New tech is both a threat and a benefit for women’s access to work
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
As an independent adviser on private equity deals, Katherine Feeney has figured out how to liaise with clients from almost anywhere in the world. She has made presentations from locations that include a mountain hut in Canada and a surf camp in Indonesia.
Feeney started her one-woman consultancy — which helps private equity funds do the due diligence on their investments — two years ago after leaving professional services firm Bain & Co. With a laptop and two portable monitors, she reckons she can work from anywhere that has WiFi.
This has been made possible, Feeney says, by advances in technology as well as by “the way the pandemic made remote work in professional services much more accepted”.
New technology is reshaping the way we all work, displacing jobs and changing the skills employers look for. In some ways, women stand to lose out since they are under-represented in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence (AI). But women also stand to gain from emerging technology.
Joseph Fuller, who co-leads Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work research programme, says it will allow women to overcome skills gaps that stop them entering many male-dominated professions, such as construction, warehouse operations, or financial analysis.
“In many settings, jobs that are rooted in technology are supported by a workforce that skews male,” he says, which reflects historical gender roles and biases in education. “New technology should lessen the importance of having a specific technical background.” An example is generative AI, which can automate routine tasks such as writing code and analysing data.
Meanwhile, some female-dominated professions, such as nursing and childcare, will be largely unaffected by technological shifts, as much of the work can be done only by a human, say analysts at LinkedIn Economic Graph (see chart).
Trends in hiring could also work in women’s favour. Creative and analytical thinking, for example, are the competencies most companies say are rising in importance, according to a World Economic Forum report, Future of Jobs (see chart). Fuller says that women, who generally have “superior social skills”, will disproportionately benefit.
The value of, say, problem-solving and communication skills will be magnified by the growing emphasis that hiring managers are putting on these abilities over narrow educational credentials, such as a university degree.
A skills-first approach to hiring disproportionately helps under-represented groups, including women, a LinkedIn report, called Skills First, has found. It says that, in male-dominated jobs, the pool of potential female hires would increase eight-fold if companies hired for skills not educational credentials — a quarter more than for men (see chart).
Global professional services firm Accenture is among the organisations shifting towards skills-based hiring in an attempt to fill new roles created by rapid technological change.
Joan Moore, its UK head of early talent, says raising non-graduate recruitment overall is one reason it now “comfortably” achieves gender equality in entry-level hiring.
Rethinking hiring practices is important at a time when employers say they are competing for workers with the right skills. The global deficit of skills is forecast to rise to 11 per cent by 2030 from 3 per cent in 2020, warns organisational consulting firm Korn Ferry.
For women with caring responsibilities, Fuller predicts that skills shortages will force companies to accommodate their needs: “More flexible, remote and part-time work will cause innovations that allow women not to ‘have it all’, but to ‘have more’ by enabling productivity from afar.”
A growing online gig economy, where platforms match freelancers with short-term contracts, is already helping with flexibility. Around a third of Feeney’s fees so far this year came through Catalant, an online platform for white-collar work — more than last year.
In 2021, more than two in five gig economy projects in the UK and US were done by women, notes the Oxford Internet Institute, which studies the effects of digital technology (see chart).
Employers, too, are finding new ways to use technology to attract skilled workers. US financial services company Prudential Financial created an internal gig economy platform to facilitate reskilling and has given teams autonomy over remote work. This helps with retention because it “promotes a culture of inclusion”, says Robert Gulliver, chief talent and capability officer. “Good talent is hard to find and keep.”
Fuller says leaders who prioritise diversity and employee wellbeing, including measures to help keep women in the workforce, will reap the rewards. “They understand that if they do it now, the payback unfolds over the next few decades,” he says.