Without Workplace Reforms, Robots Could Replace More Women Than Men

A war of words has broken out among commentators over whether robots will create or destroy more American jobs. The more important question is: Whose job will be the most affected by the robot revolution? A growing body of evidence suggests automation will amplify the gender gap in employment by replacing jobs where women have traditionally thrived, with jobs that men have traditionally dominated. Addressing automation’s disproportionate impact on women requires rethinking our entire approach to training, employing and advancing female talent.

Well before the rise of the machines, the percentage of women participating in the U.S. labor force was declining, from almost 60 percent in 2000 to 56.7 percent by the end of 2015. A drop of 4.3 percent may sound slight, but it is too large to be explained by the number of female baby boomers retiring or the number of Generation Z females choosing to stay in college rather than enter the workforce.

The exact reason women are exiting the workforce is unclear, but researchers have not observed a similar male exodus. The employment rate for U.S. men in the prime 25-to-54 age bracket is about 14 percentage points higher than U.S. women in the same bracket, an alarmingly wide margin when compared with other advanced economies.

Women not only participate less in the workforce, those who do are concentrated in the sectors most likely to be impacted by automation. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, women comprised the large majority of employees in the retail and service sectors, where automation presents the most immediate threat, but are significantly underrepresented in industrial sectors like utilities and manufacturing, where automation has the potential to increase demand for new workers with technical skills. Moreover, across sectors women overwhelmingly fill low-wage positions requiring repetitive tasks and limited skill sets, the very jobs that are at the greatest risk of being displaced by automation.

The disparate impact of automation on women, however, depends more on the jobs robots create than the jobs they replace. Women suffer greater from automation not because robots can perform more of the jobs held by women, but because so few women are employed in the sectors most likely to benefit from automation. According to the World Economic Forum, current predictions are that men will lose more than 4 million jobs to automation across all sectors, but will gain over 1.4 million jobs, particularly in architecture, engineering, computer science and mathematics. In absolute terms, men will gain approximately one job for every three jobs they lose to automation.

Women will not fare so well. If current predictions hold, women will lose only 3 million jobs to automation across all industries. But, women’s job gains are also expected to be smaller: only 550,000 new jobs, including fewer than 100,000 in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors, where jobs created by automation are concentrated. Women, therefore, will gain, approximately one job for every five jobs lost to automation.

The comparison is striking. Because women are underrepresented in the sectors where automation is likely to generate demand for skilled human workers, women will lose jobs to automation at almost twice the rate of men.

Despite dozens of programs launched over the last few years to encourage more women to pursue degrees in the STEM fields, only one in four women who graduate with a degree in a STEM subject is currently employed in one of the STEM sectors. The reason for the gap is unclear, but the cultural factors that influence how girls view themselves as students in the STEM subjects may be influencing how women assess themselves as skilled STEM professionals. Researchers, for example, have found that girls judge their mathematical abilities lower than boys with similar achievements.

Once in the workforce, women with STEM skills may find it particularly challenging to think of themselves as leaders in a profession that is dominated by male culture. Gender bias from childhood, combined with an absence of female peer networks, cause many women with STEM training to feel less confident in their skills and less likely to apply for STEM jobs than their male counterparts, despite being equally or better qualified.

Counteracting the deeply engrained factors behind the gender employment gap will not be easy. There is no silver bullet to gender parity. Men and women, employers and employees, job seekers and human capital leaders must first recognize the problem, and then think creatively about how to use their specific professional capacities to address it.

Human capital leaders can actively promote diverse workforces and implement structured programs designed to appeal to female candidates. Employers can initiate leadership development programs for women, advance more women to leadership positions and offer equal pay to the women who take leadership roles.

For their part, women need to start betting on themselves as professionals, realizing and affirming that the greatest value they bring to an employer is a commitment to learn the required skills diligently and to contribute a different viewpoint to a sector gravely in need of diversity.

Robots are merely tools; they are not the enemy. Human beings ultimately determine how automation will impact the workforce. We can use these genderless machines to magnify the employment differences between men and women, or we can use them as the impetus for confronting some of our most entrenched gender issues. The choice is ours.


Rebecca Henderson is CEO of Randstad Sourceright, one of the world’s leading human resources providers.

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