Automation holds opportunities and risks for women workers

08 July 2019 3 min. read

Automation and technological advances could unlock unprecedented opportunities for women, according to a recent McKinsey & Company study. Failing to take advantage of automation transition opportunities, however, could mean greater gender inequality in the future of work.

In their latest research, McKinsey Global Institute examined six mature economies (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the UK, and US) and four emerging economies (China, India, Mexico, and South Africa), which together make up half the world’s population and 60% of global GDP.

According to the research, 40 million to 160 million women (7-24%) will potentially need to transition between occupations by 2030 – or else face a growing wage gap or exiting the labor market. Women (and men) will have to become more skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy in an automation age that replaces some, and pairs the “winners” with the replacement bots.

The overall scale of job losses and gains could be similar for men and women

In the ten countries examined in the study, an average of 20% of working women (107 million) are projected to lose their jobs to automation by 2030, versus 21% of men (163 million). “Rising demand for labor could imply 20% more jobs for women, compared with 19% for men, assuming their shares of sectors and occupations hold,” the McKinsey report notes.

Men and women cluster in different occupations, with women accounting for 70% of workers in healthcare and social assistance, but less than 25% of machine operators. Fast-growing healthcare could, thus, account for 25% of potential job gains for women.

Service-oriented and clerical support occupations could make up 52% of women’s job losses, while machine operation and craft work occupations are projected to make up 40% of men’s job losses.

Patterns of jobs lost and gained could differ for men and women

For the up to 160 million women transition across occupations, upskilling and reskilling will be a central concern. “In mature economies, only jobs requiring a college or advanced degree may experience net growth in demand,” the report states.

More women work in lower-paid occupations than men, however. Demand for high-wage labor will grow in mature economies, while demand for medium- and low-wage labor is projected to decrease.

Governments and businesses will have to tackle the barriers that make it harder for women to climbing the skills ladder and profit from the automation transition. Cultural and social norms around “women’s work” could shape their choices of employment, while a persistent gender skills gap in STEM could limit women’s ability to get high-growth jobs. The uneven distribution of unpaid care work could also limit women’s ability to reskill, according to the report.

Policymakers will need to step in with more investment into training and transitional support, boost provision of childcare, tackle occupational stereotypes, and support women in STEM professions, McKinsey concludes.