Updated: Oct 30, 2019
Impending automation conjures up images of empty factory floors where men have been replaced by robots. But don’t forget the increasingly digital back office. Where will female data-entry clerks and book-keepers go? The same thing is happening in the retail sector where automation and online shopping threatens the jobs of so many female shop assistants. New McKinsey Global Institute research finds that 20 per cent of employed women and 21 per cent of men in six mature and four emerging economies could be displaced by 2030. At the same time, 20 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men could gain employment as technology drives productivity gains and income growth that leads to rising demand. In short, the impact of automation is broadly similar for men and women. There will be huge disruption. As many as one in four women and men around the world may need to move to new jobs. But the women running the race to adapt do so with a weight tied around their ankles — the longstanding barriers they face in work. There are three prerequisites for adapting: skills the labour market wants; the mobility to change occupations if necessary; and the ability to work with automated systems. Women are not well placed here. Imagine a retail assistant faced with losing her job. She didn’t study science, technology, engineering or maths at school — about 65 per cent of Stem students in higher education are men. She is unlikely to have a degree, yet in mature economies, that is where the demand is. She has no time to retrain because she does most of the household chores and childcare. Globally, women provide more than three-quarters of unpaid care. Her husband already commutes a long way. If she does the same, who will look after the children? These are difficult issues — and many women in emerging economies have it even harder because so many work in subsistence agriculture with little education and few transferable skills. Girls should be encouraged to study Stem subjects and develop coding skills. Not everyone needs to be a programmer, but good jobs will increasingly mean working with technology. Workers will need basic tech skills. Companies should invest more in training that is easily accessible, especially to women who may be less able to travel to courses. At Disney, the Code: Rosie initiative recruits and trains women in non-technical positions for software engineering roles that are in high demand through intensive classes, a 12-month apprenticeship and a mentorship programme. Governments can subsidise such efforts. More companies should provide flexible work options for women juggling work and family. A 2018 global survey by Manpower Group found that just 23 per cent of employers offered flexible or remote working options. Investment in online learning could also help to overcome women’s mobility constraints. And more work needs to be done to combat stereotyping about male and female occupations that could make transitions more difficult. The IZA Institute of Labor Economics recently found that women’s sectoral and occupational choices accounted for more than 50 per cent of the US gender pay gap. Effective action on these issues could put women on a path to more-productive, higher-paid work. MGI estimates that by 2030, 44 per cent of women in mature economies could be employed in the two highest-paid occupational categories, up from 39 per cent in 2017. Failure to act could leave women stuck in low-wage, low-skill jobs that will be less in demand. This could push many women out of the labour market in countries with high-cost childcare. Progress toward gender equality, already slow, could stall or even reverse. Companies would be less diverse and, according to McKinsey research, therefore less profitable. We need to act now to give them a fighting chance of meeting the challenge of automation. The writer is managing partner of McKinsey & Company’s UK and Ireland office.