Giving Compass' Take:

• Marissa Wesely and Linda Midgley discuss how technology and automation present significant risks for the future of the female workforce, but also opportunities to help women reach their economic potential. 

• How can funders best ensure the future of women's work? 

• Read about three reasons to boost women's work

The most commonly cited risk to women through automation and artificial intelligence is job loss, due to the concentration of women in lower- and middle-skilled jobs (such as manufacturing and clerical jobs). A recent IMF staff discussion paper examining 28 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, plus Cyprus and Singapore, concluded that in the next two decades, automation will replace 11 percent of the female workforce (who tend to perform more routine and codifiable tasks), compared to 9 percent of the male workforce. That means 180 million female jobs are at high risk of displacement globally. Meanwhile, a 2016 ILO study predicted that some Asian nations could lose more than 80 percent of their garment, textile, and apparel manufacturing jobs, as “sewbots” replace humans in factories. This would disproportionately affect young women, who comprise a majority of the 9 million people dependent on jobs in those sectors.

The risk that technological advances will have a greater negative impact on women than men is aggravated by the current lack of women in STEM jobs, as well as the low percentage of girls and women who are training in STEM fields. UNESCO reported in 2017 that women represent only 35 percent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of higher education, and only 28 percent in the critical information and communications technology field. Without an intentional focus on women and girls, skilling and re-skilling programs companies or governments provide will likely disproportionately improve job prospects for men. To encourage more women and girls to enter STEM fields, we must shift social norms and attitudes that define certain occupations as “male” or “female” using a localized, holistic approach to women’s economic empowerment.

Of course, technology also presents opportunities for women to move into and advance in the workplace by gaining new skills and opportunities—in some cases leap-frogging into previously inaccessible jobs. Sometimes working remotely allows women to accommodate responsibilities at home while still taking part in the formal economy. In other cases, particularly where social norms or the risk of violence limit women’s mobility, technology can connect women to online education and job opportunities. In India, for example, Pratham Education Foundation has been using a variety of Internet-connected technologies to support its vocational training for young women. Similarly, Internet connectivity is providing more and more smallholder farmers, artisans, and other entrepreneurs with information, new markets, and sources of credit—benefits that can also give women working from home or in remote locations new sources of income or higher earnings.

Alternatives to formal employment offered by the gig economy—such as opportunities for women drivers, as ride-sharing services expand globally—also provide women with new sources of income combined with flexibility. Many of these non-traditional jobs also play an important role in helping shift gender norms. This is particularly true when technical training is accompanied by education on legal rights (for example, relating to harassment, violence, and sexual and reproductive health) and work with communities—a holistic model used by the highly successful Azad Foundation in India and many other local women’s organizations.

This type of holistic, “building block” approach to economic empowerment is important to achieving sustainable development for everyone, as embodied by the SDGs. Until we shift social norms that keep women from fulfilling their economic potential—including those relating to women’s role in doing unpaid care work, and those that accept gender-based violence and harassment—women’s increased labor force participation will not translate into true economic empowerment, with equal rights and access to opportunities to fulfill that potential.

Read the full article about the female workforce by Marissa Wesely and Linda Midgley at Stanford Social Innovation Review.