Economic trends

Women’s jobs at risk from tech disruption

Men stand to gain one job for every three jobs lost, while women will gain one for every five

Dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, technology disruption could be a key growth driver for economies over the coming years. But for women, advances in technology also pose a threat, as many of their jobs could be displaced.

A perfect storm of technological trends, from mobile internet and cloud technology to ‘big data’ and the ‘internet of things’, means that, as new work trends evolve, existing gender inequalities could worsen further.

Disruptive technologies will cost 5.1 million jobs net by 2020 in fifteen of the world’s largest economies

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) The Future of Jobs report finds that the ones most at risk are those that can be automated easily. This include roles with the largest share of female employees – office and administrative jobs – as well as jobs with the highest gender imbalances – architecture, engineering, computer science, maths, and manufacturing.

According to the report, disruptive technologies, including robots and artificial intelligence, will cost 5.1 million jobs net by 2020 in fifteen of the world’s largest economies. These countries – including China, India, Japan, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, the US and Brazil – account for 65 per cent of the global workforce.

The weight of the job losses falls almost equally on women (48 per cent) and men (52 per cent). But as women make up a smaller share of overall jobs – on average, 54 per cent of women work, compared with 81 per cent of men – the impact will be greater on them.

WEF’s analysis shows that in absolute terms, men stand to gain one job for every three jobs lost to technology advances, while women are expected to gain one job for every five or more jobs lost.

STEM to the rescue?

Some of the job losses could be partially offset by emerging roles in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But currently, these roles are very male-dominated. Women are expected to gain only one new STEM job per 20 jobs lost from technological disruption, while men are set to gain nearly one new STEM job for every four jobs lost.

Worryingly, there has been a slowdown globally in closing the gender gap in recent years. As women are under-represented in the fast-growing STEM jobs, based on current trends, this suggests a worsening gender gap over time. Expanding access to secondary and higher education with an emphasis on STEM will be critical if we are to see improvements in the quality of work for women.

There is also a need to address sectoral and occupational segregation, and the gender wage gap. We also need to make critical changes to workplace policies and procedures while improving access to finance through subsidies and grants to ensure that women do not lose out on the transition to digital jobs. Below are policy suggestions for achieving this.

Tackling the root causes and sectoral and occupational segregation
• Encouraging young girls and boys to break gender stereotypes through education and outreach
• Offering training to women and men to enter into non-stereotypical fields
• Promoting women’s entrepreneurship
• Supporting women’s participation and leadership in decision-making, including governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations

Addressing the gender wage gap
• Eliminating unequal treatment of men and women in the labour market
• Promoting equal pay for work of equal value through wage transparency, training and gender neutral
• Supporting adequate and inclusive minimum wages and strengthening collective bargaining
• Promoting and normalising good quality part-time work
• Limiting long paid hours and overwork
• Transforming institutions to prevent and eliminate discrimination
• Changing attitudes towards unpaid care work

Implementing a framework to achieve the harmonisation of work and family responsibilities
• Providing maternity protection to all women according to international labour standards
• Guaranteeing adequate social protection to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work
• Implementing gender-transformative leave policies: increasing leave entitlements for fathers and boosting their take-up rates
• Making quality early childhood care and education a universal right
• Promoting family-friendly flexible working arrangements
• Encouraging individual income taxation to increase women’s labour force participation

Huge rewards for getting it right

Few would disagree that technology advancement has its benefits. Its transformative power means a future with new opportunities and limitless possibilities. However, women stand to lose as they are less likely than men to be working in areas where the adoption of technology will create jobs.

For the sake of future global growth, it’s vital to give women access to the skills and qualifications in areas where jobs will be created. The World Bank estimates that closing the gender gap could add an additional USD1.2 trillion to US GDP and USD2.5 trillion to China’s GDP by 2020. The rewards of getting it right could be huge.


A version of this article first appeared on the World Bank’s blog on 12 December 2016.
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