Automation Could Force Millions of Women to Find New Jobs

Eric Morath, Wall Street Journal

The study, released Tuesday, shows technological advancements affect the genders nearly evenly.

That finding upends the notion that automation hits predominantly male manufacturing workers the hardest.

Emerging automation technologies will look different and displace a large number of women, said Mekala Krishnan, fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute and one of the report’s authors. Advancements could take the form of Alexa-like virtual assistants replacing clerical tasks, wider adoption of cashierless checkouts and artificial intelligence replacing customer-service workers at call centers.

And that technology could change the jobs done by women in the way robotic arms in factories put downward pressure on mostly male manufacturing jobs in the U.S. in recent decades.

Note: Share of employment in 2017; Overall figure also includes Canada, France, U.K., Mexico and SouthAfrica.

“The new wave of automation is much more than manufacturing and robots,” she said in an interview. “The sectors and occupations for which automation will play a role will vary widely and women could be equally impacted as men.”

Clerical work, such as by secretaries, schedulers and bookkeepers, is an area especially susceptible to automation, and 72% of those jobs in advanced economies are held by women, the McKinsey study said. Service workers, including those employed in retail and foodservice, are also susceptible to automation, and include women in high numbers.

The study looked at 10 of the world’s largest economies, including the U.S., China and India, and found that 107 million jobs held by women are at risk of being displaced by automation, or 20% overall of female employment. That nearly matches the 21% of jobs held by men at risk of being displaced.

The McKinsey study isn’t projecting mass job loss due to automation. It forecasts that 171 million new jobs held by women will be created by 2030—and the rate of job growth could be slightly larger for women than for men over that time period. That is largely because women hold the majority of jobs in one of the fastest-growing fields: health care.

The study considers the number of full-time equivalent jobs at risk, allowing that many jobs will be partially automated. For example, a nurse may spend less time in the future on data entry as smart diagnostic machines and voice-recognition technology improve.

In developed countries, a larger share of jobs are on the line. In the U.S., 24% of female jobs and 26% of male jobs are at risk to automation, McKinsey said.

The elevated automation risk found by McKinsey is consistent with another recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That study found that while women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, they account for 58% of workers employed in fields facing the highest risk for automation.

To land jobs expected to be created in the next decade, many women will need to obtain new skills and move into different occupations. The McKinsey study is cautious about projecting that will happen, noting women face several barriers to gaining the skills they will need to transition to in-demand jobs. Men may have an easier time transitioning to new occupations or adapting to technological change, according to the study’s authors.

Hundreds of millions of jobs affected. Trillions of dollars of wealth created. These are the potential impacts of a coming wave of automation. In this episode of Moving Upstream, we travelled to Asia to see the next generation of industrial robots, what they’re capable of, and whether they’re friend or foe to low-skilled workers.

Among the barriers faced by women is that they take on a higher share of unpaid care work, including child care, leaving them with less time to seek the education needed to make job transitions. Other challenges include more difficulty moving for jobs, smaller representation among students of science, math and engineering and reduced access to technology, especially in emerging economies.

“If women are able to navigate the necessary transitions, they may be able to maintain, or in some cases slightly increase, their current share of employment,” the report stated. “However, if women are not able to make these transitions effectively, their share of employment could decline” because some women would drop out of the labor force entirely.

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