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From AI to machine learning, algorithm to automation, dizzying advancements of technology are changing the nature of the workplace. Sarah Darrall asks what this means for women.

From Precarity to Empowerment is the RSA’s submission to the Women’s Budget Group Commission on a Gender-Equal Economy.

The world of work: a man’s game?

For far too long, men have dominated the workplace and sustained a disproportionate level of influence over the course of society. In 1919, positions of power in government, medicine, law and accountancy were only available to half of the population, and still, 100 years later, women are not equally represented in these professions.

There have been great leaps forward in the campaign for women’s rights over the last century: for example, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act which enabled women to become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates, and the Equal Pay Act which gives the right to equal pay between men and women for equal work. These should be celebrated for the empowerment and independence they have brought to many women. But we must not be complacent. Only six FTSE100 CEOs are women; there is still a long way to go.

New challenges

The ascent of radical technologies has shaken up the ways in which we live, work and interact with each other. With this comes fresh opportunities and challenges – but how will women fare?

The gig economy, a bastion of the technological age, is fast-becoming another male-dominated environment. The participation rate for women is 38 percent lower than it is for men. These figures suggest that existing inequalities are being replicated on an even more extreme level in the gig economy.

The gender divide in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) is also astonishingly stark. At present, only one in twenty new coding jobs goes to a woman. With demand for these industries expected to grow, businesses, government and civil society need to act now to ensure that women are included and thrive in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. 

Algorithms are fast becoming part of our everyday lives. But what happens when they are used in recruitment? In 2018 Amazon had to terminate its hiring algorithm after it was revealed to penalise CVs that contained the word “women.” The potential for algorithms to inherit and augment existing patriarchal biases creates an ever-more complex challenge in the strive for a gender-equal economy.

The word ‘automation’ sparks fear in the minds of many. The media revels in publishing scaremongering estimates of how many jobs will be lost to robots. But this is an impossible science. Technological progress is inevitably uneven. Exploring the possible trajectories for women through potential future scenarios, such as the RSA’s Four Futures, allows for a much richer and more meaningful conversation about how we move to a gender-equal economy.

Economic insecurity in work

The labour market is a precarious place for many women today. Epochal technological change is not only transforming our work, it is contributing to the growing sense of economic insecurity we face.

In a recent RSA survey, we found that 38 percent of women did not feel their job provided them with enough income to maintain a decent standard of living (compared to 24 percent of men). And women reported being more likely to feel that they don’t have scope to progress in their careers (42 percent, compared to 34 percent of men).  

Time for change

Why, in 2019, do we continue to exclude and overlook women in the workforce?

Analysis of government data around job losses and job entrants shows that women have continuously lost out, twice over. We refer to this as the ‘double whammy’.

Firstly, they have borne the brunt of austerity measures. Women account for 81 percent of the job losses in social service managers and 74 percent in administration occupations in central government.

Secondly, they have missed out on the best-paid new jobs in the labour market. Women’s share of job growth for programmers and software development professionals stands at just 6.4 percent, and 8.7 percent for IT and telecommunications directors.

Moving forward, these figures paint a worrying picture for women. They should serve as a call to action for businesses, government and civil society to put diversity at the heart of their considerations around the future of work.

What needs to be done?

The battle lines for women in the workplace are clear: a participation premium to enter new labour markets, prejudice by algorithm and technological change, and an unholy alliance of poverty, precarity and the patriarchy. It is almost certainly the case that these problems affect all workers, but the impact on women and other minorities is disproportionate.

We recommend the following:

  • Support a universal, cross-sector commitment to deliberation on technological encroachment in the workplace and the wider economy;
  • Urge government and employers to get tough on discrimination by algorithm;
  • Advocate for a ‘big push’ on recruitment of women into STEM industries and career-paths;
  • Insist on better sign-posting of support for precarious workers by government and civil society – and lead on drafting a compact for Good Work in the gig economy;
  • Agitate for a laser-like focus on lifelong learning;
  • Continue the push on bringing an end to workplace discrimination
  • Raise the bar for protections for the self-employed.

The age of technology is very much upon us; the robots are here and they’re here to stay. And while there is a danger that these new advancements may be overwhelming and have the potential to exacerbate existing gender divides, we mustn’t be fatalistic. We have an opportunity to prepare women for the future. But the preparation must start now. We can, and we must, get this right.

Download 'From precarity to empowerment' report (2.3MB, PDF)

 

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