Automation could widen gender pay gap

Cleaner in office
Cleaners are among the groups where women outnumber men with high automation potential.
Photo: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

There is a risk that, managed poorly, automation in the workplace will widen the gender pay gap and increase inequality, an in-depth study has found.

But, overall, jobs will be transformed, not eliminated, by the use of new technologies, found progressive think-tank the IPPR. “We are not on the cusp of a post-human economy,” the authors stated.

Using an Office for National Statistics measure of “automatability”, researchers concluded that government intervention would be key to ensuring automation (including robotics and AI) had a net positive impact on society.

The study argued that as some tasks and occupations were made redundant, or employ fewer people, others would take their place, “as has happened continuously since the Industrial Revolution”.

It stated: “The challenge will be to ensure that women move into higher paid occupations during this new wave of automation.”

Women’s roles are more vulnerable to labour-relieving technologies than men’s because 64% of workers in jobs with high potential for automation are women; just 36% of these workers are men. Also, a disproportionate number of part-time jobs have a high vulnerability to automation (14.6% compared with 3.3%).

Researchers warned that as more of the proceeds of economic activity flowed to the owners of technology rather than to workers, the existing wealth gap would most likely widen. The evidence for this was that women were less likely to own capital in the form of unit trusts, employee shares or other shares and older women hold fewer assets in occupational pensions.

This gap could be addressed by extending automatic pension enrolment to those earning less than £10,000 a year; expanding employee ownership, including through employee ownership trusts; and setting clear targets for equal rates of employee share ownership between men and women within each firm. A Citizen’s Wealth Fund would also enlarge the ownership of capital from its current relatively narrow base.

Technology businesses, which would be key beneficiaries of the rise in automation, have a relatively low proportion of female workers (16%), and this under-representation is a major concern, the report (The Future is Ours: Women, automation and equality in the digital age) states.

The report recommends government to put in place measures to convert the rise of automation into a positive benefit for all workers. New technologies would unlock productivity gains and release employees’ time, claimed the IPPR, which urged large companies to set a target of 30% female representation on boards by the end of 2020. If this failed, it said, government should legislate to ensure women made up 50% of boards by 2025. Technology companies should be required to show progress towards a gender-balanced workforce and educational institutions encouraged to work harder to ensure a gender balance in STEM subjects.

Carys Roberts, IPPR chief economist and head of its Centre for Economic Justice, said “technology is not destiny” and that intervention was a vital component of turning it to society’s advantage. “With intervention,” she said, “everyone including women can share in the productivity gains that automation brings – both financially and in the form of time outside work – and can access the good jobs in the future economy.

“A more gender-equal future will not happen spontaneously. Realising this opportunity will require a managed acceleration of automation, led by those who could be affected by it.”

Henry Parkes, senior economist at the IPPR, added that employers needed to “consider their role in improving access to well-paid new technology roles through putting in place measures like flexible working and part-time opportunities as well as leading culture change in organisations where women are under-represented. This must include ensuring women can lead this change.”

Brexit and the resulting political instability has led many to feel that the government has not been properly focused on the economy, Roberts conceded. But stagnant productivity and pay should provide motivation for the government to “accelerate automation and do so in a way to benefit workers,” she said. “This fits well with their focus on the gender pay gap and with their own industrial strategy led by BEIS, and presents an opportunity to improve pay and living standards in the UK.”


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