Automation more likely to affect female workers

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​The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has called on the government to ensure the benefits of technology are evenly shared

Women are more than twice as likely as men to hold jobs with a high potential for automation, according to IPPR research.

Its report, The Future is Ours: Women, automation and equality in the digital age, found that 9% of working women are in jobs at high risk of automation, compared to 4% of men.

The report paints a complex picture of the impact of increased automation on the economy. It argues that overall work and jobs will be transformed rather than eliminated.

If managed well automation presents an opportunity to reduce gender inequalities, reshape how people work, and will allow people to share economic benefits, the research noted. But without government intervention workplace automation risks widening existing gender pay and wealth gaps, the think tank warned.

Automation could raise wages for low-paid women in sectors such as social care, retail and hospitality if businesses were offered support to adopt automating technologies and workers empowered to lead the process, the report said.

Some productivity gains from automation should be shared across the economy through an increase in annual leave entitlement, the report recommended. Researchers suggested that a productivity increase of 2% in real terms could enable an extra week of holiday spread over the year per person, without any loss of output.

This would help to relieve people with caring responsibilities, usually women, from the pressures of the ‘double shift’ of paid and unpaid work. Reducing men’s working hours would enable unpaid work in the home to be more easily shared, the research stated. Increased annual leave entitlements would also benefit part-time workers, who are disproportionately women.

The report found that migrants and lone parents are even more likely to be in jobs at risk of automation. Migrant women (born outside the UK) make up 21% of the female workforce but 29.3% of those are in jobs with high automation potential. Women in such jobs are 60% more likely to be lone parents than women across the whole workforce.

The IPPR made a number of recommendations for organisations to ensure automation is implemented fairly. These include a commitment to 30% representation of women on boards by 2025, raising pay to increase productivity, and supporting women to transition to new jobs.

Commenting on the report, IPPR chief economist and head of its Centre for Economic Justice Carys Roberts said that the effects of automation at work must be carefully managed. “Where automation occurs it is likely to radically reshape what we do at work, and who benefits from the wealth generated. These changes may well affect men and women differently because they tend to have different jobs in the UK labour market," she said.

“Technology is not destiny. With intervention everyone can share in the productivity gains that automation brings – both financially and in the form of time outside work – and can access the good jobs in the future economy."

Speaking to HR magazine, Roberts said that employers must ensure workers are aware of how their jobs will be affected. “For automation to work for everyone employers must involve workers in the process of automation. Our focus groups identified that consideration of workers' views, knowledge of their roles, and ensuring they understand why and how their roles are changing are key to successful automation," she said.

She added that organisations should work with employees and trade unions, and look at policies around flexible working: “In the report we call for a new social partnership organisation, Productivity UK, to not only to help kick-start automation in low-productivity sectors but to help co-ordinate businesses with their employees and trade unions to ensure this is fairly done, with the returns equally shared," she said.

“For automation to narrow inequalities between men and women it is vital that the new jobs that are created are accessible to women. Businesses can play their part in this by putting in measures like flexible working and part-time opportunities as well as leading culture change in organisations where women are underrepresented. This must include ensuring women can lead this change.”

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