The future of women at work in the age of automation

New technologies and increasing automation mean the way we work is changing. As jobs evolve in the digital economy, there will be demand for new skillsets, and new opportunities for workers who are willing and able to embrace the change.

The automation sector is currently witnessing robust growth. While it is something which essentially began life on factory floors, as automotive companies aimed to improve manufacturing techniques, it has since evolved to influence multiple aspects of how we live and work.

With an opportunity set across both larger and smaller companies, robotics is increasingly being recognised as a viable investment and potentially superior growth area of the market. 

For example, the warehouse automation market is expected to grow at circa 10% per annum over the coming years[1].

In addition, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a new record of 384,000 units were shipped globally in 2018 – and the annual sales volume of industrial robots increased for the sixth time in a row[2]. While industry and investors have embraced the automation revolution, questions have been raised regarding its impact on gender equality and the future of women in the workplace.

A 2019 study by Oxford Economics and Cisco[3] predicts that technology will “deliver substantial productivity gains across all sectors of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] economies over the next decade, resulting in major benefits for businesses and prosperity for the region”.

However, it also said the majority of new jobs that will be created are likely to be in highly-skilled managerial and professional roles. That could have significance for the gender pay gap.

A shift towards higher-paid jobs

While the number of women in senior management positions is increasing, the proportion of senior roles held by women is still relatively low at just 29% globally, and 28% in both the Asia Pacific and ASEAN regions[4]. The World Economic Forum agrees that women are less likely to hold senior roles and less likely to gain expertise in emerging skills such as artificial intelligence (AI)[5].

A 2019 report from consultancy McKinsey also suggested that the adoption of automation technologies could drive a shift in labour demand towards higher-paid jobs, and that if women can retrain and transition to these new roles, “they could be looking at a future of more productive and more lucrative employment. However, if they cannot make the necessary transitions, many women could face an intensifying wage gap relative to men.”[6]

What’s more, they could end up leaving the workforce altogether. Therefore, if the digital revolution is creating more jobs at senior levels, and women will potentially lose out, what is the solution?

Overcoming the barriers to female advancement

The biggest barriers women experience in developing their careers are difficulty finding time to improve their skills alongside the core responsibilities of their job, and a lack of access to development opportunities at work.[7] This is something that companies can address, by ensuring equal access for men and women to development opportunities, providing mentoring and coaching, flexible working policies, and even going one step further to link senior management rewards to progress on gender balance targets.

The good news, McKinsey[8] says, is that the innovation that characterises the automation age can pave the way for more gender equality at work – working online can be more flexible, fitting around women who have young families, for instance.

Governments also have a key role to play in addressing gender balance and ensuring that women do not lose out from the evolving economy. For example, better provision of free or subsidised childcare and addressing stereotypes about certain careers and occupations, alongside supporting entrepreneurship and initiatives like encouraging more girls and women into science and technology both at school and at a career level.

In particular, the use of AI is creating the demand for a new range of skills, and Singapore has one of the smallest gender gaps in this field, with more women working in this field than average[9]. However, the proportion of women is still low, at only 28% while the remainder of professionals in the AI sector are male.

In Singapore, after consultation with the private sector the government has set out a series of Industry Transformation Maps to help businesses invest in innovation and at the same time, support workers to deepen capabilities and develop new skills[10].

Similarly, SkillsFuture Credit gives all Singaporeans aged 25 and above S$500 with periodic top-ups, to take ownership of their skills development and lifelong learning[11].

At the same time, the World Bank points out it is the private sector rather than governments that is driving the evolving economy, underlining the importance of stronger public-private collaborations globally in defining the skills needed.[12]

What’s clear is that while the digital revolution can bring a host of potential benefits, intervention by both policymakers and businesses is needed to ensure that women do not fall further behind in terms of gender equality in the automation age.

[1] BofA Merrill Lynch - Fancy forklifts, smart warehouses, July 2018

[2] International Federation of Robotics Outlook on World Robotics Report 2019

[3] Technology and the Future of ASEAN Jobs, Oxford Economics and Cisco, 2019

[4] Women in business report, Grant Thornton, February 2019

[5] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report, 2018

[6] The future of women at work: Transitions in the age of automation, McKinsey, June 2019

[7] Women in business report, Grant Thornton, February 2019

[8] The future of women at work: Transitions in the age of automation, McKinsey, June 2019

[9] World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report, 2018

[10] Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore

[11] SkillsFuture

[12] World Bank report: The Digital Economy in Southeast Asia, 2019