Jobs and the Future of Work

Is the future of work a man's world? 3 ways women can win

The world of work risks becoming increasingly male. But women don't have to lose out Image: Tim Gouw

Mara Swan
Executive Vice President, Global Strategy and Talent, ManpowerGroup
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Future of Work

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

“This is a man's world ... but it wouldn't be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.” So said James Brown in 1966 and there’s no doubt progress has been made around gender parity since then. These well-known words should seem outdated. But are they? Is the future of jobs a man’s world? The reality is it may be.

Today, technology is changing the way work gets done at an unprecedented rate and we are seeing the emergence of a skills revolution. Helping people upskill and adapt to a fast-changing world of work will be the defining challenge of our time, and one of the biggest impacts will be felt by women.

The gender gap could get wider

The industries most affected by artificial intelligence, digitization and robotics will disproportionately impact women. All sorts of roles are threatened by automation – sales, business and financial operations, office and administration – all of which tend to have higher proportions of women.

On top of this, the industries anticipating jobs growth are underrepresented by women: architecture, engineering, computers and mathematics. And while we may have reached near parity in the number of men and women graduating with degrees in social sciences and mathematics, at least in the United States, in computer science we’re in reverse. Today, women make up only 18% of computer science graduates, compared with 37% in the 1980s.

If the current trajectory continues, women could face 3 million job losses and only half a million gains. That’s more than five jobs lost for every job gained. We may be heading towards an even bigger gender gap.

Image: McKinsey

Learnability will be the great equalizer

But I’m an optimist. We also know that jobs requiring greater skills proficiency are growing fastest – a good sign for women, who are outnumbering male university graduates in 95 of 144 countries. While we cannot slow the rate of technological advance, we can invest in employees’ skills to increase the relevance and resilience of our people and organizations, regardless of gender or social background.

In this skills revolution, learnability will be the great equalizer. Men don’t own the corner on learnability. Companies cannot predict what skills they will need in the future, so the only way they can ensure agility is to start hiring people according to how quickly they learn new skills. And women should be focusing on nurturing this agility, to be poised to take advantage in shifts in industries and jobs so they are not left behind.

It has been a man’s world, and we have been wringing our hands over how to make work more gender neutral since before Brown sang those words. Yet, we have not managed to find the right solution and are now faced with even greater threats. Here are some pragmatic approaches we can take today to ensure women are not left behind in the skills revolution:

Hire, promote and encourage women to take on responsibility

Our research has highlighted how few women recognize that P&L exposure (or exposure to roles with responsibility for a division’s profit and loss) is critical for advancement, so too often they get stranded halfway up the ladder. We need women obtaining the skills and experience to manage and drive the business in technical and operational roles. This will help mitigate job losses for women in staff roles that are under threat from automation.

Conduct career conversations

Last year we found that only 16% of employees have a career conversation with their manager. Bad news overall for employee engagement but also something that has a disproportionately negative impact on women since many do not actively seek leadership roles. Women need to be actively upskilling to be viable for the industries and jobs that are being created in this new environment, and companies need to help them do it.

Hire for learnability

Skills and talent matter more than ever. Now is the time for leaders to be responsive and responsible. We need to fast-track the training and reskilling of existing employees to ensure we have a future-ready workforce and to draw in those that are not fully participating in the labour market. We need to be ready for new jobs and new skills, which is why learnability should be the number one consideration when hiring.

The future won’t be a man’s world, it will be a skilled world – one where women have equal access, representation and skills to capture the opportunities in industries and jobs that are growing and well-paid.

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkEquity, Diversity and InclusionEmerging TechnologiesEducation and Skills
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