September 2, 2019

Automation could widen gender pay gap

Put simply, automation is the use of technology to automate a process. This reduces human intervention in the process. Automation is transforming the workplace and global economy. But just how will this method of eradicating human involvement affect the workplace – and more specifically the gender pay gap? We’ve looked at automation in the context of the workplace and assessed the changes it will likely bring to answer this question.

Women’s roles more vulnerable as automation accelerates

Personnel Today reports interesting statistics which conforms to the longstanding view that women’s roles are in fact more vulnerable than men’s as automation accelerates in the workplace. This is because statistics show that women are more likely to be found in occupations with a high potential for automation.

If this is the case then it could further increase the gender pay gap. Researchers have warned that as more of the profits from economic activity flow to the owners of technology rather than to workers, the existing wealth gap would most likely widen. The evidence for this is that women are 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.

But is it inevitable?

Despite this evidence, we find it hard to agree that automation categorically will widen the existing pay gap. Instead, we could argue that, automation - handled correctly - could in fact radically transform workplace gender equality for the better. For that to be possible, both men and women must demonstrate that they have the skills required for the new highly automated workspace, and women must be encouraged, and trusted, to move into higher ranking occupations in organisations – roles traditionally and archaically held by men.

How can automation benefit gender equality?

As the Personnel Today report suggests, the onus is likely to be on governments to put in place measures to tackle the under-representation of women in higher ranking roles and convert the rise of automation into a positive benefit for all workers.

For example legislation could require companies to have x% of women on boards by date Y. This inorganic and rather direct approach may create further problems if there is an accelerated need to develop women into those roles more quickly that would otherwise be the case.

Is legislation enough on its own? Probably not. Another key factor is making sure that new jobs in the future – jobs that may well not yet exist - are made increasingly accessible to everyone. As automation makes tasks and occupations (predominantly held by women) redundant, the impact on gaps in pay will depend on the accessibility of new jobs to men and women. This is particularly relevant in sectors such as technology where as little as 16% of roles are occupied by women.

Championing women in the workplace

Practical ways in which employers can support the progression of their female workforce include improving access to mentorship opportunities, eliminating bias in recruitment and selection processes, flexing working hours and helping with childcare.

The imperative to support women is already on the radar of many multinational companies. But the scale and pace of change needs to increase. If this happens, we could be overdue change to gender pay inequality. Automation is here and its progress is inevitable. To recognise and reflect on the challenges it brings will give many employers an advantage in the mid to longer term. How are you approaching this in your organisation?

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