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BusinessDay: Will workplace technology automation badly affect women, in particular?

By Johan Steyn, 23 June 2021

What can business do to balance the demand to lower operational costs and increase speed to market, while protecting the female workforce?

The Smart Technology era, commonly referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has catapulted platforms like robotic process automation (RPA), combined with cognitive technologies such as machine learning and smart automation, to become widely used. These platforms provide a unique opportunity to decrease operational costs while improving the cadence of digitisation and rapidly improving customer experience.

A burning issue facing business and societal leaders is the potential displacement of jobs due to smart automation. Will we be able to retain our workforce through effective upskilling initiatives, and how do we go about doing this? The question before us is whether smart automation will replace mostly female workers. We have made limited progress regarding gender equality in the job market, however, will this progress be invalidated due to automation?

The workers who will be most directly affected by automation are those who are involved in back-office, administrative tasks; often repetitive business functions. A report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Women and Work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, concludes that the drivers of change “will heavily disrupt some of the job families with the largest share of female employees, such as office and administrative roles ...”. A report in The Guardian newspaper, “Could automation make life worse for women?” states that “the highest ratio of women’s employment is in clerical and administrative jobs (76% female).”

What can business leaders do to balance the demand to lower operational costs and increase speed to market, while protecting their predominantly affected female workforce? I have reached out to several female business leaders who work in the local ICT sector for their views. Zanele May, who heads up the Automation Centre of Excellence at Sanlam, feels that automation technologies will continue to affect jobs. “Will the female workforce be the most impacted? The probability is very high that the answer is yes.”

What can business do to turn the tide? “Invest in your workforce, by using training and development programmes to upskill and empower, prepare and create jobs of the future, re-engineer your businesses to be able to innovate, adapt and reinvent yourselves or your products,” May says.

She stresses that technology will not be able to replace the humanness of work. “The need for socialisation and human interaction is what drives people, and this will not change. So let us empower our workforce to embrace the change and enable them to differentiate themselves from technology by doing all the things technology cannot do.”

Lenore Kerrigan, a technology thought leader who specialises in smart automation, believes that although technology will have a pronounced effect on back-office, menial jobs traditionally performed by women, there are now more opportunities than ever before. “Working from home has become a norm, training and certifying for new skills online is an expectation and the increased focus and need for consideration of all types of bias within technologies opens up many opportunities.”

Julie Regairaz is the founder of Steam & Curious, a digital and innovation youth incubator movement in France and SA. She says there is a clear opportunity to create skills development programmes that help to close the gap in future-ready skills for the overall youth pipeline, but particularly for women.

“We are working on implementing low-tech and culture-specific programmes to reach out to women from communities around SA and bring awareness around Fourth Industrial Revolution opportunities and impacts on the future of jobs.”

We have a long road to traverse to ensure gender equality in our workforce. Ancient maps warned travellers “here be dragons.” The dragons we face on our journey to equality have the combined force of the technological explosion and the global pandemic. The task before us cannot be underestimated.

Researchers at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, writing on gender segregation in the workforce, argue that, “if the average annual rates of change since 1970 were to continue, it would take 150 years to reach full integration; if post-2000 rates continued, it would take 320 years.”

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of IT Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.

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