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Why the Analysis of Technological Change Needs a Gender Perspective

Automation, artificial intelligence, and other technological changes are already affecting the number and quality of jobs. The number of workers employed in brick and mortar retail stores has fallen while the number employed in fulfillment centers preparing online orders for shipping increased by 400,000 between 2007 and 2017 (Mandel 2017). In retail stores there are fewer cashiers and more self-checkout machines, more people today find work using online labor platforms, and the number of bank tellers is falling as the public does much of its banking online. These changes and others have led to a rash of research studies on the future of work and what it will mean for workers. One widely cited 2013 study found that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States are at risk of automation with the technology we currently have over “some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two” (Frey and Osborne 2013, p. 38). The Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, projects that the total number of jobs will actually increase by seven percent between 2016 and 2026 (Lacey et al. 2017). Yet other researchers focus on how the content of jobs will change, and the potential for technology to generate new jobs both in current occupational categories and in completely new categories we cannot yet imagine.

It is not clear which of these predictions and projections are correct. What the research does make clear is that the world of work is changing, it will continue to change, and it will require that the labor force and our systems of labor market supports change with it. Given that women and men often work in different occupations and given that women are much more likely than men to do unpaid care work—a large part of our economy—any analyses and public policies developed to address technological change need to take account of gender differences. Some predict that women will gain with respect to overall rates of employment but will become even more highly represented among the growing number of low-quality human service jobs in the new economy than they are now, and also may have trouble entering the generally male-dominated ‘high-tech’ occupations that are expected to grow, such as Software Engineer. In contrast, others suggest that even low-paid jobs like Home Health Care Aide may be transformed by new technologies becoming available in the home, and that women who are well prepared will indeed join the high-tech workforce in larger numbers, as suggested by the many projects designed to interest girls and young women in coding, robotics, and software development. These predictions are complicated even more by the racial and ethnic differences among women in access to training and employment opportunities, another place where social policy is needed to improve equity going forward.

The outcome of these ongoing changes—whether there will be large numbers of unemployed and underemployed people or a thriving economy in which everyone participates—will depend on the policies that are implemented. A thriving economy will require substantial investment in new technologies and public policies to ensure that the jobs of the future are high quality jobs that pay a living wage and provide workers with security and benefits, including workers in the gig economy who may increasingly find employment through online platforms.

The goal of this report is to improve understanding of the potential impact of technological change on women and men’s employment, with an emphasis on the likely effects for women, given the jobs where women predominantly work and given the disproportionate share of home and family care done by women. Only a small number of studies to date have estimated the risk of automation separately for men and women, and none for the United States. In the coming years, technological changes are likely to have a substantial impact on the need for training and education, with workers likely to have to retrain and reskill repeatedly during their lifetimes. A better understanding of how women and men may be affected differentially by technological change can lead to more effective policies that share the benefits of technological change more equitably.

This report first summarizes, in Chapter 1, the existing literature on the future of work, specifically on forecasts of the changing number and content of jobs associated with technological change. Chapter 2, drawing on the IWPR Future of Work database, developed to analyze the impact of automation and digitalization on employment for women and men by race and ethnicity from 2000 into the future, provides an original analysis of the potential quantitative impact of technological change on occupations typically done by women or men. Chapter 3 discusses several of the broader aspects of the future of work looking at how automation and technology are changing the qualitative nature of work and the manner in which work is done, providing both new opportunities and raising new risks for workers. The chapter examines how this shift differentially affects women and men and what the likely consequences will be in terms of decreased economic security and increased inequality. Chapter 4 takes a closer look at one qualitative aspect of job content, specifically the digitalization of women’s and men’s jobs and how, over time, many jobs—disproportionately women’s jobs—have come to require at least some work with digital technology, but how women’s digital skills are rewarded less than men’s. This chapter also discusses how women are participating in designing the future of work. Chapter 5 examines how automation and technological change may change the dynamic of work and family obligations through both a change in how families provide care to children and aging parents and a change in how work is actually done that can help alleviate the conflict between work and family obligations for many workers. At the same time, those employed as paid family caregivers may face new risks. The final chapter highlights the study’s main findings, noting challenges posed by technological change and providing a menu of policy options.