Rethinking the Future of Work for Women: The Reskilling Revolution Needed to Face Automation

Publication Date: Dec 20, 2019
Rethinking the Future of Work for Women: The Reskilling Revolution Needed to Face Automation

27 November 2019, 10:00-11:30AM

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations held a side-event at the UNHQs on the future of work for women, entitled Rethinking the Future of Work for Women:  The Reskilling Revolution Needed to Face Automation. It was said that the gender digital divide is in effect growing. Currently, at the global level 58% of men are using the internet and 48% of women. This means that the global internet user gap between men and women is 17% and it is much greater in the LDCs. In turn, this poses an obstacle when talking about key issues, such as reskilling in the digital age.  One of the challenges associated with the rapid pace of technological change is labor market disruption from technologies, such as A.I., robotics and 3D printing. In this session the panelists considered the impacts on women and what actions can be taken to mitigate these impacts, what does the future of work hold, especially for women, and what is the role that various stakeholders can take to help address these?

Mexico has continuously been promoting a gender-equal future of work. Last year, they launched the first global center of excellence on gender statistics and have a gender balanced parliament speaking to the gender-responsive public policies. Technology and innovation are tools to empower women, have a positive impact on their communities, and to foster  equality and sustainable development in line with the 2030 Agenda. “When women are empowered through ICTs, communities benefit as well,” said the Ambassador.  Furthermore, in the automation age women face new challenges  that overlap with long established ones. For instance, technology adoption could displace millions from their jobs, while others need to change their work.  Women may need to transition between occupations by 2030, often into higher skilled roles, where they could face a higher unemployment rate. It is a known fact that women face pervasive barriers and that is why new solutions are needed to enable women to move forward. Finally, he recalled recommendation 1(c) of the SG’s Hight-Level Panel on “Digital Cooperation” which calls the private sector, civil society, national and multilateral organizations and the UN to support the full inclusion and digital equality of women. 

Mckinsey Global Institute (MGI) uses gender data to drive decision-making and inform policy action and so they unpacked the challenges for the future of women at work, in terms of the  transition in the age of automation. The representative stated that embracing the future work could be a huge opportunity for men and women.  If they are able to successfully navigate their future work, this will lead to a higher pay, more productive and fulfilling forms of employment and for women this could mean better quality jobs and narrowing of the gender pay gap.  However, this will require huge numbers of transitions (sectoral and occupational- find new ways to work,  skills transitions and in geographies- where work is taking place). Tackling the global gender gap is worth a lot; this could be worth $12 TN.  Nevertheless, they highlighted that we haven’t made enough progress towards gender equality (specifically between 2015-2019).  

Regarding the era of automation, they said that it will be an era of disruption, and what they wanted to show with their research is how will women be impacted? The first thing they looked at was “What can automation do to job losses and gains?” Their research showed that there are some sectors that women tend to dominate in that are poised to grow, such as healthcare and education, and similarly for men these sectors include professional services and technology.  This means that the potential for job losses and gains could be broadly similar for men and women but for both men and women this means huge occupational transitions.  More specifically, 40m to 160m women may need to make occupational transitions by 2020. Up to 1 in 4 women will need to switch occupations. Demand for higher-wage workers will rise, which is good (higher wage jobs) but it also should require people to be able to successfully run the race. This requires a different set of skills (today’s skills compared to 2030). People will need skill groups such as a)complex information processing and interpretation, b) project management, c) interpersonal skills and empathy, d) leadership and managing others, e) adaptability and continuous learning, f) basic digital skills, g) advanced data analysis and mathematical skills as well as h) advanced IT skills and programming.  That said, it is important for workers to develop these skill groups to navigate the transitions successfully.  Additionally, by 2030 workers are likely to spend more time using social and emotional, higher cognitive, and technical skills. 

Concerning the barriers in the age of automation, it was highlighted that women face barriers that make transitions in the age of automation difficult. For example, 1) women have less time to reskill and have lower educational attainment (e.g. over 130 million girls in low-income economies are out of school),  2) women face barriers to flexibility and mobility (e.g. 155 countries have at least one gender-based legal restrictions on women’s employment) and  3) women use and create technology less (e.g. women account for just 35% of STEM students in higher education and 20% of tech workers in many mature economies). Ultimately, MGI believes that if we act now women could step into a better future.

Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) works to 1) design and deliver effective women's empowerment strategies, 2) build empowering supply chains for women workers, and 3) tackle systemic challenges facing women globally. The representative focused on the findings of their latest research report, the potential impacts of increasing adoption of automation and A.I. in the work world of women and finally highlighted a few of the actions they recommend that businesses take to improve on the future prospects of women and business and society. The current state of women in the workplace, according to the WEF (World Economic Forum) suggests that it will take 200 years to achieve workplace gender equality. The systemic inequalities that women face today are going to carry forward into the future of work to impact women disproportionately from men (e.g. vulnerable backgrounds, regions with weak labor law enforcement). Women are starting the race with “weights” on their legs and what does that mean? It means they are facing a) unequal representation (women are still 26% less likely to be in employment than men), b) leadership inequality( fewer than a third of managers are women), c) pay gap (still an average of 20% across the world), d) unpaid care (main reason women are outside of the labor force) and e) harassment (impacts women in the fields and in the boardrooms).  

In their report they looked at 3 main trends: 1) transformations of sectors and roles, 2) demand for digital skills, and 3) the rise of new work models. They came to the conclusion that workplaces are rapidly changing and there are risks and opportunities for women. Lastly, their framework identifies action on three levels, namely to 1)  act within a company's direct control by adjusting policies and practices within a company’s operations and supply chain (e.g. equal pay for all workers), 2) enable  civil society organizations, community organizations and business partners through partnerships (invest in STEM education programs aimed at girls and women and accelerate women’s access to digital tools), and 3) influence using advocacy and policy efforts to shape the business environment (to close the gap in legal protections for women in the workplace and support legislation that equalizes care burdens).

UN Women mentioned G7 as an important advocacy tool and women’s empowerment principles. Unfortunately, there is evidence of current problems for women in important jobs such as engineering. Only 22% of A.I. professionals are globally female (GEF report). Looking into the future, UN Women said 2020 is a pivotal year for the accelerated realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls everywhere. Another topic they touched upon was how can A.I. help governments make better decisions and deliver policies and services more effectively? They highlighted that A.I represents one of the most intriguing and promising fields  of innovation and has the potential to dramatically improve the way public and private services are delivered. It could also have plenty of applications in the governmental sector. For instance, using “ chatbots” and “Natural Language Understanding” to automate and improve services for customers. Nevertheless, much more can be shaped by A.I. from traffic management and self-driving cars to security and emergency management. Furthermore, A.I. technologies may not be governed by the existing regulatory frameworks, presenting a unique policy challenge compared to prior innovations.  

On a similar note, UN Women said that digital technologies like IoT, Big Data, A.I. robotics and blockchain have been transforming business from healthcare to agriculture, mobility, energy, and government. One key challenge lies with making the most of the huge data-processing potential of A.I. The OECD, EU, Canadian and Japanese governments have worked hard to outline ethical guidelines and human-centric principles (i.e. EU developed a policy sandboxing process allowing businesses to test the principles for ethical A.I. using a comprehensive and detailed assessment list in the A.I. development phase). Finally by signing the Women's empowerment principles (WEP) companies galvanize their shareholders and stakeholders to drive change for gender equality. 

ILO discussed the main impediments to the labor market, i.e. the role that women play in the care economy. This is a major issue that concerns equality of women in the workplace and it is an issue that needs to be addressed by families and governments respectively. Technological change and automation will require much more reskilling and upskilling in the upcoming years. While these changes will impact all players in the labor market, women are facing bigger challenges given their lower access to internet and tech, and because they are often in lower-paying jobs and typically bear the burden of unpaid care-work. A gender-equal future of work requires education, effective reskilling, solutions for care work, elimination of violence and haraasment and ending discrimination at work, especially in the tech sector. 

UNIDO is working to advise governments on inclusive and sustainable industrial development strategies. In this context, they will be publishing their 2020 industrial development report. As part of this analysis they have also looked at gender equality, the role of women in advanced automation technologies and the situation of women in developing countries. It is very difficult to get data in developing countries as is very difficult to measure the impact. The report has found that there is concern around gender equality stemming from advanced digital protection technologies (ADP technologies). For example, in manufacturing female workers are found to be exposed to higher  computerization risk than men. The representative highlighted that soft skills will be part of the future skills for occupations but also emphasized that gender gaps are still less pronounced. UNIDO through its work seeks to increase women’s equitable participation in the industrial workforce and gave emphasis to the development of technologies as being the necessary step to promote inclusive and sustainable industrial development. 

In closing, Georgia mentioned that reskilling for the future is an extremely important issue in junction with gender equality gap. The momentum building at the UN is rising and different regulations are being implemented. In addition, they expressed the view that we need to use blockchain’s  technological advancement as a new opportunity to bring men and women at an equilibrium. At the concluding remarks, the following issues were touched upon: a) models and mechanisms of delivery still need to be figured out, b) accelerated action in gender equality at work needs to be backed with innovative policies, c)  technology can give opportunities to LDCs because of their unique position, but there is a concerted need to ensure that no one is left behind, d) skills and future of work for automation need more efforts in trying to understand what are the changes in order to bring a tailored response and  advocacy, and e) solutions are to be found in a country-level policy context (it is a major challenge and it can only be addressed jointly). Finally, Mexico concluded by saying that technology is a cross-cutting element in our life and success will be when the inclusion of women comes into reality in all national policies, including when they are integrated into the production of the well-being of our society.