consulting giant concluded that “the traditional behaviors of control, corrective action, and individualistic decision making are the least critical for future success. Much more important are intellectual stimulation (which men and women apply in equal measure), and five other traits (inspiration, participative decision making, setting expectations and rewards, people development, and role modeling) applied more frequently by women.” 

There is some debate about how appropriate it is to associate women with soft skills, and even the nomenclature itself. While the McKinsey research highlights the positive side of the generalization, there is a pejorative counterpart that characterizes women as emotional and connotes soft with weak. In the US, the National Career Development Association goes so far as to label the term as “gender biased” and “unprofessional,” reasoning that, “So-called ‘soft’ skills are falsely contrasted with equally inaccurate ‘hard’ skills on the basis that the latter are observable, learnable and measurable; qualities claimed, inaccurately, as not shared by ‘soft’ skills. They are not opposite or mutually exclusive. In fact, many work situations need the application of both STEM and interpersonal skills, for example. Success in a science career often requires developing fruitful collaborations, cultivating friendships with colleagues, mentoring students, and effectively communicating accomplishments at conferences and seminars.” 

While the merits of the term can be debated, it remains in widespread use. What is not up for debate is the growing recognition of the importance of soft skills. The findings from McKinsey, LinkedIn and others are emblematic of the developing body of research showing the value of these traits when it comes to managing people, companies, or projects. In a research piece on leadership effectiveness during the Covid-19 pandemic, The Harvard Business Review reported that “women were rated significantly more positively than men” – with the authors also noting that this was consistent with their pre-pandemic findings. Most significant, however, are the competencies that the study’s respondents – direct reports of the leaders in question – assessed as the most important in identifying great leadership: “‘inspires and motivates,’ ‘communicates powerfully,’ ‘collaboration/teamwork,’ and ‘relationship building,’ all of which women were rated higher on.”   

As technology and AI continue to impact job roles, workplaces, and industries, the importance of soft skills is only likely to increase. As well as the role they play in effective leadership and management, it is soft skills that truly set humans apart. As set out in this IE Insights article by Balvinder Singh Powar, in the workplace of the future, where many technical processes will likely be performed by machines, “Soft skills will allow us to differentiate ourselves in terms of creativity.” In fact, as Powar goes on to point out in his podcast on the topic, it will always be humans that generate new ideas – not machines – meaning innovation is ultimately dependent on the application of those skills. 

The debate has moved beyond gender, and whether or not soft skills matter, to how organizations can ensure they are harnessing their inherent value. As one commentary piece in Forbes put it: “It’s not the skills that are lacking. What we lack are workplace cultures that allow those skills to shine.”   

“What is not up for debate is the growing recognition of soft skills”