A brave new world is coming, and with it, wrenching change. Automation is transforming the global economy and radically changing women’s working lives for the better. That is, as long as they have the skills required to work alongside machines and move into new occupations as their jobs are replaced.
Up to 1 in 4 women could find their job disrupted by automation and may need to move into new occupations, often requiring higher skills. Worldwide, between 40 million and 160 million women may need to make these transitions, depending on the speed with which automation spreads, according to new research we released last week with the McKinsey Global Institute. Many women could also see their existing work transformed by automation technologies.
If women are able to adapt, they could be on a path to more productive, higher-paying (and potentially more satisfying) jobs. Take a nurse. Automated systems could reduce the number of hours filling in forms and other administrative tasks by around 30%, leaving them more time for interacting with patients and their families. Or consider a teacher in a more automated classroom. Automation could free up 40% of hours worked, freeing up time to coach students or develop personalized curricula.
If women aren’t able to adapt, however, the gender pay gap could widen, and women could fall further behind in the world of work. The jobs of the future will require more education and different skills. In five of six mature economies we studied, net demand for labor is expected to grow only for jobs requiring a college or advanced degree.
MGI finds that the overall impact of automation—jobs displaced and new jobs gained—could be of a similar scale for men and women, but that women will find it harder to adapt because they still face systemic barriers that have held back gender equality at work. In the automation age, women (and men) will need to be more skilled, more mobile, and more tech-savvy. Women face challenges on all three fronts.
Women are less likely to study science and tech-related subjects that will be needed to meet growing demand from employers. Due to various societal barriers, globally, women account for only 35% of STEM students. This matters if we consider that men are more present in the most lucrative professional, scientific, and technical services positions where much of the job growth will occur. A review of recently created occupations in the U.S. suggests that up to 60% of entirely new jobs such as roboticists and machine-learning specialists are in male-dominated fields. And only 8% of venture capital investors—who are increasingly focused on tech sectors—are women.
Women are also less mobile than men. They are—and feel—less safe while traveling to training or a job. The International Labour Organization finds that lack of access to and safety of transportation systems reduces the probability of women’s workforce participation by 16.5% in low-income economies. One report noted that nearly 100% of women travelers from a Paris suburb traveling to work were harassed, indicating a major problem in developed economies as well.
Women also often need to stay closer to home–and have less time to train or look for work—because they juggle work and family. Three-quarters of the world’s unpaid care work, from looking after children and the elderly, to cooking and cleaning, falls to women.
Technology can help overcome such mobility issues, enabling women to telework or start their own e-commerce businesses from home, but women are not well-positioned in tech. Globally, men are one-third more likely than women to have access to the internet in poor urban communities. Fewer than 20% of tech workers in many mature economies are women, and only 1.4% of female workers (compared with 5.5% of men) have jobs developing, maintaining, or operating information and communications technology systems.
The new age of automation is starting to hit the workforce of today, but we have some time to prepare if we act now. Because of the particular challenges women face, there is an argument for programs tailored to gender. Focusing on these specific areas will help ensure women aren’t left behind in the next wave of innovation:
Increase access to, and comfort with, technology
While not everyone will (or should) become a software engineer, almost every future job will need a tech edge. Workers need to collaborate with, and take advantage of, technology. The foundational effort in many countries needs to be on getting women online. In emerging economies, there are still 433 million women with no internet access. And women who are already connected will need support developing additional skills such as using tech to set up e-commerce businesses or participate in the gig economy, or working with technologies that will become a part of everyday life in the workforce of the future.
Support women’s work participation by offering greater flexibility and addressing mobility constraints
Given women’s compromised mobility, training needs to cater to women where they are, offer flexible hours, and help with childcare. Employers need to step up, too, both in offering internships and skills programs, and flexible hours. In Australia, McKinsey & Company found that companies providing at least eight types of flexible working arrangements (such as parental leave) have 11% higher representation of women on their staffs than companies that offer fewer options, suggesting that flexibility encourages women in employment.
Support female founders
Improve women’s ability to finance, lead, and develop technology, with entrepreneurship ecosystems that support female founders. Organizations, including companies, can help improve women’s access to networks, mentorship opportunities, and eliminate biases in incubator or accelerator recruitment and selection processes.
The need for skills—and the imperative to support women with tailored interventions—is already on the radar of many multinational companies, governments, and nonprofits. But the scale of offerings needs to increase. If that happens, women’s share of employment could actually rise by one to two percentage points, giving a push to today’s very slow progress on advancing gender equality at work. Now is the time to build the bridges that connect women to the jobs of the future.
Lareina Yee is a McKinsey senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer. Anu Madgavkar is a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economics research arm of McKinsey & Company.