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Does Automation Target Women’s Jobs?

The assumption that women need special protection from robots underestimates their creativity and versatility

A number of studies have come to the conclusion that automation will hit women harder than men:

“This is primarily because women work in those occupations and sectors that are at high risk…there are more women doing low-scale blue-collar jobs and there are fewer women who are in senior level positions,” Era Dabla-Norris, division chief in the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, told Quartz. For instance, women make up much of the retail sector—they assemble products in factories, stock shelves in stores, and ring up customer purchases. They also hold a disproportionate number of jobs that involve more routine tasks like clerical and secretarial work. Self-checkout stations, packaging robots, fintech that streamlines repetitive duties, are already encroaching on these jobs.

Aisha Hassan, “Workplace automation will hit women harder than men” at Quartz

Preparing more girls for STEM fields, legislating promotion quotas for women, and basic income guarantees are all suggested by policy analysts as solutions. The latter two proposed fixes assume that women who lose repetitive jobs to robots would be happier as administrators or dependents. That’s not clear.

The new information economy favors self-employment but another recent piece on women, work, and status was emphatically negative about it:

Morra Aarons-Mele has researched the reasons women start their own businesses, and has found that women frequently say they did so to gain more control over their time…

Yet in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, Aarons-Mele writes that “the economic impact of most women’s small businesses may not be what’s best for women, their families or the economy in the long run.” She adds that “women-owned businesses are disproportionately in industries where the median receipts are less than $225,000 (and businesses with receipts less than $100,000 are more likely to fail).”

Shana Leibowitz, “There Are 114 Percent More Women Entrepreneurs Than 20 Years Ago and It’s Not Necessarily a Good Thing” at Inc.

This approach overlooks a number of factors. From my lifetime experience in the publishing industry, many women do choose self-employment to gain more control over their time—but also to gain more control over their working conditions and goals. For example, many, if not most, editors who “went freelance” aspired to write books themselves someday. They had no interest in rising to the top in a publishing company so that they could sit in a corner office and write reports instead.

In recent years, while organizing care for aged parents, I discovered the same pattern among health care workers who assist seniors. Many women gain experience as employees and later start independent businesses, especially if they have observed a chronic unmet need. The area of need might be foot care, oral hygiene, fitness, chauffering, help with lifestyle adjustments like downsizing; it’s hard to list all the possibilities—especially in the age of affordable and portable electronics. Many of these “micropreneurs” have the advantage that their services are covered at least in part by clients’ health insurance plans or by veterans’ benefits.

Business professor Jay Richards points out in The Human Advantage: The Future of American Work in an Age of Smart Machines that mechanization gives us all the resources to use our creative freedom to create new and different jobs:


The assumption that women need special protection from robots underestimates their creativity and versatility. Money is like water; everyone needs some. But how much we need beyond the basic minimum depends on whether we are running a bakery or a marina. And, assuming that we can meet our living expenses either way, a real benefit of the new economy is that it enables many more of us to follow our dreams.

Also by Denyse O’Leary:

Did AI teach itself to “not like” women?

and

AI can be racist and sexist, researchers complain

See also: Jay Richards: Creative freedom, not robots, is the future of work In an information economy, there will be a place where the human person is at the very center


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does Automation Target Women’s Jobs?