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World Economic Forum: the impact of technological change on women in the workplace

Posted on 01 February 2018 by Matthew Wood

World Economic Forum: the impact of technological change on women in the workplace

Last week saw business and political leaders descend on Davos for the annual World Economic Forum. In recent years, the WEF has increased its focus on gender equality in both the world of work and in wider society. In the run up to this year's conference, it has published two reports from the WEF's Education, Gender and Work team. The reports address the issue of gender equality and the potential adverse impact of technological change on women in the workplace.

Gender Gap

Since 2006, the WEF has published an annual report on the gap between men and women in four key areas: Economic Participation and Opportunity; Educational Attainment; Health and Survival; and Political Empowerment. The most recent report, published in November 2017, has identified - for the first time since the WEF started gathering data in 2006 - a disappointing increase in inequality between men and women around the world in relation to both pay and opportunity.

In the European Union, attempts are being made to address one element of gender disparity: the gender pay gap (i.e. the difference in average earnings between men and women). In the UK the gender pay gap has been reported as hovering around 18% for a number of years. Employers with over 250 employees are now under new obligations to annually report on and publish various gender pay statistics in an attempt to tackle the gap, as outlined here.

As of 25 January 2018, only 678 employers of an estimated 9,000 have published their gender pay gap data, with an average mean difference in pay of 21.8% between male and female employees, with some high profile companies reporting figures as high as 45%.

Whilst these figures do not show the difference between the earnings of a male and female employee within an organisation doing equal work (as we explain here), they quite clearly show that across society men continue to occupy more high earning roles on average than women do and it would appear that there is very little change year on year.

Impact of Technology

Whilst many organisations are working hard to improve the opportunities available for women to move up the career ladder, few are looking ahead to the potential impact on gender parity of disruptive technologies, such as automation, robotics and AI, on the world of work. 

On Monday 22 January, the WEF published a report on the "Future of Jobs" which identifies that women are going to be disproportionally affected by technological advances. Although much of the focus of technological disruption has been on the manufacturing sector (which has already seen a large number of roles replaced by automation), future disruption is more likely to hit customer service, administration and clerical roles which are still dominated by women. In fact, the WEF report identifies that between now and 2026, 57% of the roles which are likely to be displaced by technology are dominated by women.

Although many of those roles are likely to be replaced by new jobs in the tech sector, those new roles are currently more likely to go to men rather than women, given the dominance of men in the industry. As a result, we have a situation where women are more likely to be disadvantaged by, and men are more likely to benefit from, technological advances. Consequently, there is a high risk that we will see an increase in the inequality in pay and opportunities between male and female employees and a reversal of the (albeit small) positive developments there have been over recent years.

Companies therefore not only need to pay attention to the issue of gender pay and ensure they are putting in place appropriate structures to ensure parity of opportunity, they also need to look ahead to the future of their industry and the potential impact of technological advances. This means not just considering the impact on the workforce as a whole, but also on the potential adverse effect on women. Failing to do so may set back any progress that has been made over recent decades.

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