Transition to automation holds opportunities for women workers

12 June 2019 4 min. read
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Automation and technological advances could unlock unprecedented opportunities for women in Canada, according to a recent McKinsey & Company study. The study, which surveyed 100 Canadian organizations, examined persisting gender inequality in the workplace, as well as future challenges and opportunities for women.

Organizational commitment to gender equality is stronger than ever, according to the report, titled “The present and future of women at work in Canada.” Eighty-two percent of organizations cited gender diversity as a top or very important priority, while nearly half said they had articulated a business case for gender diversity (compared to 14% in 2017).

While women account for 50% of talent at the entry level, they remain underrepresented at higher rungs, with only a 2% increase across the talent pipeline since 2017. The McKinsey study found that women are 76% as likely as men to be promoted to manager, and only 64% as likely to be promoted to vice president. Only 43% of manager-level external hires are women, and only 34% of VP-level hires.

Women are significantly underrepresented at the senior leadership level

At the same time, 60% of women reported experiencing microaggression at work. At the VP level, women respondents said they were five times more likely than men to have to prove their competence, three times more likely to be addressed in a “less-than-professional” manner, and three times more likely to hear demeaning remarks.

As automation reshapes the workforce and drives a shift from low-skill to high-skill jobs, the transition offers new opportunities for women. “Our research suggests that Canada has an opportunity to narrow the gender gap in share of employment,” states the report. “If 8 to 30 percent or 1 million to 3 million women could successfully transition across occupations and skill levels, they could maintain or even modestly increase their share of employment by 1 to 2 percentage points by 2030.”

Women are moderately at less risk of job losses from automation – at 24% of women versus 28% of men. More than 50% of potential job losses for women would be in the areas of clerical support and services work. High growth in women-dominated sectors like healthcare (81% women) could also give an additional advantage in the shifting labour economy.

Women could be moderately less at risk of job displacement

Women, however, face many challenges and barriers in the transition. Cultural and social norms around “women’s work” could shape their choices of employment, while a persistent gender skills gap in STEM could limit women’s ability to get high-growth jobs. The uneven distribution of unpaid care work could also limit women’s ability to reskill, according to the report.

McKinsey relates that progress toward gender equality requires well-implemented and organization-wide change programs. The firm recommends five organization-level dimensions to pursue, as well as three priorities to prepare for the “future of work.”

Accelerating women’s equality

1) CEO and management commitment is a top priority at organizations already, but less than 60% of employees (and 52% of women) say their organization is doing what is needed to improve gender diversity.

2) Organizations need transparency and indicator tracking of gender targets, and need to hold management accountable for results. Less than half currently set numeric targets, and just 38% hold senior leaders accountable.

3) Women’s leadership development should be reinforced, with formal mentorship and sponsorship programs put in place. Only 35% of organizations offer the above interventions.

4) Diversity-enabling infrastructure – like childcare support and parental leave programs – needs to be strengthened, since women continue to shoulder all or most household and childcare work.

5) Inclusive mindsets and processes such as unconscious bias training should be implemented to foster an inclusive culture.

In order to prepare for the future, firms need to make sure employees get timely information on future employment opportunities, including what skills they need and what training is available. McKinsey also recommends that companies increase the inclusiveness of reskilling and recruitment practices, ensuring that “women’s unique needs” are kept in mind. Finally, the playing field for women in technology needs to be further leveled, with early intervention in school STEM programs playing a key role.