How the job market is about to get even tougher for women

Science lacks women.
Science lacks women.
Image: AP Photo/Jessica Hill
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Gender gaps are closing, slowly. But future industrial trends may see them blasted wide open again.

A new report—The Future of Jobs (pdf)—released today by the World Economic Forum has found more than one way in which women could stand to lose out, despite the efforts being made to improve everything from wage gaps to the inclusion of women on corporate boards and at senior management level.

First, there’s a latent boom in job sectors that are, historically, the worst at employing women. Equality initiatives have been trying hard to get more women into so-called STEM careers—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—for years, and it’s been working, albeit slowly.

But the new data suggests efforts will have to be redoubled. The job groups expecting the highest global employment growth, like architecture, engineering, and computer and math jobs, have some of the lowest female participation and find it much harder than average to recruit women. Just 11% of  jobs worldwide in architecture and engineering are done by women, according to the WEF, and only 23% of jobs in computing and mathematics.

Those sectors are increasing fastest, and if the ratios remain the same will leave women behind. As things stand, “women stand to gain only one new STEM job for every 20 lost across other job families, whereas the ratio for men is one new job for every four lost elsewhere,” WEF said in a release.

This is bad enough, but there’s another blow. While more jobs are being created in STEM areas, automation and what the WEF calls the “age of cyber-physical systems” is eroding others.

Automation was once heralded as freeing women from drudgery, and has certainly done so in many areas, like work in the home. But the WEF’s report notes that the coming job losses resulting from automation will hit women harder than men by making obsolete jobs—such as many office functions—which they currently do. More “men’s” jobs overall will be lost than those done by women, but because women make up a smaller share of the workforce “mean that today’s economic gender gap may widen even further than the current 40%,” they said.

The news could be bad not only for women, but for industries struggling to find and hire the right people. Quartz asked Saadia Zahidi, head of gender parity at the WEF, whether the industries in question recognized the problem.

“We’re seeing almost two views coming out of the data,” Zahidi said. “There’s the set of companies that completely recognize the business case, and in fact the business case is more pronounced in the more technical industries,” given that more women, globally, are becoming more highly educated than men. Industries like computing “are creating jobs faster than they can fill them” and not finding people with the skills they need, she said.

But Zahidi added there’s also a “solid camp” of companies that believe fairness and equality is the main reason for making things more equal. By far, the largest number of respondents—42% of all the high-level recruitment and strategy officers in the 100 largest global recruiters in each industry, which the WEF aimed to capture in its survey—said the reason for recruiting more women was “fairness and equality”.

In information and communication technology, 63% cited fairness. Expanding the talent pool was given as a reason by just 23% of those companies, and precisely no one in that industry cited “financial returns” as a reason for hiring more women.

Perhaps an urge towards equality—even a strong one—will always be less compelling than companies’ bottom line.