Working women are more than twice as likely as working men to hold jobs with a high potential for automation, according to new research by IPPR. Some 9 per cent of working women are in such jobs, compared with 4 per cent of men.
Without government intervention the increasing use of robots, cognitive technologies and artificial intelligence in the workplace risks widening existing gender pay and wealth gaps, the think tank warns in a report published today.
But if managed well, an accelerated drive to automate sectors of the UK economy presents an opportunity to reduce gender inequalities, the report says, reshaping how people work and share the economic benefits.
Automation could raise pay for low-paid women in sectors like social care, retail and hospitality, if businesses were offered support to adopt automating technologies and workers are able to lead the process.
It could also enable a reduction in working hours that could relieve women of the ‘double shift’ of paid and unpaid work.
Some gains in productivity from automation should be shared across the economy through an increase in annual leave entitlement, the report says. A productivity increase of 2 per cent in real terms could enable an extra week of holiday spread over the year, without any loss of output.
This would help to relieve people with caring responsibilities – usually women – from the pressures of the ‘double shift’ of paid and unpaid work. By reducing men’s working hours it would enable unpaid work in the home to be more easily shared. Increased annual leave entitlements would benefit part-time workers who are disproportionately women. The entitlement could be used flexibly to match different families’ needs, such as school holiday childcare or more time to look after elderly family members.
The report, The Future is Ours: Women, automation and equality in the digital age, paints a complex picture of the likely impact of increased automation on the economy, arguing that overall work and jobs will be transformed, not eliminated, by the process. For this reason, it is too soon to say that we are on the brink of a “post-human” economy.
It says that as some tasks and occupations are made redundant, or employ fewer people, others will take their place – as has happened continuously since the Industrial Revolution. The challenge will be to ensure that women move into higher paid occupations during this new wave of automation.
IPPR applied an ONS measure of “automatability” to different jobs to identify the workers most technically susceptible to automation, and gauge the impact on different groups within the UK workforce. Its analysis found:
- Some 9 per cent of working women are in occupations with a high potential for automation, compared with 4 per cent of men. Similarly, 64 per cent of workers in roles with high potential for automation are women, while just 36 per cent are men.
- Migrants, lone parents and young people in their twenties are even more likely to be in such jobs. Migrant women (born outside the UK) make up 21 per cent of the female workforce but 29.3 per cent of those in jobs with high automation potential. Women in such jobs are 60 per cent more likely to be lone parents than women across the whole workforce.
- Both younger and older women are more exposed to automation than men of the same age. The gap is greatest for women in work aged 61-65, who are four times more likely than men to hold a job with high potential for automation.
- Gender differences are greater in some regions than others – in the North East, women are 2.2 times more likely to be affected by automation than men, compared with a differential of 1.5 in London.
- A disproportionate number of part-time jobs have high potential to be automated – 14.6 per cent, compared to 3.3 per cent of full-time jobs.
The report says that, if properly managed and directed, accelerated automation could be good for the UK economy overall, unlocking productivity gains and releasing time for people to spend on other activities. It sets out key ways in which automation can be shaped to deliver this, while increasing gender equality rather than reducing it:
- Women and other workers should lead the acceleration of automation at all levels. IPPR calls for large companies to be set a target of 30 per cent women’s representation on boards by the end of 2020. If this is not achieved, government should legislate to ensure women make up 50 per cent of boards by 2025.
- Pay should be raised to force more firms to increase productivity, through sector-level collective bargaining and by raising the minimum wage to the level of the real living wage.
- Women should be supported to transition to new jobs, particularly those that pay more and including jobs within the tech sector itself. Those retraining should be offered the full 30 hours of free child care.
- Technology businesses, where only 16 per cent of workers are women, should be required to show progress towards a gender-balanced workforce in order to win public contracts. Under-representation of women in this sector should be a major policy concern, the report says.
- Schools, FE institutions and universities should be compelled to report gender balance in subject choices above GCSE level, and universities should face penalties if they fail to recruit near equal numbers of men and women to key STEM courses. Technology skills should be “mainstreamed” at all levels of education.
- The recently established Centre of Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) should be given powers to ensure that anti-discrimination measures are built into the algorithms driving automated systems, to prevent them from perpetuating historic gender biases.
The report also highlights an existing wealth gap between men and women which it says could further widen with automation, as more of the proceeds of economic activity flows to the owners of technology rather than to workers.
Although women are slightly more likely than men to hold an ISA, they are less likely to own capital in the form of unit trusts, employee shares or other shares. Older women also hold significantly fewer assets in occupational pensions – with a gap of 73 per cent for those aged 55-64.
To address these gaps the report recommends extending automatic pension enrolment to those earning less than £10,000 a year; expanding employee ownership, including through Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs); and setting clear targets for equal rates of employee share ownership between men and women within each firm.
It also calls for the creation of a collectively-owned Citizen’s Wealth Fund, previously proposed by IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice, to expand the ownership of capital to everybody.
Carys Roberts, IPPR Chief Economist and head of its Centre for Economic Justice, said:
“Where automation occurs, it is likely to radically reshape what we do at work, and who benefits from the wealth generated. These changes may well affect men and women differently, because they tend to have different jobs in the UK labour market.
“Technology is not destiny. With intervention, 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.
“Our proposals set out how we can harness automation to bring about gender equality, by increasing productivity in low-pay sectors where women tend to work, and by increasing annual leave entitlements to relieve the double burden of paid and unpaid work that so many women face.
“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.”