International Women’s Day 2020: What does the future of work look like for women?

Blog posts

6 Mar 2020

Beth Mason

Beth Mason, Research Officer

The number of women in employment continues to rise. The most recent estimate suggests 72 per cent of women aged 16-64 years in the UK are now working, compared to 81 per cent of men (ONS, 2020). But, as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, advances in technology will impact women’s employment.

Transport, healthcare, manufacturing, retail and human resource management are just some of the sectors where automation is set to transform the way of work and boost productivity. It is important to consider what both employers and individuals need to do to adopt new technologies, respond to a change in labour demand, and thrive in the age of automation.

The estimated impact of automation varies, but what is clear is that as technology advances, jobs will be lost, changed, and created. Some jobs will be replaced entirely by machines. This will force a large proportion of individuals to transition into new occupations. Partial automation will mean that in various roles technology will be introduced alongside the current workforce.

To use these new technologies effectively workers may require further training, but the hope is that they will be free to spend more time deploying their technical, social and emotional skills. More opportunities should become available for workers within technology and digital fields, but some models also predict that as a result of increased productivity, economic growth will drive a rise in consumption and investment that will lead to a demand for workers in other areas such as retail, healthcare, and construction (MGI, 2019).

Occupational segregation means that the impact of automation will differ between genders. Roles most at risk of complete automation are those involving routine physical tasks such as machine operatives and craft workers, which are largely filled by men, and roles involving routine cognitive tasks, such as clerical or service work, that are predominantly filled by women.

Worldwide, it was estimated that between 7-24 per cent of women currently in employment may need to transition across occupations by 2030. In the UK it was estimated that 70 per cent of roles at high risk of automation were held by women (those where probability of automation is greater than 70 per cent; ONS, 2019). One model also suggested women will be more vulnerable in the early and late 2020’s compared to mid-2030’s, where the impact will hit men harder, due to the different stages of development and implementation (PWC, 2018).

The changes will begin with replacing simple computational tasks and analysis, then clerical support and decision making, and later the automation of physical jobs, problem-solving, and tasks requiring responsive actions. New roles involved in deployment of next-generation technology will be highly-skilled and highly paid, and will mainly be in categories currently dominated by men.

Employers in these fields need to harness the skills of the transitioning female workforce, and consider how their recruitment practices will attract this population, and tackle embedded biases to successfully on-board them. Women may also be well positioned to benefit from jobs created as a result of the automation-driven economic growth within sectors where women are well-represented, such as healthcare (21 per cent of all jobs held by women in UK), and retail (14 per cent; MGI, 2019; Powell, 2019).

As well as women adjusting to job losses and searching for new opportunities, many will face changes to their ways of working as technology is introduced to the workplace. Partial automation is expected to affect women more than men due to the types of occupations they work in (MGI, 2019). These changes will also particularly affect highly educated women whose skills will be needed to compliment automated systems, although new skills will also be required, such as programming and general technical know-how, for this new partnership to be successful (PWC, 2018). In sectors such as healthcare and education, automated systems could take over components of roles such as record keeping, testing, and grading exams. But aspects of these roles such as patient relations and providing advice and encouragement to students will remain in the hands of the employee.

The increase in reliable automated systems may also benefit some women as remote, flexible, and independent working opportunities will become more common. This kind of technology also makes platform and freelance work more accessible, which increases opportunities for women who might be limited by time or geography as they try to balance work and family commitments.

For example, in healthcare, telemedicine enables practitioners to provide consultations remotely. In education, online and distance learning courses enable teachers to work from home and access international students. Although technology may increase women’s opportunities to work through these modes, this type of work is characteristically precarious because of poor pay, insecurity, and reduced social protection rights.

For women who successfully navigate this new age, automation has the potential to offer them new opportunities, and more productive, better paid work; but if they fall behind they may become disillusioned with the new ways of working, suffer a greater pay gap as they slip into lower quality work, or face leaving the workforce altogether. To secure positive outcomes women may need to gain skills or qualifications to transition into new roles, and have knowledge and access to technology to enable them to be prepared to work together with automated systems.

Issues such as representation and unpaid care work threaten women’s prospects of achievement. Women are less well represented in STEM fields, and their opportunities to access new technologies are often limited. Women make up approximately 35 per cent of students in higher education STEM subjects, and only 22 per cent of the STEM sector workforce (Women in STEM, 2019). Better representation, greater transparency of the future skills needs, and tailored guidance will motivate more women to enter the field and improve their understanding.

As well as a shift in organisational culture that does not presume that to be a woman means to be uninterested or unable to engage with technology. For social, biological, and economic reasons, women continue to carry out the majority of unpaid care work in the home. This reduces the amount of time and money they can spend developing their skills and careers. Employers need to focus on providing more opportunities for women to gain exposure and training in technology that take into account these constraints.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.