A Hard Look at the Term “Soft Skills”

Khiran O'Neill
Nov 10 · 11 min read

By Khiran O’Neill and Faun Rice

What are soft skills and why does the language we use to describe them matter?

An HR specialist gave a presentation to a class of engineering students about job readiness. As she started to describe the “soft skills” they would need to succeed in the workplace, she felt their attention slipping. She wondered how she could change her language to make the group take the presentation more seriously: after all, skills like collaboration and time management were crucial for their ability to succeed professionally.

Source: SoulCabinette on Flickr

Context

At ICTC, a portion of our work consists of labour market research in the digital economy. We are also a capacity building organization, meaning that we strive to better prepare the workforce for the digital economy. In this work, “skills” are often a central topic. What skills do employees need to succeed? What skillsets do employers have trouble hiring? What new skills will allow people to work more effectively?

When skills are discussed, there’s often a de facto division between “hard” and “soft” skills. Hard skills are frequently assumed to be learned, technical, and testable (for example, computer programming or bookkeeping), while soft skills are typically contrasted as non-technical traits and difficult to measure objectively (for example, leadership or enthusiasm).

Many HR experts suggest soft skills are gaining the upper hand over hard skills. Skills like empathy and creativity have received much praise in the workplace, and employers want these skills. Occupations requiring good social skills are becoming more common and have even been described as critical for the future of work.

While the concept is an important one, we’re especially interested in the use of the term “soft skills.” This blog post isn’t about the importance of “soft skills” themselves — we think that they’re absolutely critical — but rather the words people use to describe them.

Despite growing acclaim for soft skills, the term itself has met significant criticism. One critic notes that the term “perpetuates the assumption, bias, and habit of thinking that soft equals expendable.” The Career Industry Council of Australia describes the term as “out-of-date and confusing,” “inaccurate” and “gender-biased.”

In our work at ICTC, we’ve heard similar, though mixed, feedback from educators, labour market analysts, and recruiters. HR specialists we’ve spoken with suggest alternate terms like “human skills,” “life skills,” or “non-technical skills” as a replacement.

Similarly, ICTC’s capacity building team has considered whether “soft” is the right word to describe the skills training they provide. Soft, human, or life skills are critical for success in the labour market. They don’t “expire” in the same way that technical skills can, and they can make or break the experience of a team. Conversely, the word “soft” may devalue these skills. Craig Murrell, Curriculum Designer & Facilitator at ICTC, says,

“It’s not just a nice idea to change the term soft skills; it’s essential. As long as the division between soft and hard exists, industry won’t take soft skills seriously. We need to get away from the idea that ‘soft’ equals ‘easy.’”

As members of the ICTC research team, we wanted to explore the evidence in favour and against “soft” as a term. In what follows, ICTC analysts Faun Rice and Khiran O’Neill raise four questions about the term “soft skills” and its appropriate use.

We present some of our findings for consideration and invite others who are interested in this topic to get in touch as ICTC plans to host a forum on the term “soft skills” in research and HR in 2022. We welcome thoughts and comments from participants in this discussion, or ideas that we have not addressed here.

Discussion: Four questions about the controversial term “soft skills”

Question #1: Is the term too entrenched to change? Would changing the term “soft skills” interfere with statistical standards or important workplace norms?

A common question in social research is how to best match statistical standards — often set by a country or international body — so as to fairly compare your data to someone else’s. This problem often arises with demographic data — for example, I might fall into different categories in two different national surveys if I check off “age 25–34, white” in one jurisdiction, but “age 30–39, Caucasian” in another. This makes important data about health, aging, income, and working status difficult to compare and contrast internationally, a process which helps policymakers figure out what is working, where, and why. As such, it often takes a lot of time and coordinated effort for national statistical agencies like Statistics Canada to change important terminology — such as updating ethnicity questions — to make sure the change will allow for comparison with past surveys or other countries.

Nonetheless, there are some reasons why changing the term “soft skills” may not create a problem for statistical standards and comparability.

First, few surveys actually use “soft skills” as a category in and of themselves, typically opting for more granular skills (like literacy, communication, teamwork, writing, or leadership) that are later aggregated into the bigger and less precise category of “soft.” For example, LinkedIn’s Top 5 Soft Skills for 2020 were creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence; whereas a LinkedIn-World Bank Group data partnership lists leadership, teamwork, communication, negotiation, and writing in its soft skills category. As researchers, we might ask if “soft skills” is a useful category, given its variation in meaning.

Second, standards have not prevented statistical organizations from modernizing their questionnaires and tools even when it becomes clear that they should. For example, in 2018, Statistics Canada updated its standards on gender to include classifications for cisgender, transgender, and gender diverse.

One valid argument against changing the term “soft skills” is its shared public understanding, and that it could be jarring to change it. The following sections weigh this argument against other perspectives on the term.

Question #2: Is the term “soft” used in discriminatory ways? The term “soft skills” has been associated with perpetuating gender and racial stereotypes, typecasting women in the workplace and obscuring biased hiring practices. Anecdotally, people may associate “soft” with “easy,” leading them to devalue these crucial skill and the people who possess them.

The term “soft” has been associated with femininity, explicitly or implicitly. For example, numerous HR articles describe “soft skills” as “feminine skills” or “female soft skills.” Whether this stereotype benefits or harms women — and men — is debateable. “From my research on women in business,” writes developmental psychologist Birute Regine in Forbes, “their ‘secret’ [is] the possession and use of what may fairly be called feminine skills…. Relational intelligence, emotional intelligence, holistic perspective, inclusion, empathy, and intuition… Soft is the new hard. And women lead the way.” Conversely, in a review of 245,000 job postings, Federica Calanca et al. finds evidence that “female connoted soft skills are associated with wage penalties.”

It is true that employers increasingly value soft skills in the knowledge economy. But some researchers make the point that the association between femininity and soft skills (and the implied inverse, masculine/hard skills), perpetuates dangerous workplace stereotypes. For example, associating the term “soft skills” with women may wrongly suggest that women lack hard skills, can’t do math, or are emotional decision-makers. Similarly, it may imply that men lack emotional intelligence or empathy in the workplace. Renyi Hong (2016) argues that “the gendered division between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills pre-emptively renders it difficult for women to be acknowledged as having computational skills, even if they demonstrate their proficiencies in those areas.” To illustrate, Hong outlines a shift in the field of human resources from focusing more on “soft” interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to “hard,” data-related skills (involving performance analytics, for example), leading some HR specialists to actually call for more men in the discipline.

“Soft” and “hard” skills also intersect with racial stereotypes: several articles show that many hiring managers believe that soft skills vary with race, an obviously dangerous stereotype. This is demonstrated in the 1990s, in a study showing that hiring managers used a “lack of soft skills” to justify not hiring Black men, and again in 2008 where employers in the hotel industry used “soft skills” as code for justifying similarly discriminatory hiring practices. Streib et al. (2019) assess a sample of job applications in America, finding no content that would support employer perceptions of racial differences in soft skills, despite the continuation of these beliefs. Similarly, Renyi Hong suggests that playing up the soft skills of women as a strength in the workplace not only suggests that women don’t have “hard” skills but also underplays the impediments still faced by women of colour, as hiring managers may be more likely to see these highly valued soft skills in candidates who share their racial and cultural background.

In short, because “soft skills” are thought of as intangible and subjective, they can be used as an excuse to justify biased hiring. A more precise set of terms could help mitigate this issue, and avoiding the terms “soft” and “hard” could prevent stereotypical gender binary assessments of candidates.

Question #3: Could “soft” just mean soft? Can the term “soft skills” shed its connotations and be reclaimed?

The term “soft skills” may carry negative connotations for some, but this doesn’t necessarily imply that simply giving in and no longer using it is the right approach. History shows that language is replete with formerly offensive words that have been repurposed, reused, and eventually reclaimed, often by the very people being targeted by those words. Slang and New Language archive curator Tony Thorne contends, “Reappropriation of ethnic and sexual slurs starts as an act of bravado by a few of the oppressed, then may become an empowering mechanism for a much wider community.” Language reclamation is not solely a phenomenon of recent history. In the 19th century, an early critic of Claude Monet first coined “impressionist” as an intended insult, and it later became the name of the famous movement.

To reclaim “soft skills,” there are two necessary steps: one, we cease to look down on the skills themselves, and two, we remove their connection to certain types of people.

Looking down on soft skills is passé. The World Economic Forum suggests that by 2025, eight of the top 10 skills needed by companies will be related to problem-solving, self-management, and working with people — in other words, soft skills. Support for the term that is most commonly used to describe these skills can be strengthened by the obvious, increasing importance of these skills. Already, there’s plenty of positive connotation around the term to build upon. Sean Slade and Philip Lambert write:

“Soft skills are fluid, malleable, adjustable, and adaptable. They are able to be used across a multitude of situations and circumstances time and time again. They fill the spaces left by the rigid frame of standard hard skills making sense of the information and in turn flowing into new and unexpected meaning.”

Elevating soft skills is not enough, however; a term with positive connotations may still lead to harmful stereotyping. As described in Question #2, if soft skills are thought to be women’s skills, no matter how positively we think of them, the implication might still remain that women lack hard skills. A concerted effort to remove the association between soft skills and certain types of people will be necessary to help shed this connotation and the harm it causes.

Yes, language can shape social outcomes, but the reverse can also be true: society can shape how words are used. Perhaps now is our opportunity with “soft skills.”

Question #4: What if skills were just skills? Perhaps we should pay less attention to the distinction between “hard” and “soft” skills.

Regardless of what they’re called — hard or soft, technical or non-technical — why divide them in the first place? At very least, skills could be divided differently. For example, the OECD’s “Skills for Jobs” portal categorizes various attributes as Skills, Knowledge, or Abilities.

Soft and hard skills are merely groupings of much more granular skills that convey relevant information. Further, dividing skills as either hard or soft creates a false sense of opposition. In reality, the two are often needed in combination — if not in one person, then at least within teams.

It’s worth considering what differences the skills-as-a-duality camp is trying to define. One possible delineation between soft and hard skills is by measurability or assessment: perhaps soft skills such as motivation or stress management are tougher to measure accurately than hard skills such as coding ability or typing speed. For example, evidence suggests that achievement tests like the SAT or GRE fail to capture soft skills. At the same time, there are options: LinkedIn data suggests that 75% of companies use behavioural questions to test for soft skills, while the World Bank gives examples of soft skills testing that uses survey questions about behaviour or observes participants in group exercises. Similarly, there’s a distinction between hard and soft skills in that hard skills are certified much more often. Does the lack of certification for soft skills exist because they’re truly more difficult to certify, or simply because no one has really gotten around to certifying them? In fact, there are some assessments already available, for example Project Management Professional certifications. Also, one very longstanding, legitimized certification for a certain set of soft skills is actually the liberal arts degree. One distinction that is sometimes noted is that soft skills are inherent characteristics, while hard skills are acquired. However, soft skills are being taught: here is a journal article about teaching soft skills. Here are another four articles, and here are 12 books on the topic.

If soft skills can be taught, measured, assessed, and certified (and considering that the liberal arts degree has been in existence for hundreds of years), then it can be argued there’s little reason to distinguish soft skills from hard skills.

Next Steps

People have proposed many alternatives for the term “soft skills”: non-technical, human, interpersonal, transferrable, universal, strategic, or 21st Century skills, for example. Many of these might be fine alternatives. Given that “soft” is not a statistical standard, there may not be a need for a universal, harmonized approach. Organizations can pick what term they think is appropriate, so long as it conveys what they want it to convey, but they should also consider the following questions in doing so:

Further questions and findings will be added following a forum hosted by ICTC on the topic of soft skills as a term. Get in touch with us to register your interest in attending.

Thanks to Sashie Steenstra and Craig Murrell for their ideas and contributions to this article. In recognition of the importance of soft skills in heightening the industry’s competitive advantage, ICTC has recently developed a learning program titled AIM (Agile Industry Mindset) to help workers and businesses achieve better outcomes and positive change for tomorrow’s economy. In the course of its research, ICTC will continue to evaluate the value and impacts of soft skills on business and the economy.

Khiran is a Research and Policy Analyst at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), a national centre of expertise on the digital economy. Khiran’s interests and experience lie largely in the future of work, experiential learning, and meaningful and equitable employment — topics he’s fortunate to work on at ICTC. Khiran holds a Master of Public Administration from the London School of Economics.
Faun is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Faun is a social scientist with previous experience in audience/visitor experience museum research and endangered language revitalization. With ICTC, Faun brings her perennial interest in human social organization to bear on the impact of emerging technologies on the labour market, career pathways, and urban and rural life in Canada. Faun holds a Master of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Alberta.

Digital Think Tank by ICTC

A future-focused, non-profit think tank for the digital economy.

Digital Think Tank by ICTC

The Digital Think Tank by ICTC is the research and policy arm of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

Khiran O'Neill

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Khiran is a Research and Policy Analyst at the Digital Think Tank by ICTC

Digital Think Tank by ICTC

The Digital Think Tank by ICTC is the research and policy arm of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).