Automation Could Widen Inequality between Women and Men in U.S. Labor Market

Washington, DC -Women are a clear majority (58 percent) of workers in jobs that are at high risk of technological substitution even though they make up less than half (47 percent) of the U.S. workforce, according to a new study released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Hispanic women face the highest risk of job automation with one in three working in high-risk occupations.

Women, Automation, and the Future of Work presents the first comprehensive gender analysis of the potential impact of technological change on women’s and men’s employment in the United States, with an emphasis on the likely effects for women, given the jobs women are concentrated in and the disproportionate share of home and family care done by women. While the report makes clear that there is no consensus on the impact of technology on the number of jobs—indeed, employment may grow even as many jobs are displaced—the study explores how gender segregation of the U.S. labor market and trends in digitalizing jobs, gig work, and high-tech fields signal a troubling trajectory toward greater gender inequality in the future of work.

Other major findings from the study include:
For women, technology is particularly likely to threaten well-paying jobs. The risk of automation is greatest for men in low-wage jobs, but women’s risk of automation is distributed across better and lower paid occupations, including many jobs in office and administration that have traditionally served as a bridge to the middle class. While women workers are also concentrated in the jobs least likely to be replaced by technology—such as child care, elder care, and education—these “safe” jobs often pay less at each level of education and provide less access to benefits than many jobs at higher risks of automation. Women face a 41 percent earnings gap with men in returns on digital skills. Women are more likely than men to work with computers and digital media and, while earnings for both women and men increase with greater “digitalization,” the returns are significantly higher for men than for women.

For women, making a living wage without being digitally literate is increasingly impossible. Well-paying jobs that do not require high digital skills—such as carpenters or brick layers—are performed mostly by men.

The share of women working in the three largest high-tech jobs—which will shape innovations of the future—has fallen over the past 20 years. The share of women working as Computer Scientists and Systems Analysts, Software Developers, and Computer Support Specialists has declined since 2000. The likelihood of working in computing jobs is also shaped by race and gender dynamics: Hispanic women, for example, are 76 percent less likely to work in such jobs than suggested by their share of the workforce. While the number of women in these jobs has increased, the number of men has increased faster. Programs to increase the number of women in these jobs are popular and must expand further to give women a better chance to participate in STEM jobs that determine the future of automation and AI.

While opening new employment opportunities for women, “gig” work is highly gender segregated, just like the U.S. labor market as a whole. Women are approximately as likely as men to do gig work—selling products or finding jobs through digital platforms, temporary employment agencies, or self-employment—but such work arrangements remain relatively marginal as a share of total employment. Women gig workers still experience unequal pay, disparate work conditions, and less flexibility in female-dominated platform work, yet platforms have given women, including women of color, new opportunities in entrepreneurship and male-dominated fields.

The future of caregiving will shape the future of work. Robots may supplement, but not replace, the need for human care and trends in paid and unpaid care work are critical to understanding the future of work. Personal care aides is the fastest growing occupation in the United States, yet low pay and poor job quality in many of these care jobs threaten the economic security of women workers, particularly women of color and immigrants. Women also continue to perform the majority of unpaid care. Automation holds the potential to improve both unpaid and paid care work, if appropriate investments are made in technological advances.

“This report aims to deeply investigate recent trends in women’s and men’s employment to chart whether we are building on gains toward greater equality or cementing inequality for generations of workers to come. What we found were warning signs—declining earnings in women’s jobs, lower returns on education and digital skills for women, and concerning disparities in job quality. By enacting gender-aware policies, we can shift the trajectory of the future of work toward greater equity, benefiting women, families, and the U.S. economy as a whole,” said economist and IWPR President Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D.

Jennie Sparandara, Head of Workforce Initiatives at JPMorgan Chase & Co., which supported IWPR’s new research on women and automation, also commented, “This report presents a comprehensive and compelling case that any discussion about technological change and the future of work must include gender as part of the conversation. It is possible to build a future of work that reduces inequalities, improves economic security, and ensures that women and communities of color reap the many benefits of technological change.”