Automation Could Either Boost or Displace Working Women

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin July 2, 2019
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​New technology could disrupt work life for tens of millions of women globally over the next decade, creating both the possibility of greater opportunity and pay and the risk of bigger wage gaps and job loss, a new McKinsey Global Institute report suggests.

While men face comparable occupational disruption, workplace gender inequality could worsen for women who don't navigate the necessary technology transitions, according to the researchers, who also cited differences in the types of jobs men and women stand to potentially lose and gain.

"In the automation age, women face new challenges overlaid on long-established ones," they wrote in the report The Future of Women at Work: Transitions in the Age of Automation, which focuses on 10 countries.

More than 300 million jobs could be added to the labor market across those 10 countries by 2030, mostly in emerging economies, according to the report.

By that year, however, anywhere from 40 million to 160 million women worldwide—7 percent to 24 percent of those currently employed—"may need to transition between occupations" into more skilled positions, and millions may potentially be displaced from their current jobs, the report said.

"If they make these transitions, women could find more-productive, better-paid work; if they don't, they could face a growing wage gap or leaving the labor market," the report authors wrote.

Similar percentages of men may also need to shift into new occupations because of automation, although differences in the fields to which men and women gravitate will likely lead to different types of changes, the report said.

"One of the most surprising outcomes was just how gendered the workforce is—and this is true across countries, whether emerging or developed," said study co-author Mekala Krishnan, a senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute.

"We were also surprised to see that men and women could be impacted by automation at nearly similar magnitudes. We typically think of automation replacing factory workers, which in most countries are roles dominated by men," she said. "However, work where women tend to be heavily concentrated, such as clerical support or sales work, is also highly 'automatable' in this new age of automation. While the rate at which jobs could be displaced for men and women are roughly the same, the patterns of this look quite different."

Challenges in Finding Time to Upskill

Men and women alike need to be "skilled, mobile and tech-savvy in the automation age, but women face pervasive barriers" that call for concerted and creative solutions to help them advance, the report said.

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To transition into more-productive, better-paid work and potentially expand their place in the workforce, women will need new skills and more education, the ability to easily switch jobs, and access to in-demand technological abilities that enable new ways to work and provide new economic opportunities, according to McKinsey.

This could prove difficult for many women, however, because women face persistent challenges in these areas that already have slowed their progress toward gender equality in work.

Greater investment in training and transitional support, child care, and safe and affordable transportation should be high priorities, as should supporting women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and entrepreneurship, among other initiatives, the authors suggested.

In the 10 countries studied, 20 percent of working women and 21 percent of working men on average could lose their jobs to automation, while rising labor demand suggests a 20 percent increase in jobs for women—171 million positions gained before counting displaced jobs—and 19 percent more, or 250 million jobs, gained for men.

Technological advances also will create wholly new occupations, although approximately 60 percent of new U.S. occupations have appeared in male-dominated fields, McKinsey reported.

Service and clerical-support jobs could account for more than half of women's job losses, while machine operation and craft-work occupations may represent 40 percent of men's job losses.

Women and men "need to better understand where the job opportunities of the future will be and what skills they require," Krishnan said.

"Our research suggests, for example, that job demand is likely to grow in sectors and occupations requiring higher education levels. Jobs will also require more technological skills; socio-emotional skills, like interpersonal skills; and what we call higher cognitive skills—for example, the ability to problem-solve and think critically," she said.

Not every woman will need to become a coder, she added, "but many will need to become increasingly comfortable with interacting with technology—even those whose jobs won't be entirely displaced by automation."

Employers and other institutions can do much to support women who are seeking to acquire new skills and level the playing field, she said, noting that women often face the double burden of balancing responsibilities in the workplace and the home, which can make finding enough time to engage in reskilling programs difficult.

The report also noted that women are less mobile due to physical safety concerns, infrastructure and legal challenges, and they have less access to digital technology and participation in STEM fields than men.

"To transition to the jobs of the future, workers need to be skilled, mobile and tech-savvy," Krishnan said. "However, women face challenges on all three fronts. The analogy we like to make is that women and men are running the same race toward the job opportunities of the future; however, women are doing so with a weight around their ankles."

An Institute for Women's Policy Research study released in March found that while women constitute 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they make up 58 percent of workers in jobs considered at high risk of becoming obsolete because of automation.

Don't Forget People Skills

To keep pace with technological change, workers must continue to learn new skills and develop good people skills, suggested Jocelyn DeGance Graham, founder of CloudNOW.org, or Cloud Network of Women, a nonprofit executive forum dedicated to making tech more welcoming for women and minorities.

"Many of the jobs that will be available in the next 10 years don't yet exist," Graham said. "That, coupled with the fact that traditional career paths are long gone, means that each individual will need to shift their attitude toward one of lifetime learning, training and acquiring new skills. This includes both technical and soft skills."

Workers will need to understand their industries and look ahead to future automation and job requirements, Graham said. "But perhaps the best way to future-proof your skills for the fourth Industrial Revolution is by developing capacities that go beyond the reach of AI and robots—empathy, compassion and persuasion. Emotional intelligence, at least for now, remains beyond the capacity of artificial intelligence."

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.

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