This week, the Institute for Public Policy Research released their report and recommendations on the future of automation and its potential impact on gender inequality in the UK labour market.
Across our work with students, women and employers in science, technology, engineering and the built environment we see the impact (or perceived impact) of advancing technology and automation everyday. The most common issues raised throughout these discussions have been:
- Skills learnt in higher and further education courses being fit for purpose for the fast-paced technology sector and being relevant to the labour market’s skills shortages.
- Access to re-skilling throughout women’s careers; particularly women who have left the STEM sectors and are looking to re-enter.
- Experiences of ageism in the industry and an assumption that older women are not as knowledgeable or not able to learn new skills quickly.
- The need for more flexibility in the workplace for women with caring responsibilities.
- Increased occupational segregation as STEM skills become essential across the labour market with women locked out of these opportunities as a consequence of their already low numbers in STEM related roles or qualifications.
- A lack of support/existence of initiatives to enable women in non-STEM roles (particularly in low-paid work) to re-skill in STEM. Currently initiatives in this area tend to focus on a starting point for digital inclusion (digital literacy), paid for entry to coding or software courses or funded Masters level for those with skills to take on senior roles.
The IPPR research echoed many of these points, stating that: “64% of workers in roles with higher potential for automation are women, and 36% are men. Looking at it another way, working women are twice as likely to be in “high potential” occupations than working men” the report also highlighted the intersecting inequalities within the labour market which require deeper analysis and intervention “Migrants, and lone parents (typically women) are more likely to hold jobs with high automation potential.”
The report provided a number of recommendations, one of which is to create a “social partnership body; Productivity UK” which would support employers to utilise automating technology with a focus on low paid sector which employ a disproportionate number of women. The report suggests that membership of this body includes academics, government, business and trade unions. We would add to this, the need to include gender equality experts who are able to ensure policy and outcomes by the body are relevant to women’s lives and meet their needs.
Other recommendations include gender representation on private sector boards, mandatory flexible working options, the living wage becoming the new minimum wage, expansion of employee ownership trusts and paternity leave improvements. As the report was a UK wide analysis the recommendations are related to equalities or employment law, both of which are reserved policy areas.
Despite that, there are interventions we can make in Scotland:
- Collect more detailed and competent data to understand intersecting inequalities across the Scottish labour market.
- Invest in free (or at least, heavily subsidised) technical skills development opportunities relevant to the “reallocation of jobs” for women and under-represented groups who are currently locked into under-valued and under-paid work (whose jobs come under the “high potential for automation” category).
- Encourage employers to invest in staff whose jobs have “high potential for automation” by re-skilling now for future job roles they will need to fill. This should be employer led through staff development or CSR budgeting, or may be an initiative covered through the Scottish Government’s Flexible Workplace Fund.
Automation comes with huge potential and opportunity, but without this potential being founded in equality and fairness, there is a likelihood that this rapid technological progress exacerbates current gender, class and race inequality.