Technology and women's jobs

The World Economic Forum recently released its annual jobs report.  As Emma Teitel of the Toronto Star points out, one of the issues flagged by the report is potential loss of 7.1 million jobs in the "office and administrative jobs" category by 2020.

The reason for this job loss is increasing automation of this type of work.  Many of the jobs in sectors like customer relations are being taken over by software, in the form of AI agents.  People often expect Siri to handle this sort of query, for example, rather than a human being.

This change holds particular social significance because jobs in this category are held largely by women.  Thus, it appears that technology is threatening gender equity in the workplace.  (It might also explain why AI agents, like Siri and Cortana, are given female personas.)

Teitel draws the following conclusion:

This means one day we could presumably find ourselves in a world where the labour force is dominated not by men and women, but by men and machines. 

If you’re OK with this scenario, of course, sit back and relax. However, if it concerns you as a feminist afraid of a dystopian future run by dudes and robots — you’re not alone.

The Economics 101 response would be that women can simply migrate to other job categories.  The report itself suggests that there are significant barriers to this proposal.  Although deliberate exclusion of women from  certain job categories has become rare, the culture of work areas are still male oriented, thus discouraging female participation.

The solution suggested by Teitel is that women should be more involved in the technology sector itself.  As a growth area, this sector has the capacity to create employment for women who are being displaced elsewhere.

The problem with this suggestion is that the sector has proven resistant to change from its default bro-culture.  It is likely no coincidence that female participation in engineering and computer science has continued to fall off in recent years, in North America at least, in both education and the workplace.  However, women have made more strides in chemistry and biology.

Any effort to promote female participation in technology would work out only in the long term.  For the short term, the report reaches pessimistic conclusions:

From a net employment outlook perspective, expected absolute job creation and losses due to disruptive change over the 2015–2020 period are likely to amplify current gender gap dynamics. 

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