Women, Technology, and the Future of Work


This article  was previously published in the IMF Blog - Insights and analysis on Economics and Finance, on November 16, 2018.

The way we work is changing at an unprecedented rate. Digitalization, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are eliminating many jobs involving low and middle-skill routine tasks through automation.

Our new research finds the trend toward greater automation will be especially challenging for women.

More than ever, women will need to break the glass ceiling.

On average, women face an 11 percent risk of losing their jobs due to automation, compared to 9 percent of their male counterparts. So while many men are losing their jobs to automation, we estimate that 26 million women’s jobs in 30 countries are at high risk of being displaced by technology within the next 20 years. We find that women’s jobs have a 70 percent or higher probability of automation. This translates globally to 180 million women’s jobs.

We must understand the impact of these trends on women’s lives if we are to gain gender equity in the work place.

What policies can countries implement now to ensure that women contribute to the economy, while moving toward greater automation?

Women at higher risk

Hard-won gains from policies to increase the number of women in the paid workforce and to increase women’s pay to equal men’s may be quickly eroded if women work predominantly in sectors and occupations that are at high risk of being automated.

  • Women who are 40 and older, and those in clerical, service, and sales positions are disproportionately at risk.
  • Nearly 50 percent of women with a high school education, or less, are at high risk of their jobs being automated, compared to 40 percent of men. The risk for women with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 1 percent.

The chart below shows how the automation of jobs effects people in different countries. Men and women in the United Kingdom and the United States face about the same amount of risk for job automation. In Japan and Israel, women’s jobs are more vulnerable to automation than men’s. Women’s jobs in Finland are less vulnerable to automation than men’s.

Opportunities and challenges

Women are currently underrepresented in fields experiencing job growth, such as engineering and information and communications technology. In tech, women are 15 percent less likely than men to be managers and professionals, and 19 percent are more likely to be clerks and service workers performing more routine tasks, which leaves women at a high risk of displacement by technology.

More than ever, women will need to break the glass ceiling. Our analysis shows that differences in routineness of job tasks exacerbate gender inequality in returns to labor. Even after taking into account such factors as differences in skill, experience and choice of occupation, nearly 5 percent of the wage gap between women and men is because women perform more routine job tasks. In the US this means women forfeit $26,000 in income over the course of their working life.

There are some bright spots. In advanced and emerging economies, which are experiencing rapid aging, jobs are likely to grow in traditionally female-dominated sectors such as health, and social services―jobs requiring cognitive and interpersonal skills and thus less prone to automation. Coping with aging populations will require both more human workers and greater use of artificial intelligence, robotics, and other advanced technologies to complement and boost productivity of workers in healthcare services.

Policies that work

Governments need to enact policies that foster gender equality and empowerment in the changing landscape of work:

  • Provide women with the right skills. Early investment in women in STEM fields, like the program Girls Who Code in the US, along with peer mentoring, can help break down gender stereotypes and increase women in scientific fields. Tax deductions for training those already in the workforce, like in the Netherlands, and portable individual learning accounts, like in France, could help remove barriers to lifelong learning.
  • Close gender gaps in leadership positions. Providing affordable childcare and replacing family taxation with individual taxation, like in Canada and Italy, can play an important role in boosting women’s career progression. Countries can set relevant recruitment and retention targets for organizations, as well as promotion quotas, like in Norway, and establish mentorship and training programs to promote women into managerial positions.
  • Bridge the digital gender divide. Governments have a role to play through public investment in capital infrastructure and ensuring equal access to finance and connectivity, like in Finland.
  • Ease transitions for workers. Countries can support workers as they change jobs because of automation with training and benefits that are linked to individuals rather than jobs, like the individual training accounts in France and Singapore. Social protection systems will need to adapt to the new forms of work. To address deteriorating income security associated with rapid technological change, some countries may consider expansion of non-contributory pensions and adoption of basic income guarantees may be warranted.

Automation has made it even more urgent to step up efforts to level the playing field between men and women, so that all have equal opportunities to contribute to, and benefit from, the new more technology-enabled world.

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