Workplace automation poses unique risks for women

McKinsey report: Workplace automation could force up to 160 million women to shift occupations by 2030.

    The management consulting firm found many women were at risk of not having time to retrain for new jobs [Ann Wang/Reuters]
    The management consulting firm found many women were at risk of not having time to retrain for new jobs [Ann Wang/Reuters]

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    The research also said that "men and women tend to cluster in different occupations in both mature and emerging economies", meaning that labor market changes ahead will impact each in different ways.

    Up to one-quarter of working women may need to move into higher-skilled jobs by 2030 due to the spread of automation and technology, says a new study released on Tuesday by the McKinsey Global Institute.

    Men and women in 10 countries faced similar risks of being forced out of jobs in the next decade, but many women specifically were at risk of not having time to retrain, found the research arm of the United States-based management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

    Meanwhile, many are women still expected to take advantage of job gains.

    "Concerted and creative new solutions are needed to enable women to seize new opportunities in the automation age," the report said. "Without them, women may fall further behind in the world of work."

    The report cited new technology in the realm of artificial intelligence as one of the main reasons for "jobs lost", yet also explained how the same economic forces would result in untold numbers of "jobs gained" or "jobs changed".

    Many employment roles in the latter category could involve the risks - and benefits - of partial automation.

    The report also said that "men and women tend to cluster in different occupations in both mature and emerging economies", meaning that labour market changes ahead will impact each in different ways.

    Since women account for just 15 percent of the machine operators in the mature economies studied, they will be relatively less affected by technological changes than will the 70 percent of clerical support workers who are women.

    'Running the same race'

    The report found that between 40 million to 160 million women - or seven to 24 percent of those now employed globally - may need to shift occupations by 2030.

    McKinsey's research, released at the Women Deliver conference in Canada, looked at six mature economies - Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Britain and the United States - and four emerging economies - China, India, Mexico and South Africa.

    However, new skills could be needed, as only jobs requiring degrees may experience growth in demand.

    This puts many women at more risk than men, as a higher percentage of women work in lower-paid occupations.

    Moreover, "long-established barriers" make it harder for them to learn new skills, researchers said.

    Even so, women in most countries are ever-so-slightly less at risk overall of being displaced by automation, the report found.

    "Labor mobility and flexibility help women and men move across employers, occupations, sectors, and geographies as needed in order to respond to the needs of an evolving labor market," said the report, adding that "women tend to face more structural challenges here than men".

    And a glut of lower-wage jobs could put pressure on wages and force some women out of the labour market.

    "At first glance, it looks like men and women are running the same race into the age of automation, but while the distance may be similar, women are running with a weight around each ankle," said Kweilin Ellingrud, a senior partner at McKinsey and co-author of the report.

    Researchers found women have less time to learn new skills or search for employment because they spend more time than men on unpaid care, and they may be less mobile due to social norms or concerns surrounding their physical safety.

    A 2018 report by the United Nations' International Labour Organization showed that women globally performed 76.2 percent of total hours of unpaid care work, more than three times as much as men.

    Unpaid care work was cited as the main barrier preventing women from obtaining jobs and remaining and progressing in the labour force.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies