The future of women at work is alarming — and promising, new report shows

Women at work in rural India. Photo by: ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Many of the long-established barriers that prevent women from accessing equality in the workplace today could further imperil women workers in the age of automation and artificial intelligence.

“The very things that you need to succeed in this new world of work — you need skills, you need mobility, and you need technological access … these are the very things that many women don't have. So if anything, it's just going to make the challenge harder for them,” said Mekala Krishnan, senior fellow at McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of new report “The future of women at work: Transitions in the age of automation.”

The findings, launched Tuesday at Women Deliver in Vancouver, Canada, reveal that roughly 40 million-160 million women globally may need to transition between occupations and skill levels as automation transforms working landscapes. The institute — which in 2015 reported that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global growth — examined what sort of collaboration will be required among the private sector, government, NGOs, and other stakeholders to better prepare women for a new world of work.

“If these transitions are successfully navigated for women as well as for men, there is a huge opportunity to move into more productive, better paid, possibly more fulfilling employment.”

— Mekala Krishnan, senior fellow, McKinsey Global Institute

Women currently have less time to reskill or search for employment because they spend more time than men on unpaid care work, are less mobile due to physical safety challenges, and have lower access to digital technology than men, according to the report. Putting in place education efforts and support systems to help women access technology and navigate impending transitions are what will determine whether these changes unlock opportunity or unleash further hardship.

“If these transitions are successfully navigated for women as well as for men, there is a huge opportunity to move into more productive, better paid, possibly more fulfilling employment,” Krishnan told Devex, providing the example of a nurse who can trade the time she currently spends on paperwork for more time with her patients.

Failing to take action ahead of automation, on the other hand, could worsen the wage gap or force women out of the labor market altogether. In low- and lower-middle-income countries such as India, for example, automation likely spells a dramatic contraction in skilled jobs in agriculture — a sector that employs 60% women, according to the report.

“These jobs, these workers that are impacted, are in rural parts of India. So the question becomes: How do you allow them access to reskilling programs? How do you ensure job creation in rural India, or is the solution thinking about more rural to urban migration? The geography of reskilling programs as well as the geography of job creation becomes particularly important to think about addressing for developing countries,” Krishnan said.

The report explores various opportunities for reskilling and training, a topic that Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations under-secretary general and UN Women executive director, stressed during a Women Deliver session on the future of work held Sunday.

“It’s not about the women who are just starting … it’s also the ones who have made the choices that are no longer viable into the future,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said, calling for a bigger emphasis on lifelong learning opportunities for all women.

The McKinsey report echoes this thought, recommending investment in training programs and platforms for women, the development of infrastructure and networks to boost labor mobility, and in increased efforts to raise women’s access to technology and their skills to use it.

Government, industry, and NGO leaders will all play a role in supporting job transitions for women, according to the report, which lists sample contributions from NGOs such as helping invest in digital platforms, increasing transparency on labor demand trends, and creating pathways for women in STEM.

The private sector can invest in training and reskilling employees within companies or in partnership with academic institutions, while governments can contribute by providing subsidized maternity and parental leave and child care as well as financial support to pursue training.

Krishnan pointed to Singapore’s SkillsFuture Credit, which provides all Singaporeans aged 25 and over a credit of approximately $360 to use for approved work-related skills programs, as an example.

And the very technology that could disrupt women in the workforce could also pave the way for more gender equality, Krishnan pointed out.

“I fundamentally believe that with automation, I don't know that we should view it as this external force that is coming upon us that we have no control over. I think we as society have the ability to shape our future and I think it's about making the right choices, the right decisions and thinking about how to effectively transition workers,” Krishnan said.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.

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