Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Netflix’s prediction of your next favorite show—we’re already living with artificial intelligence, and its adoption by the business world will only increase in coming years. We’re already hearing about AI’s potentially disastrous impact on the labor market, but how will these technological tools, designed to augment or replace human cognition, affect women?
The first-ever study to map the labor consequences of AI for women, published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), is a reminder of the intractable stubbornness of gender inequality, despite, or increasingly, because of, the direction of our digital future.
While estimates vary hugely, IWPR calculates that although women make up just under half the US workforce, they will make up nearly 60 percent of the workers at highest risk of being displaced by technology. Today, argues Ariane Hegewisch—IWPR’s program director for employment and earnings—“The impact of technology critically depends on how it is implemented and who is at the table when it is implemented.”
Overall, IWPR estimates that there are 10 women for every seven men who work in jobs “threatened” by technological advancement (jobs that have at least a 90 percent likelihood of going extinct). Moreover, these jobs are concentrated in relatively high-paying positions, compared to the male-dominated jobs that will decline. So as women seek upward mobility in the face of long-standing employment barriers, Hegewisch explains, “the threat that tech poses to those jobs may also mean that you eliminate some of the ladders that are now available for people to really climb into a better economic prospect.” Whether you’re an accountant competing with bookkeeping algorithms or a senior bank teller soon to be replaced by an ATM, automation could wreak havoc on women’s participation in the workforce if robust protections are not put in place.
In addition, the jobs that will survive AI disruption are disproportionately low quality, such as senior- and personal-care jobs, domestic work, and adjunct teaching jobs.
The promise of tech to improve jobs—making them healthier, more enjoyable, less physically taxing and more flexible for workers—is largely driven by politics and extant hierarchies in the workforce. Workers who lack power in general will be less resilient and adaptable when technology begins to marginalize them. Decisions on when and how to introduce new technology, Hegewisch argues, hinge on whether the disruption is used “to complement people’s jobs or to replace people.” One solution could be to retrofit traditional collective bargaining for future change: For example, union contracts for Marriott Hotel workers include rules safeguarding members from the impact of automation, requiring advanced consultation and preparation of compensatory measures when potentially disruptive technology is introduced to the workplace.
The jobs most directly, and positively, impacted by tech are, of course, in technology-based industries. But with a massive gender gap in those workforces, even as Silicon Valley expands and advances, women will likely continue to be marginalized in lower-paying or lower-ranking positions.
Paradoxically, women working in the industries making up the technological cutting edge face some of the worst employment trends. Over the past 20 years, women’s representation has declined in the three largest tech sectors: computer scientists and systems analysts, software developers, and computer support specialists. Despite Silicon Valley’s progressive cultural patina, women of color are even more underrepresented in the current tech workforce: Even amid growing cultural emphasis on female-friendly STEM education programs and diversity in tech, women are still stuck on an unlevel playing field: “for women and men working at the same level of digitalization, women face an earnings gap in returns on digital skills of 41 percent.”
Another sector that will proliferate with automation is platform-based work, like ridesharing or digital “tasking” gigs. Though currently these make up just a small fraction of the job market, they are shaping patterns of commerce and culture for the digital age. And yet they are also pushing many workers into erratic schedules and unstable jobs with virtually no labor protections. Landing a fast gig online may mean less transparency, less ability to negotiate working conditions, and no effective way to organize with peers and colleagues, leading to economic insecurity and exploitation.
And others are excluded from these platforms altogether: IWPR warns that the shifting of decent work to online platforms “puts older and immigrant workers, many of whom speak English as a second language or have less familiarity with social media, at a disadvantage.”
The key to navigating these future trends is to get ahead of and harness the automation wave: First, comprehensive training programs could allow the workforce to be more adaptable to technological changes.
Second, the tech sector itself needs to work toward greater gender and racial diversity within its own ranks, including lifting more women into their leadership ranks, to help build greater equity into hiring and promotion policies.
Third, work as a whole for women, including precarious gig work, needs to be made fairer and more sustainable—for example by instituting policies that provide “portable” benefits—attached to the worker, not the job—to provide long-term financial security in a fast-churning workforce. Moreover, labor advocates point out that these protections will benefit all precariously employed workers, whether they are on a digital platform or just working ordinary part-time, freelance, or on-call jobs.
The more global challenge is to ensure that the fruits of technological advancement are reinvested in improving women’s lives. Today’s technological resilience gap between men and women stems from existing inequality: Women have always had less time and resources to adapt to change due to greater economic insecurity and caregiving burdens at home.
But technology could also turn the crisis upside down: With scheduling flexibility to accommodate online training for upgrading skills or credentials, digital learning could enable more women with caregiving constraints to pursue fresh job opportunities. A more flexible digitized workplace could allow workers more time at home, and potentially more equal distribution of work between parents, which helps upgrade the family structure for a more gender-balanced economy. But these developments require worker empowerment, now and in the future.