Automation a threat to workplace gender balance and pay equality

Out-Law Analysis | 30 Aug 2019 | 10:06 am | 5 min. read

Automation presents a threat to pay equality between men and women. Employers must act now to help women retrain and upskill to avoid the existing gender pay gap widening further.

The impact of automation on workplace skills and career prospects has been highlighted in separate reports published by consultancy business McKinsey and by OPITO, a global skills body for the energy sector, in partnership with Robert Gordon University Oil and Gas Institute.

The McKinsey report

In its report, 'The future of women at work: transitions in the age of automation', McKinsey said that, across 10 major economies – Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, the UK and US – the automation of manual processes could result in one in five women, and 21% of men, losing their current jobs by 2030.

According to the research, women in service sector employment are at most risk from losing their jobs, while automation is most likely to impact men who are machine operators and craft workers. Up to 24% of women and 28% of men could have to switch occupations by 2030 as a result of the impact of automation on their existing roles, it said.

According to the report, however, factors such as rising incomes, spending on health care due to ageing populations, the adoption of technology and investment in infrastructure, construction, and energy could spur new job opportunities for both women and men. For women, the health care sector is likely to see the biggest job gains.

McKinsey said that to move with the shift in where jobs are as a result of the impact of automation, women will need to acquire different skills, be better qualified, be mobile and able to work more flexibly, and tech-savvy. Women will be more prone than men to partial automation of their jobs but more productive, better-paid work is available to women who make that transition, and the change could see women's share of employment grow and the existing gender pay gap narrow, it said.

However, the report said women would need to overcome "long-established barriers" in their working lives to make the changes necessary to adapt to a workplace impacted by automation, and would need help from government, industry and others to do so. Women "have less time to reskill or search for employment because they spend much more time than men on unpaid care work; are less mobile due to physical safety, infrastructure, and legal challenges; and have lower access to digital technology and participation in STEM fields than men", the report said.

If women are unable to overcome these challenges and make the changes necessary to account for the different nature of roles that will be available due to automation, this could lead to growth in the imbalance between men and women in the workplace and exacerbate the gender pay gap, McKinsey said.

The Opito report

Whilst the McKinsey report considered the effect of automation on men and women globally across many different sectors, The 'Workforce Dynamics: The Skills Landscape 2019-2025' report produced by Opito focuses on the UKCS and energy sector and provides an insight into the changing nature of work in the UK's oil and gas industry.

"Technology, innovation, the transition to a lower carbon future, increased internationalisation, and changing business models" are all disrupting the traditional way of working in the oil and gas industry and that the sector will require "an increasingly flexible, multi-skilled and technology-enabled workforce" in future as a result.

Opito said that industry will need to attract 25,000 new people to work in the sector over the next six years, and that 4,500 entirely new roles are likely to be created in this time. By 2035, 40,000 new people are expected to be working in the UK oil and gas sector, with 10,000 people in new technology and innovation roles that do not exist currently, it said.

The body anticipates "significant new demand for expertise in areas such as low carbon energy, data science, data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, material science, change management, remote operations and cybersecurity".

Currently one in four people working in the UK's oil and gas sector is a woman. If more than 80% of the current workforce is still in a job in the industry by 2025, and if there is an "equal balance" of male and female new joiners over the next six years, then that figure could rise to around 30%, Opito said.

An increased focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in schools, changes to HR processes and activities to encourage increased recruitment and retention of women, and the creation of new, business-type roles in the sector will further improve the gender balance in the sector's workforce after 2025, Opito said.

Recognising the impact of automation

The Opito report's projections of an increase in the proportion of women working in the UKCS is based on there being an equal balance between men and women joining the sector between now and 2025, which is unlikely based on current rates of recruitment.

The report also highlighted that the job families most exposed to transactional activities, and therefore automation, in the UKCS included finance, health and safety, and HR. These are also the job families in which women are employed in the largest numbers in the UKCS. It is therefore imperative that organisations in the energy sector recognise that automation could actually have a disparately negative effect on the gender balance and pay equality of their organisations.  

As the report from McKinsey highlights, women will need to have the right skills, labour mobility and networks to be able to transition jobs. There is a huge opportunity for employers to enable women to make these necessary transitions.

Employers will need to understand the potential impact of initiatives on the composition of its workforce, identify where this may present additional challenges for women and invest in appropriate training and reskilling.

Actions available to employers

Some of the steps employers can take to help women to retrain, upskill and become more employable in a world of greater automation are outlined in the reports by McKinsey and Opito.

McKinsey's report offers more specific recommendations under three broad headings aimed at supporting skill-building, addressing labour mobility constraints and increasing women’s representation in and access to technology.

Recommendations include:

  • Establish training and apprenticeship programs for women;
  • Provide opportunities to reskill for "midcareer women or women returning to workforce"
  • Provide access to childcare through the workplace;
  • Change corporate policy to "promote flexible or telecommuting work options";
  • Sponsor network-building organisations for women
  • Increase unconscious bias training in performance reviews and hiring practices;
  • Improve visibility of female role models;
  • Develop partnerships to increase exposure to STEM opportunities for girls and women from primary school to university;
  • Sponsor women pursuing advanced education in STEM, and;
  • Provide greater financial support to budding female entrepreneurs

For its part, Opito said there is a need for closer collaboration between businesses in the UK's oil and gas sectors and training providers to ensure people coming into the industry are provided with the right skills.

"Improved collaboration will enable the curricula and training methods to adapt more quickly to changing demands and will enable a real focus on lifelong learning," the report said.

Opito has also championed a four-point approach to delivering the right skills – retain; retrain; recruit; renew.

Under those headings, Opito has endorsed actions such as ongoing training and development, upskilling in areas such as "enterprise skills, new ways of working, internationalisation and general technology and data skills", an annual recalibration of recruitment requirements, and building partnerships between government, education establishments, training providers and industry to ensure alignment on access to new skills.

Helen Corden, Claire Scott and Erica Kinmond are employment law experts who specialise in gender pay gap compliance at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.