Opinion Editorial: Automation Will Embed Gender Inequality at Work - Unless We Fix It Now

9.00am | November 09, 2016




Predictions about the future tend to run to the extremes. Some people think that artificial intelligence will liberate us from work, leaving us to a life of leisure, self-driving cars, and Wi-Fi-enabled kettles. Others think robots will steal our jobs, ushering in dystopian levels of unemployment. Like all things, the reality is likely to be something in between. It’s also likely to be strangely familiar.

Technology tends not to wipe away the differences and inequalities in a society. Karl Marx, for instance, was famously wrong in his prediction that the introduction of railways would overcome the caste system in India. Technology is mediated through society. It builds on the inequalities we already have, twisting and transforming them.

Women’s role in society has changed drastically in the last century but men and women still lead unequal economic lives. Women tend to work in different occupations, in different industries, in different ways, and for different (read: smaller) incomes. That economic difference means that technology will affect women in ways that are sometimes better, sometimes worse, but definitely different from the effects on men.

By some estimates, as many as 40% of jobs in Australia today will be done by algorithms or machines within a decade or two. It’s not the case that white-collar jobs will stay and blue-collar will go. Instead, the key question is whether a job’s tasks are routine or not. Reviewing thousands of documents to prepare for a court case? Probably best done by a machine. Talking someone through a difficult health diagnosis? Probably still a job for a person.

Australia’s workforce is highly gender-segregated. Women tend to be concentrated in particular industries or occupations. This doesn’t mean women will either bear the brunt or be exempt from job losses. The breadth of change promised by automation means that both genders face job losses over the coming decades. Some female-dominated roles such as administrative staff or personal secretary may disappear, but then so too may heavily male roles such as machinery operator and some kinds of labourers.

What we can see, though, is that on current trends automation is likely to embed the inequality that comes from having a gender-segregated workforce.

Australia’s gender pay gap in May of this year is a little over 16% (which by the way is basically the same that it was back in May 1995). We know that a large part of this gap comes from female professions being paid less than male equivalents. Automation won’t change that. In this new, digitised world, human skills such as empathy, creativity, or even complicated manual manipulation have special value.

But the risks and opportunities in the new economy may well be distributed between men and women in old, gendered patterns. We are likely to see growing demand for people in the care sector. These jobs, such as nurses or aged care workers, are now largely performed by women and are largely underpaid. At the same time we will also likely see growth in high-paid roles in engineering, science and technology – areas where women are traditionally underrepresented.

Technology isn’t going to erase that gap. If current trends continue we won’t have a pipeline of young women ready and able to take advantage of Stem opportunities. We can hope that automation may force us to rethink the value of caring roles and pay our teachers, nurses and childcare workers more. To achieve that we don’t just need to advance our tech – we need to advance our thinking.

It’s not just about how we work. As machines take over work, a greater share of profits will flow to those who own things rather than those who do things. Take Uber, for example. At the moment the value produced by Uber is split between the company that owns the app and the drivers who do the work. If self-driving cars take over, the value created goes in its entirety those who own the vehicles.

Men are positioned to capture a greater share of those profits because men own more than women. As a consequence of the gender pay gap, men have more savings, more investments and more superannuation. Twentieth-century feminism has emphasised the importance of economic independence for women and in the postwar period women have entered the workforce in ever greater numbers to achieve this. In a digitised world, will this continue to be a viable strategy for economic equality?

There are very real questions about what our relationships and families will look like if we cement the role of men and women as economic unequals. We have had decades of (admittedly slow and faltering) progress towards more equal and respectful home lives. Can we expect that to continue if the opportunities for women outside the home are fewer, and less well paid?

On the other side of the ledger, there is little evidence that the explosion of household technology does much to change the burden or division of household labour. Just as one task is made easier by a gadget, another new expectation or demand seems to emerge.

So what are we to do? First we need to abandon techtopian hopes that inequality will melt in the face of scientific advances. This is true not just of gender, but of race, class, or any other driver of inequality. We will erase inequality in the future in the same way we did in the past – through the hard work of concerted action to remove structural barriers.

For women, this means continuing with the program we already have – valuing feminised labour, removing the barriers to women fully participating in work, and ensuring government levers such as superannuation and taxation reduce rather than intensify the wealth gap. It also means that government needs to consider the ways in which new threats and opportunities impact men and women differently. We need to be alive to the role of gender.

That’s not a task for the future – it’s a task that starts now. Take the gig economy, for example. Digitisation has made it easier and cheaper to find people to do tasks. What we do with that tech is up to us. Some companies have used it to develop business models in which workers are paid less, have few workplace protections, and no guaranteed hours. (It’s worth noting that women are concentrated in the low-paid jobs which are particularly vulnerable to this business model.) We don’t have to accept this. There are other ways to deploy this same technology. We can encourage models that don’t leave all the risk and uncertainty with the worker.

When I say ‘we’, I mean our government, but I also mean each of us as voters, citizens and consumers. We can all question the ways in which people seek to use technology and ask whether they are making us a more or less fair society. After all, technology doesn’t make the future – we do.

This was published in The Guardian on Wednesday, 9 November 2016