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Will Automation Widen the Gender Disparity?


Gone are the days when automation was planned in a hush-hush fashion and implemented through a more than subtle approach. Today, enterprises shout from the roof-tops about automation, big data and artificial intelligence (AI) though when it comes to social impact these innovations are often perceived as butchers that decimate jobs.

However, this is not what is holding the attention in the job market as well as in this innovation space at the moment. The new debate centres around the possibility of automation widening the already existing gender gap in the technology industry. Of course, there are pros and cons to this debate but let us start by looking at some data.

Mulling Over Facts & Figures

A report published by McKinsey’s titled “Future of Women at Work: Transitions in the Age of Automation”, suggests that while technology adoption will displace millions from their jobs, many others will have to change the way they work. Globally, 40  to 160 million women may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher-skilled roles.

If they make these transitions, women could become more productive and get paid better; if they don’t, they could face a growing wage gap that could eventually result in their leaving the labour market. Men and women need to be skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy in the automation age, but women face pervasive barriers, the study says.

However, there is another perspective that different waves of automation could impact the genders differently. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) says that while the first two waves are expected to impact women more, putting potentially 23% of jobs at risk, the third wave will affect men more severely.

So, by the mid-2030s as the autonomy wave is well under way, 34% of male jobs are at risk of automation, versus 26% for women. The differences are even more surprising among younger people. For men under the age of 25, there is a greater rate of potential automation of their jobs (46%) compared with that for young women (26%).

Othering of “Vulnerability”

While the numbers do not prove one thing or the other conclusively, there is a notion that men would be more vulnerable to automation. This assumption rides on the fact that men dominate the technology sector and would end up facing the heat first. Does this mean that the gender gap would widen in technology or in fact narrow it down?

Be that as it may, there is a need to first acknowledge that automation isn’t going to confine itself to technology-led industries. AI and robotics will be pervading other industries as well, be it food preparation, back office operations, front office, and customer servicing to name a few. In some of these segments, women have a decisive edge over men.

Now cut to the managerial positions and leadership roles, there is no doubt that the number of women get outnumbered by men. Since these areas require human intervention, the chances of automation affecting either genders appears remote. At least, for the moment.

What does it mean?

Does it mean that women would get side-lined more than men when automation strikes? One cannot say so conclusively. In terms of ratio, women may not get impacted as much as men due to their lower presence in some industries while in others the reverse may be true. However, the fact remains that adaptability and re-skilling could be the panacea for job retention for both genders.

Looks like the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest would once again hold good in this scenario. Be it the woman or the man, both would have to sharpen their skills and add a few more if they are to stay relevant as automation comes calling.

While technology may not kill jobs, there is every chance the fear of losing jobs may end up curtailing innovation. And this is what enterprises should be concerned about in the first place.

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