WEF 2018: Why automation hates women

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

Just as the Academy Awards has adjusted its voting panel to increase diversity, so the World Economic Forum (WEF) has put women front and centre at this year’s WEF gathering in Davos. Seven of the main panels have high-profile women in charge. But a less visible output from the event is an in-depth data analysis which shows that, when it comes to automation replacing jobs, for every 1,000 people put out of work, there will be 140 more women than men.

In “Towards a reskilling revolution: A future of jobs for all,” developed by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with The Boston Consulting Group and Burning Glass Technologies, 50 million online job posts in the US between 2016 and 2017 have been scraped from 40,000 unique sources and then analysed. This created 550 skills clusters and 958 unique job types. The report then analyses the levels of similarity between skills in various jobs to identify where individuals might be able to transition to.

Overall, the report is optimistic about employment by the year 2026, identifying a net rise of 10,979 jobs across 19 job families. It states that 96% of workers whose jobs will be changed through technology - some 1.4 million people - will be able to transition into new roles. But there are two important aspects: firstly, the gender split in these jobs will be 63:37 male:female, showing it will be harder for women to find employment in the next ten years as the nature of work changes; secondly, 57% of jobs likely to be automated are currently being done by women.

WEF Job Reskilling MatrixThat reflects the nature of the skills used in jobs done by women, as opposed to men. For example, there are 164,00 women working in secretarial and administrative posts which are being rapidly replaced by automated assistants and AI tools for everything from appointment setting to document discovery. Professions that are predominently female do have 12 transition options, the report finds, but men at risk of automation have 22 choices. If they reskill, women can increase their transition options to 49, but men can find work in 80 new roles. 

The WEF study is an important effort to get underneath the “AI versus jobs” headlines to look closely at real-world options for reskilling the workforce. Jobs may disappear, workers don’t. So governments and employers need to look closely at the options.

Compared to the allure of universal basic income, reskilling seems like hard work - to many people, training feels like a return to school where they often struggled and felt unhappy. But the very technology which is threatening their jobs is also being introduced into learning - EdTech is rapidly emerging and can help to lower the barriers, especially for individuals who are visual learners. 

 

At the same time, automation will create new jobs, although these are typically in the higher echelons of employment. All the more reason, therefore, to increase efforts that ensure girls start and continue with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Unless you want a return to the stay-at-home mother, workaholic father model, addressing the employment implications of automation now - and not just the data dimensions - may help to avoid increased social friction in the future.

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Knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ
David is developing the framework for soft skills and career development among data and analytics practitioners. He continues to be editor-in-chief and research director for DataIQ.