Developments in robotics and artificial intelligence offer opportunities for women to compete with men on a more level playing field, even as jobs are lost or transformed due to automation
In the coming robot revolution, there’s also a muddled battle of the sexes.
Experts almost universally agree that we’re on the verge of an automation revolution. A recent McKinsey report drew alarmist headlines for claiming that up to a third of current American employees could be displaced to robots by 2030. And a study by Forrester Research found that while robots will create roughly 15 million new jobs in the next 10 years, they’ll simultaneously kill 25 million of them.
While automation has been happening since the beginning of time, the forecasted rapid changes stem from exponential growth in artificial intelligence, picked up from real-life trials, and more impressively, from simulations it runs without human experience. This makes possible changes beyond past scope and human imagination.
But the experts disagree on one big issue: of the jobs that will be left (and newly created) in the coming decades, will it be men or women doing them?
Jess Chen, an economist at the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis at the University of Redland who co-authored a recent report on the topic, argues that women are twice as likely as men to lose jobs due to automation. Her research suggests that about 13% of American women have a job that’s at high risk of being lost to automation, compared to just 5.8% of U.S. males.
“Robots are really good at doing two things: repetitive tasks and those that don’t require a high level of physical mobility,” she says, adding that prime examples include cashier and receptionist gigs. Women comprise about 73% and 90% of such employees respectively.
Others beg to differ. They note that manufacturing, historically a male-dominated field, has been – and will continue to be – transformed by both automation and globalization, while the typically female-dominated healthcare and childcare industries will continue growing. For instance, a recent Gartner analysis predicts the elimination of 1.8 million jobs, many in manufacturing, by 2020 due to AI. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy will create 2 million jobs, primarily in healthcare, education and the public sector.
And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that women workers might get a big boost from automation. Here’s what we uncovered.
The future demands a female-friendly skill set
The jobs in the future will require the skills often taught at tertiary and higher education institutions. Women have outnumbered men by increasingly large margins on U.S. campuses for decades, and even in the STEM fields, which have long enrolled more male undergraduates than females, the gap is quickly narrowing.
Experts say pairing such skills with stereotypically feminine strengths like working in teams and communications is what will keep humans— and especially women— ahead. “We still demand a human touch for certain things,” says Chen. “Social intelligence and reading cues on faces aren’t things robots are necessarily good at.” While robotists have been working on robots that can “sense” and express emotions, these efforts are very much in their infancy.
This means that while those employed in tasks that require some physical labor may still have the same job a decade later, they should expect customer service to become an increasingly large component of their work. The much hyped McKinsey report also notes that a substantial portion of the laid-off could be redeployed into other occupations – as long as they develop certain more robot-proof skill sets and crucially, the ability to work with robots. While 60% of current occupations consist of parts that are automatable, less than 5% of jobs can be entirely replaced by robots, the consultancy found.
“If you’re in a hospital, moving medication from one spot to another is something that can easily be done by a robot,” says Linda Pouliot, who co-founded Neato Robotics, a maker of home robot vacuums. “But the hand holding that a nurse gives to a patient is something that humans are amazing at. If I were looking to automate a nurse’s job, I wouldn’t look at where the human touch is.”
Pouliot, whose latest startup creates robots for commercial kitchens, says this should increase job satisfaction, since it takes away the drudgery of routine work. “Putting humans to work at a higher level means their entire day is more meaningful.” And that has the potential to up female labor participation, which peaked at the tail end of the dotcom bubble, thanks in part to difficulty finding adequate childcare and other pressures. Even as more educated women join the workforce, female workforce participation last November was just 57%, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show.
Anything a man can do…
Automation could chip away at advantages men have in physically demanding fields that often pay more. Take construction, which at the end of 2016 employed just over 10 million people in America, just around 10% of which were female, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show. (The percentage drops significantly after you subtract office and sales jobs.)
New technology promises to make the taxing physical labor of those and related jobs less strenuous. Indeed, California-based Ekso Bionics recently announced a partnership with Ford Motors to supply the carmaker with an upper body exoskeleton – a frame that allows a physically limited (wo)man to lift heavy tools while keeping human maneuverability – that can help a worker lift an additional 15 pounds on each arm.
“It could take the physical barrier out of work and make competition for these jobs much harder,” says Hegewisch. “Not all these construction jobs pay well, but quite a few still provide a living wage that’s more than being a care assistant, which may require the same amount of training but pays less.” On average, a personal care aide makes $10.23 hourly while a construction worker earns $14.66, according to PayScale.
Of course, further developments in robotics in the coming decades could eventually remove the need for humans altogether, but for now, labor experts see a limit to automation because building a house from scratch requires physical dexterity— think bending over to pick up a brick and navigating a debris-littered work site— that robots still lack.
Gender job crossover
It’s worth noting that while men can cross over into more stereotypically female-heavy fields like healthcare— the proportion of male nurses has tripled since 1970, Census Bureau data show— cultural acceptance is slow. Many men drop out of work entirely rather than choose to switch jobs. In 2016, the White House Council of Economic Advisers published a report that noted 83% of men between the ages of 25 to 54, traditionally the peak working ages, who were not in the labor force had not worked in the previous year.
In 2000, men were in the civilian workforce at a rate of around 75%, a figure that has since plummeted to 58% —some of this due to them losing jobs like those in manufacturing to automation. The opioid crisis and an addiction to video games has also likely contributed to this decline.
“By destroying more jobs for men, it could be even more important for women to work,” says Hegewisch. “If you look back at when the labor participation rate for women increased a lot, that was linked to opportunities for good jobs for men becoming more limited.”
What’s more, the self-driving car revolution may boost women’s labor force participation further — especally for those living in areas with high crime rates and limited public transportation. Just ask Elon Musk, who was blasted for being elitist last month when he ranted about public transit. “Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time,” the Tesla CEO said at a conference. “And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great.”
But he has a point. Self-driving cars could become more affordable than existing Ubers after the wages of a driver are stripped out. They’re controlled by technology, rather than a driver who passes (or not) a background check, and unlike public transit, can take you to your doorstep rather than drop you miles away after daylight hours.
Public “transportation was designed to take men to work and that’s a huge issue for women, particularly those in poorer communities,” Hegewisch says. “But increasingly, people may have to work late or move during non-peak hours and automation could bring more access.”
While women in developed countries are in a position where they could— with some adaptability —thrive in an age of robots, the same necessarily isn’t true for their counterparts in the third world. That would be a shift from the changes wrought by the late 20th century wave of globalization, which employed millions of Vietnamese women as garment factory workers and gave Filipinas who might have previously left their country to work as domestic servants the opportunity for employment in call centers closer to home.
Some of these jobs have already trickled back to the rich world thanks to customer preferences and rising costs, and automation and AI is likely to escalate the trend. According to one British government-funded report, women occupy nearly 60% of back-office support jobs in the Philippines. But as voice recognition and response technology becomes smarter, they’re becoming liable to replacement by Alexa and Siri, with some research estimating that as many as 89% of salaried posts in call centers there at high risk of being lost.
The problem is exacerbated by limited digital skills for women in those countries. The same U.K. report says that women are 14% less likely to have cell phones than men— and urban women who live in poverty are half as likely as their male counterparts to have internet access.
“It’s necessary to have computer literacy in your skill basket,” says Chen, the economist. “No matter what industry you’re in, at some point in the next five to ten years, you’ll need to work with a computer on something.” Those working delivery jobs, often first generation immigrants to the rich world, have retained their supremacy over bots not just because robots are challenged navigating stairs and busy streets. They’ve also upped their game by using tech like GPS to give people constant updates about where their latest Seamless order is.
The future is female
While expert prognostications are dime a dozen, much remains in the air. That’s because the speed at which automation is adopted depends not just on technical or economic feasibility, but also on government policy and the willingness of voters to accept robots. We’re also notoriously bad at thinking up jobs that will soon be newly created. How many social media editors did you know a decade ago? For its report, McKinsey varied the number of jobs that it thinks may be changed or lost over three scenarios, each of which depend on the speed at which automation is adopted.
While we often look back on the Industrial Revolution as a contiguous time that changed everything, it took place over more than half a century and was interspersed by anti-technology riots like the Luddite movement in England. More recently, no less than San Francisco, that mecca of American technology, placed severe restrictions on use of delivery bots due to resident unease.
“Much of the discussion is still very speculative and acknowledges that the future is much of a guess,” says Hegewisch, adding that all we really know is that there’ll be a need for “less strength, more creativity and communication. And less routine work.”
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