How to Stop Automation From Leaving Women Behind

June 6, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC

Millions of workers are likely to be displaced by automation technologies and artificial intelligence over the next decade. The ones who equip themselves with the skills the changing labor market demands will find their niche in the new economy—and overcome the challenges that predate automation’s threat.

That’s especially true for women, according to a new report released this week by the McKinsey Global Institute. An estimated 40 million to 160 million women will need to transition occupations or learn new skills to stay in the workforce by 2030. A similar number of men face the same challenges—but men will be better prepared to deal with it.

Without the same “double burden” of paid work and unpaid care work, or the challenge of having less access to the internet and mobile technology throughout the world, men hold an advantage in adapting to the new economy. Current training and reskilling programs designed to prepare workers for the future don’t take sufficient account of the challenges faced by women.

Women are much more likely to juggle work and family than men—specifically, doing three times more unpaid care work—and are therefore less mobile and able to spend time on, or get to, job interviews and retraining programs. A 2013 Harvard Kennedy School study found that women were more likely than men to drop out of training programs if they lived further from the training center, and that women were more likely than men to cite family commitments, marriage, or transportation issues for not enrolling at all. Training provision needs to reach women where they are.

Even when it comes to automation’s good news, women are being left behind. We are already seeing the emergence of newly created professions or “frontier jobs” like AI specialist, roboticist, and chief information officer roles that didn’t exist before the advent of automation technologies and AI. And yet, most of those exciting opportunities are going to college-educated men.

Healthcare workers will need programming skills to operate the new diagnostic tools that speed up lab results. Teachers will need better IT skills to run machine learning grading systems. Subsistence agriculture workers—a group overwhelmingly populated by women in countries like India—will have to find new jobs altogether. Without upping their skills, women will find it hard to adapt to the transformation to their working lives that is already underway.

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We have time to invest in the changes needed, but we need to move fast. We’ve already seen some public successes. Canada’s Choose Science campaign aims to encourage young women to work in the sciences, addressing the fact that female students only account for 35% of science, technology, engineering, and math students globally. Disney’s Code: Rosie initiative recruits and trains women in nontechnical positions for software engineering roles that are in high demand.

If we invest ahead of the coming upheaval to our global economy, the age of automation could offer women a future of more productive and potentially higher-paid jobs—and accelerate progress toward gender equality by addressing both the old and new barriers women face at work.

The reskilling revolution will take time, so we must use the next decade wisely. Investing in reskilling today is far better than responding to an unemployment crisis in 2030—especially one that leaves women further behind.

Liz Hilton Segel is a McKinsey & Company senior partner and managing partner for North America. Lareina Yee is a McKinsey senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer. The McKinsey Global Institute is the business and economics research arm of McKinsey & Company.

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