For nearly 30 years, women’s share of the global labor force has been stuck stubbornly around the 39% mark; progress toward gender equality in work is glacial. Now a new game-changer has arrived in the form of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Could these technologies be part of the breakthrough working women need, vaulting them into new opportunities and narrowing the gender gap in work? Or will these technologies leave women even further behind?
Recent research at the McKinsey Global Institute finds that automation is likely to displace men and women more or less equally over the next decade. But, as a result of that displacement, women will need to make far more significant transitions compared to men and may find it more difficult to capture new opportunities because of the persistent barriers they face.
They studied ten countries, six mature economies and four emerging economies. They found that if automation proceeds on a similar scale to major technological disruptions of the past—such as the shift from agricultural production into industry—20% of women employed today could see their job displaced by automation by 2030, compared with 21% of men.
Even as jobs are lost in some occupations and sectors, there will be new jobs created in others, reflecting rising demand and incomes, and higher productivity associated with the use of automation and AI. They estimate that 20% more women could be employed by 2030 than are today—versus 19% more men—so long as women are able to maintain their current representation within each sector and occupation. That last assumption may not hold up – in fact we hope that women can do better than maintain their current position. Today, occupations and sectors are sharply divided along gender lines; women are less likely to pursue careers in engineering, and men are reluctant to be nurses because of gender stereotyping, for instance. While progress toward equal gender representation across professions would be welcome, by assuming the current divisions we are able to examine how job displacement could differ by gender.
To estimate the potential for automation to displace jobs, they looked at the technical feasibility of automation technologies, and the likelihood of their adoption. We also examined potential jobs created as the result of rising incomes, consumption and investment, partly fueled by productivity growth enabled by technological progress. They then applied a gender lens to identify the differential impact of these trends on men and women.
They estimate that more than half of women’s jobs displaced (52%) could be in services and clerical jobs, while around 40% of men’s jobs displaced could be in machine operation and craft work. Women and men are positioned to benefit from job growth opportunities in different sectors. Healthcare is growing rapidly around the world as the global population ages and is fertile ground for women; this sector alone could account for one-quarter of women’s jobs demanded. For men, perhaps surprisingly, manufacturing may still account for 25% of new employment. This is because automation may be relatively slow to affect emerging economies like India where manufacturing wages are still low relative to the cost of machine labor.
For men and women alike, automation and AI will bring opportunities, but only if they can navigate their way through a period of seismic change. They find that, around the world, between 40 million and 160 million women—as many as one in four women employed today—may need to transition between occupations depending on the pace of automation, and often into higher-skilled roles, in order to remain employed and seize new job opportunities. While this is similar in scale to the number of transitions men need to make, the issue for women is that the new challenges of automation are overlaid on old barriers in work that have held back progress toward labor-market gender equality.
Women may also be at a disadvantage compared to men when we consider new types of jobs, as the result of the new wave of technologies. Consider jobs such as social media managers, data scientists, and drivers on ride sharing apps that did not exist 20 years ago but have emerged as the result of the digital revolution. Evidence from the United States shows that in recent years more than 60% of newly created occupations have been in male-dominated fields.
In the age of automation, men and women need more than ever to have the right skills, to be mobile and adaptable, and to be tech-savvy. Due to the barriers they face, women lag behind men on all three.
Skills are key to unlocking opportunities for working women. In five of the six mature economies studied, we expect net demand for labor to be positive only for jobs requiring a college or advanced degree. According to the World Economic Forum, in Western Europe, on average 79.8% of women hold a tertiary qualification, compared with 66.7% of men. However, there is some concern that women are not graduating in fields where skills will be in high demand. Official statistics in the United Kingdom, for instance, show that only 37% of first-year full-time female students studied science subjects, compared with 48% of men. In emerging economies, many women work in subsistence agriculture—in India, more than 60% of employed women—and have little education and narrow skills; they will find it hard to find employment elsewhere without a step up in both. In three of the four emerging economies studied, net labor demand for occupations requiring secondary education could rise strongly.
To address these needs, schools, colleges, governments, and the private sector need to encourage girls and women to study and pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields; often they need to work in partnership. Once in work, women (and men) need constantly to refresh their skills, and here their employers need to do more. One study found that in 2018, 54% of employers were providing additional training and development opportunities to their existing workforce in order to fill skills gaps, compared with only 20% in 2014, but that share needs to rise. Public and private investment in digital learning platforms would open up another avenue for women. Governments can weigh in by providing women with subsidies for undertaking training.
Women may find it harder to switch occupations than men. They are often less mobile than men because, more than men, they have to juggle work and family, which may limit the time they have to reskill and could also impact how far they can travel for employment. Technology can give them new flexibility—working from home, engaging in e-commerce instead of bricks-and-mortar businesses, for instance—but companies still need to expand the range of flexible working options. One 2018 survey of employers found that only 23% of employers were offering flexible or remote working options. Women also tend to have smaller networks than men, which could impact their ability to become aware of, and capitalize on, new employment opportunities. Given the need for millions of women to change occupations in the face of automation, today’s highly gendered labor market—and the gender stereotyping of occupations behind it—is a genuine barrier. One recent U.S. study showed that women’s sectoral and occupational choices accounted for more than 50% of the gender pay gap. Consider two occupations where employment is likely to expand: computer science and nursing. In the U.S., women’s share of workers in computer science rose to 40% in the 1980s and 1990s but has subsequently fallen to only around 25%; gender stereotyping and a lack of female mentors in the sector have played a role. The share of male nurses in the United States has risen from around 3% in 1970 to around 11% in 2000, but then increased by only another percentage point by 2018; again, men cite stereotypes that put them off pursuing careers in this profession. Unless such barriers are addressed, it will be hard for women – and men – to cross gender lines into different occupations.
Technology can break down many of the barriers facing women, opening up new economic opportunities, helping them to participate in the workforce, and, in the automation age, enabling the navigation of transitions. For example, women are now employed independently in what is popularly known as the gig economy, taking advantage of technology that enables new and more flexible ways of working. However, women lag behind in access to tech, the skills to use it, and participating in its creation. Globally, men are 33% more likely than women to have access to the internet, and women only account for 35% of STEM students in higher education. Fewer than 20% of tech workers are female in many mature economies. Only 1.4% of female workers have jobs developing, maintaining, or operating information and computer technology (ICT) systems, compared with 5.5% of male workers, according to the OECD. Again, companies have a role to play, for instance partnering with nonprofits and colleges to develop a broader pipeline of women going into tech fields and offering internships. The venture capital industry needs to shift if potential women entrepreneurs—including tech entrepreneurs—are to access the capital they need. Consider that, in 2018, all-male founding teams received 85% of total venture capital investment in the United States, while all-women teams received just 2%, and gender-neutral teams just 13%.
The automation age offers new opportunities for economic advancement for women, but they face new challenges overlaid on long-established ones. To tap into their full potential, companies, together with governments, need to enable women through concerted and creative solutions to equip them for the change that lies ahead.