Automation could play to women’s employment strengths

Evidence suggests that generalist, digital and social skills – the skills that women already use – will be in high demand

Mario ToneguzziAutomation is upending established ways of working, and research by RBC Economics suggests that about half of all jobs in Canada will change significantly in the years ahead – particularly for women.

A new report by RBC, Advantage women: how an automated future could play to women’s strengths, says technological disruption will naturally impact both men and women in the labour force. But RBC analysis shows that women are at greater risk as they hold more than half of the 35 per cent of Canadian jobs that face an elevated threat from automation.

“This isn’t to say that women who’ve already overcome historical and social obstacles will see their labour market gains undone by new technologies. Our work shows that women may be better positioned than men for the jobs of the future. Our view is supported by evidence that generalist, digital and social skills – the skills that women already use to a greater extent – will be in high demand. Helping women make the transition, however, will require a shift in how talent is evaluated,” said the authors of the report – Dawn Desjardins, vice-president and deputy chief economist, and Andrew Agopsowicz, senior economist.

“When thinking of disruption, what comes to mind? For many, it’s a male factory worker losing his job to a robotic arm. However, automation is showing up all over the economy, not just in manufacturing. As it makes further inroads into the services sector, women face a higher risk of having their jobs displaced. Administrative, bookkeeping, and data-entry jobs – all of which traditionally employ higher numbers of women – are being replaced by artificial intelligence technologies that can maintain, organize and analyze data much more rapidly and efficiently than humans can. By our calculations, 54 per cent of the occupations in the Canadian economy that face a high degree of risk of being automated are held by women. That’s 3.4 million jobs.”

The report said that with employment declines in at-risk occupations such as receptionists, library technicians and office clerks, it’s becoming apparent that the negative effects of automation are beginning to take hold. Still, occupations that use similar sets of general and social skills – occupations like nurses’ aides and early childhood educators (and assistants) have seen impressive growth. Overall, occupations in which general and social skills are important have grown over 33 per cent faster than the national average, while those using specific technical skills lag far behind, said the report.

“While women are well positioned to weather the automation revolution, we believe there’s room for smart policy to help them identify and match their skills to the jobs of the future. Much of the re-skilling conversation in Canada has focused on the retraining of manufacturing workers who fall victim to well publicized plant closures,” said RBC.

“But many of the jobs that are under threat – and disproportionately held by women – disappear in silence. To ensure they have the right opportunities, we need better, open-access labour market data that identifies career pathways based on skills. The government’s efforts to create a national digital platform for skills and jobs information is a first step to help employers link with the workers they need for the future, and could lessen the time for re-training in job transitions. Tools to measure so-called soft skills – such as persuasion and critical thinking – would help employers find the workers who’ve demonstrably used these skills. Programs that help individuals and employers assess non-task-specific skills could yield substantial gains without the need for expensive and possibly unnecessary retraining. And they could ensure we do not leave women behind.”

Mario Toneguzzi is a Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary. He writes for Calgary’s Business.

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