The impact of automation on gender equality

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More than six million workers are worried their jobs could be replaced by machines over the next 10 years, according to a recent government report.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), estimates that 44% of jobs could be automated in the next two decades.

But what impact will automation have on gender equality and will it help or hinder women when it comes to creating a more level playing-field in the workplace?

Level playing field

Clark Boyd, digital marketing consultant and research director at ClickZ tech publication, says that technology usually reflects the outlooks and biases which are prevalent at its time of creation. “Automation sounds impersonal, cold, and mechanical. It creates a sense of distance from people, as though it were removed from us altogether,” he notes. “However, any technology springs from our current reality and tends to mirror existing biases. In some cases, it only serves to entrench them further.”

Automation could create a more level playing-field, but only if we design the systems to do so.

“The World Economic Forum predicts it will take 217 years to close the global gender pay gap and technology alone will do little to bridge that chasm,” says Boyd. “Those best placed to take the new jobs will know how to work alongside technology to maximise output. Men are more likely than women to have this expertise as they currently hold the majority of high-tech jobs and could therefore be in a better position to avail of automation.”

The impact of automation on accountancy

In order to prevent a gender imbalance, we need to ensure we address the issue pre-emptively, Boyd advises. “Should automation place a premium on advanced skills, it is essential that this training is provided to avoid an extension of the current gender imbalance in terms of pay and opportunities,” he says.

Automation will have a significant impact on most industry sectors, but especially finance and accountancy. “It will take over a range of time-consuming, laborious tasks. In turn, this will free up valuable resource for accountants to analyse data and work more as a strategic adviser,” Boyd predicts.

Annabel Kaye, director at Irenicon employment law specialists, says gender equality is always affected by technological change. “Moving from home-based industries to factories during the industrial revolution had a profound effect on the work women (and children) were paid to do,” she notes.

“The more recent shift away from heavy industry and physical muscle towards service sector jobs has benefited working class women compared to working class men, since the women have adapted to service sector roles.”

How will gender equality be affected?

Technology has already had a significant impact on the accountancy and bookkeeping sector, and this will continue with the onset of automation. “We are already seeing the impact on the bookkeeping side, with self-service expense apps and semi-automatic sales and purchase invoice systems integrating seamlessly into books,” says Kaye. It is, she believes, possible that data-entry bookkeeping roles will disappear altogether over time.

It will take 217 years to close the global gender pay gap

The question is, what impact will this have on equality? “There are lots of opportunities for women to create new skills sets and roles, spanning the gap between understanding the tech and how it applies to accounting, and actually understanding the client and what they want,” says Kaye.

Upskilling in the workplace

Women who have already mastered accounting should not have no difficulty in adding into that a working knowledge of apps, software platforms and AI, she adds but it is up to employers to ensure women are properly represented and to provide training programmes to upskill them.

“All too often men are taught about the new technology from the point of view that they will understand it, control it and even repair it and women are taught about it simply as users,” she notes. “Employers need to be proactive and make sure they are not embedding this kind of divide into the new technology. Finding historic and current role models to show women that this is something we can all do is going to be as important as making the training available.”

Leaders need to set the tone

Professor Binna Kandola OBE, senior partner of business psychology firm, Pearn Kandola, believes that top-level roles should remain largely unaffected by automation but that women in less senior roles may be hindered.

“If the roles towards the bottom of the organisational ladder are the most likely to be lost, recent data on the gender divide in senior positions suggests that women will be the first out of the door. PwC, for example, reported earlier this year that four-fifths of its partners are male.”

Ultimately, says Kandola, it will be up to those in leadership positions who set the tone “Business leaders are less likely to believe that their jobs could possibly be automated which means they will look to the more junior roles – which are usually female dominated,” he notes.

“It’s a continuation and manifestation that men are inherently more capable of complex decision making – a sexist belief that has been around for centuries.”

Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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