Automation's Impact on Gender Equality


Earlier this year, I was among a group of two dozen American delegates selected by United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) to represent the 61st Commission on the Status of Women (CSW61) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from March 13-24, 2017.  The key theme of CSW61 was “Women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.” Each day saw a selection of events and activities to engage delegates with the Commission’s work: shaping global standards of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Attendees included Representatives of Member States, UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all regions of the world.

When reflecting on the usefulness of CSW61, the March 23rd session has particularly stayed with me as one that was insightful and telling. The session focused on overcoming gender barriers that are embedded in discriminatory laws and policies. It highlighted the importance of closing the gender gap - specifically within the rapidly transforming world of work - so that women can benefit from the opportunities that emerging technology has the potential to provide.

Without addressing barriers to economic opportunities, any overall benefit from automation will come with diminishing returns for women.

With the rapid growth of technology within the workplace, there are now new sets of obstacles which put women’s economic empowerment at risk. Work activities are increasingly becoming automated through machines and software, and research has shown that women will be disproportionately affected by such automation, which could lead to their displacement. In order for women’s economic empowerment to be realised, societies must look ahead to the future and implement smart economics - economics which guarantee workplace protections for women and the potential for career advancement - to ensure that no one is left behind. Without addressing barriers to economic opportunities, any overall benefit from automation will come with diminishing returns for women. Furthermore, foreign policy practices that ignores the importance of gender equality to economic stability is at best risky and at worst disastrous.

As of March 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers analysts have forecasted that “by the early 2030s, 38% of US jobs are at a high risk of automation.” A recent report by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis estimates that “twice as many women than men are likely to lose their jobs as automation replaces human labor.” It is also clear that some sectors will be more vulnerable to the concentration of automated jobs than others. For example, as noted by a World Economic Forum report, “two-thirds of the expected 7.1 million job losses over the next five years will occur in office and administration areas” - roles which are predominantly occupied by women.

Some job sectors make an active effort to relegate certain higher level and executive positions to women. Still, women predominantly remain excluded from the C-suite. In order to ensure that women obtain more leadership roles, economies will need to successfully address the social factors that can act as barriers, such as the disproportionate unpaid labour women perform.

During the March 23rd session, Professor Diane Elson elaborated on the gendered nature of automation and argued that the continuum from disempowerment to empowerment includes recognizing that the process of development is highly unequal. Similarly, Professor Martha A. Chen alluded to the intersectionality of gender-specific constraints and emphasised promoting a framework recognizing that dignified work is achievable via pathways to empowerment of voice, visibility, and validity. Professor Huma Ahmed-Gosh reminded the audience how important it is to recognise the heavy influence of cultural constraints, as such barriers can prevent the advancement of workers’ rights.

Given current trends, it seems likely that automation will not be an economic leveler. As long as women continue to be over represented within lower paid jobs and underrepresented in leadership positions, the opportunities that new technology and the growth of automation might bring cannot be realized.

It is essential that businesses and organizations take a thoughtful approach to restructuring in order to promote gender equality. These advancements would not only prove beneficial for women economically - but further than this - would impact the promotion of gender equality on a global level. In order for policies to be rooted in structural change, women's economic empowerment must become a priority. When women’s economic opportunities are realised, policies will be positively affected and institutions will become more representative of a diverse range of voices. With this understanding, it then becomes essential that structural socioeconomic barriers that discriminate against women workers are overcome. 

Javiera Alarcon received her MA in International Relations & Comparative Politics with a specialization in Latin American politics from the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow her on Twitter: @Javiera_Alarcon.

Marissa Conway