Workplace automation will hit women harder than men

Women hold a disproportionate number of jobs that require repetitive or clerical tasks, which puts them at greater risk of being replaced with machines.
Women hold a disproportionate number of jobs that require repetitive or clerical tasks, which puts them at greater risk of being replaced with machines.
Image: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

Today, unlike in the past, workers can attend meetings from anywhere, or control complex production processes with the push of a button. Technology has dramatically altered what it means for many people to work. But technological advancement also comes with a price: The many people whose livelihoods will be disrupted or destroyed by automation.

In the US alone, approximately 25% of occupations, or 36 million jobs, are at “high risk” of being replaced by machines, according to the Brookings Institution. And female workers, research suggests, will be hit the hardest by automation. Fewer women in the workplace will hinder efforts, and those of other advocates, to make companies better places to work for future generations. What’s more, failing to address the automation risk gap also jeopardizes the progress of previous policies for gender parity.

Who is at risk?

Automation has already begun. A 2018 report by PwC found that the first algorithm wave of automation is underway—workers that perform simple computational tasks, like cashiers and financial clerks, are already being replaced en masse with self-checkout kiosks and data processing software.

But the bigger impacts of automation are still to come. In the next decade or so, workers who perform repeatable tasks and statistical analyses, such as warehouse packagers and data scientists, will be replaced by machines. A wave of machines that can make decisions, like driverless cars, will replace gig economy workers the decade after that. Changes in the first two stages of automation, happening now and in the next 10 years, will impact women more than men, PwC concluded.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions. In March this year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) also published a comprehensive study on how automation will affect US workers based on gender, and found that women make up 58% of workers at the highest risk of automation. Last week (Mar. 25), the UK’s Office for National Statistics also released a report concluding that women held 70% of the 1.5 million jobs at high risk of automation in the country. A report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) highlighted that this disparity is an issue around the world: On average across 30 countries, 11% of the female labor force is at risk of losing jobs to automation, while only 9% of the male labor force is at risk.

“This is primarily because women work in those occupations and sectors that are at high risk…there are more women doing low-scale blue-collar jobs and there are fewer women who are in senior level positions,” Era Dabla-Norris, division chief in the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, told Quartz. For instance, women make up much of the retail sector—they assemble products in factories, stock shelves in stores, and ring up customer purchases. They also hold a disproportionate number of jobs that involve more routine tasks like clerical and secretarial work. Self-checkout stations, packaging robots, fintech that streamlines repetitive duties, are already encroaching on these jobs.

Women are at higher risk in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia where textile and garment production, or business process outsourcing (think telemarketing and customer support), make up a large part of the economy, according to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Women of color and with limited education are also most likely to lose their jobs to automation. This risk can also increase in the absence of substantial family-friendly policies, Dabla-Norris said.

What to do about it

Governments and companies can do a lot to support female workers who are displaced by automation, or to prevent more women from losing work in the first place.

First, women need the hard and soft skills needed for higher-tier, less clerical jobs, which will make them more valuable workers and less vulnerable to automation.“It’s not just about getting an education, it’s about having the right kind,” Dabla-Norris said.

As the second and third waves of automation start to affect labor markets, scientific and technology skills will become increasingly important. And so far, women are still at a disadvantage. A 2018 report by Boston Consulting Group found that while women make up 25% of STEM workers, they only account for 9% of leaders in those fields. Investing in women’s STEM education could increase the number of women in scientific fields and better prepare them for employment opportunities.

Catherine Ashcraft, director of research at the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) at the University of Colorado Boulder, suggested a few ways to nurture the female talent pipeline: early exposure to computing and technology, and training teachers to support girls who want to enter STEM careers. Teachers should speak to female students and their parents about computing careers, educate all students about gender stereotype and biases in the tech world, and develop tech-specific mentoring programs throughout every grade level.

Getting girls into tech early helps ensure that women will rise to levels that help determine the future of technology. “We know from a wealth of research that diverse teams produce better results,” Ashcraft said. “So it stands to reason that a diverse team will build better robots that address a wider range of concerns and do so in a more thoughtful way.”

Employers can do more to hire and promote qualified women, Ashcraft said. Companies should start “analyzing job ads and recruiting/interviewing practices for bias, developing more equitable and accurate performance evaluation systems, teaching managers to think intentionally about task assignment and who they mentor or sponsor,” she suggested. Dabla-Norris said company policies must also help retain women in high-skilled occupations after they have kids. This includes adequate family leave policies, the ability to work remotely, and flexible work hours if necessary.

Governments can also implement policies that help women move up through the corporate world. In countries at highest risk of automation, it’s an economic imperative, in fact. “Helping women to realize their full potential is not just a business or social imperative, it will also affect the economic competitiveness of nations,” Dilys Boey, Ernst & Young ASEAN people advisory services leader, said in an email.

Governments also can set promotion quotas, like in Norway and other European countries. And in the event that women are replaced by machines, governments can pass laws that offer social protection systems. For example, in Singapore and France, individual training accounts help workers save up for re-training and development programs. In Singapore, these accounts are funded by the government, while in France, businesses fund the benefit with a 1% tax on payrolls. As more workers move into the gig economy, social protection systems—like basic income guarantees—help ease the financial burden of transitions between life phases, such as parenthood and retirement.

These practices can help workplaces be more equitable in general, not just in industries at risk of automation. “It’s not just about insuring [women] from the risk of being automated, it’s ensuring they can compete and can participate in the new economy,” Dabla-Norris said.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here