Will Automation Put Women Out of Work?

Author: Barbara Palmer       

women and automation

Experts say the gender issues that traditionally have impacted women more than their male counterparts — access to training for example — could create even bigger barriers for them as all workers face changes in technology and automation.

If you ever lie awake at night worrying that a robot may soon take your job, this should offer some comfort: Less than 5 percent of existing occupations consist of activities that can be fully automated, according to research conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) in 2017. And if you are a meeting professional, the chances of your job being automated is even lower. According to a study cited in Automating Humanity, meeting, convention, and event planners have a 3.7 percent likelihood of their jobs being automated by 2032.

What is well worth considering, however, is how to prepare for the seismic shift that the report predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will bring to the workplace. At least one-third of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations could be automated, “and almost every occupation [has] the potential to be partly automated,” write the authors of MGI’s “The Future of Women at Work.” Twenty percent of women employed today could see their jobs displaced by automation by 2030, compared with 21 percent of men, the report said.

On the plus side, along with gains in productivity, automation could make work more satisfying, as workers spend less time on repetitive routine data processing and physical tasks, and more time exercising social, emotional, and higher cognitive skills, according to the report. But the shift will be accompanied, the report says, by a period of disruption and change as work is radically reshaped, often into higher-skilled roles. By 2030, jobs in Europe and the United States could require up to 55 percent more time using technical skills and 24 percent more hours using social and emotional skills, the report.

And, although automation is likely to displace men and women more or less equally over the next decade, women will need to make far more significant transitions in order to take advantage of new opportunities, wrote three of the report’s authors, Anu Madgavkar, Mekala Krishnan, and Kweilin Ellingrud, in an article, “Will Automation Improve Work for Women — or Make It Worse?” published in the Harvard Business Review in July.

“In the age of automation, men and women need more than ever to have the right skills, to be mobile and adaptable, and to be tech-savvy,” they wrote. “But the new challenges of automation are overlaid on old barriers in work that have held back progress toward labor-market gender equality.”

The dual demands of work and family that traditionally have impacted women more than their male counterparts limit women’s ability to change job locations or find the time to acquire new skills, according to the article’s authors. And the persistence of gender stereotyping in the workplace is “a genuine barrier” for the millions of women who need to change occupations in the face of automation, they write.

And while technology can open up new opportunities for women, fewer women than men are acquiring technical skills — women account for only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education, and fewer than 20 percent of women are tech workers in many developed economies, according to the article.

The way forward? Companies should expand the range of flexible or remote working options, the authors suggest — currently less than a quarter offer such arrangements. And although the percentage of companies offering training and skills development to their employees has more than doubled worldwide in the last five years, from 20 to 54 percent, more training is needed, they write. The male-dominated venture capital industry is ripe for change — in 2018, all-male founding teams received 85 percent of total venture capital investment in the United States, while all-women teams received just 2 percent, and gender-neutral teams just 13 percent, the authors point out.

Navigating the shifting future of work equitably is both a complex challenge and an opportunity for positive transformation — and one that will require some of the very skills that are projected to be the most highly in demand, including leadership, creativity, and collaboration. “To tap into [women’s] full potential,” the authors conclude, “companies, together with governments, need to enable women through concerted and creative solutions to equip them for the change that lies ahead.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

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