Jobs to Be Done and the Gender Gap in STEM

Written in honor of Dr. Clayton Christensen, who died a year ago today.

A couple of years ago, we received an email from a young adult in Armenia working on a program to try to reduce the gender gap in STEM fields. This is a quest that is pretty common in many countries around the world.

The response I gave was perhaps not what she was looking for, and it may not be the kind of response you would expect. Below, I share some of what I shared with her. My answer reflects some of what we have learned in our work at EPIK. We try to look for best practices models and principles to bring to our collaborators. I hope something here might be helpful for you.

The resources below reflect a concept that I wish I had learned in business school 25 years ago. The concept is relevant for multiple spaces, from parenting to education to business to technology to nonprofit work.

A place to start learning about this concept, called Jobs to Be Done, is a book called Competing Against Luck. Note: we had a session at the 2017 Digital Citizenship Summit about this theory. (Presentation slides here:
and video from the session/workshop can be found here

The basic premise of the theory is that organizations often try to set goals based on what the entity wants to accomplish rather than
what the customers actually need in their lives (what they “hire”
businesses for) — how they as individuals need or want to progress.

We all make choices about how we spend our time and money based on our own personal needs and goals, and yet the organizations around us usually market and measure based on their business needs and goals. In addition, data mining and measures often measure the wrong thing! This can not only hinder true progress and impact, but also creates barriers to innovation.

Clayton Christensen (1952-2020), who was a renowned Harvard Business School professor and innovation consultant (and one of the authors of the book), studied innovation for over two decades. This theory answers the question of how innovative organizations disrupt the usual ways of doing business.

You can read more about this theory in this Harvard Business Review
article (This
provides a good summary for the content in the article.

Here’s an interview with Professor Christensen:
(includes an audio link)

Bob Moesta is another one of the masters of Jobs to Be Done. Here’s a presentation he gave:

Here’s another person’s summary of the Jobs to Be Done theory: (more

And an article that has a sort of worksheet for breaking down the Jobs to Be Done theory:

Or you can watch one of these videos of Prof. Christensen. The milkshake
example is a simple and powerful way to summarize the theory.

Here are some examples of how this theory can be applied in different

So, taking the example of young women who do not choose a STEM program, or do not continue on such a path, is it possible that STEM influencers are trying to meet their own goals, rather than understanding the needs of the young women they are trying to influence? STEM careers can, of course, have benefits for women and men alike. But trying to change gender ratios from the top-down may not be the best approach.

I think it is safe to say that most women don’t want to be seen simply as objects to fill roles or holes or quotas. But I do tend to believe that there are many ways young women could get excited about math and science and entrepreneurship and business and technology in the context of their own lives, interests, and goals. (e.g., If you love art, then do you know
how technology can open up options to use your passion for art? If you have a favorite hobby, have you considered how business can help you turn your hobby into a livelihood? If you care about the earth, how might a STEM education help you make a difference in the world in a way that resonates with you?)

Jobs to Be Done teaches an organization to learn to listen first, to learn more about what makes people tick, and then learn to speak a language they understand and help them conceptualize how what it has to offer could help them progress in their own lives and goals.

Image from Wikimedia Commons shared under the under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

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