Robot sitting at a table and drinking coffee while working on a computer.
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Could automation help close the gender gap in the future of work?

20 Sep 2019 spoke to automation expert Rhia Wieclawek about what the future of work could have in store for women.

Future of Work Week

One of the words we hear most frequently when talking about the future of work is ‘automation’. This will transform how we work in a myriad of ways, impacting everything from our recruitment processes to our company culture development.

Something that we hear considerably less about, however, is how automation could help us achieve better gender equality in the workplace.

It may seem daunting that one in 10 women now hold jobs that are likely to be automated, but spoke to Rhia Wieclawek, director of business process automation at Elantis Solutions, about the promise that the future of work holds for women when they embrace automation over the coming decades.

Speaking generally about the view that women mainly occupy receptionist and front-of-house roles, Wieclawek said: “Of course, there are people who still feel that they want to see a woman at the desk when they walk in.

“They still want a woman to be serving them when they are doing their work. They want to be brought coffee and news. And that’s horrible and completely sexist, from my point of view, but I’m hoping we’re going to see it just leave.”

The gender gap

Despite the fact that both women and men will have to deal with increased automation impacting their jobs in the future, recent research has shown us that gender inequality is still very much alive in the workforce.

In STEM research, the number of women climbing the career ladder has been cited as “disappointingly low” based on a study of more than 500 scientific institutions around the world.

Earlier this week, Kantar’s latest inclusion index found that more than a quarter of women surveyed don’t feel like they belong at their workplace, and one in five believe they are paid less than their male peers at a similar level.

‘There will always be a need for the human experience’

While there are many reasons for disparities, a contributing factor that can’t be ignored when we think of women in the workforce is maternity leave. In most countries, women are still typically the primary caregiver once children come into the picture.

“Traditionally, especially in North America, it’s typically the woman that stays at home with the child. So that means that they may well lose either the entire year from maternity leave taking care of their child, and then it’s possible that they’ll turn into a stay-at-home parent,” Wieclawek said.

“Which I think is great, but it does mean that they’re no longer in the workforce, which means they’re not improving their skills. They’re not in the office to be promoted, so they are staying in what we would see not as ‘lesser jobs’, of course, but less skilled or specialised positions.”

The future of work beyond maternity leave

However, the future of work and all that it brings could change that.

In fact, there are factors beyond automation that will have a big part to play, such as paternity leave becoming more commonplace. Dividing parental leave more equally between two working individuals could mean that neither person sees a dramatic drop in their upskilling or career progression because they’re taking time off to care for children.

But automation will certainly carry a lot of weight. For some parents, working part-time administrative roles that encroach less on their personal lives is necessary for busy schedules outside the office, but not always something they actually want to do.

If automation can take over some of the basic groundwork associated with those administrative jobs, such as data entry, there could be more scope for women to return from maternity leave to more meaningful work and better chances at upskilling, if that’s what they want.

What kind of work can be automated?

According to Wieclawek, almost any work that is repetitive is going to face automation in the future. A perfect example is a typically administrative role that involves such tasks as creating reports from data that already exists.

“Any form of data entry, I can see that leaving humans in the next 10 years or so,” she said.

Something that we can likely all relate to is checking in with someone at reception if we’re heading into an office building for a meeting, or a hotel for a weekend stay. Automation has already begun to impact that process, according to Wieclawek.

She described her experiences of automated check-ins, where she a tech system took her name, automatically printed a name badge and alerted her host to her arrival. If that host wasn’t available, it would instead check if a secondary person was free.

‘Because technology is changing so rapidly right now, it’s hard to keep up’

As intelligent as that device is, though, it can never truly replace the role of a human, she emphasised.

“There will always be a need for the human experience, I feel, so I don’t think we’re going to see it completely wiped out. But we’re moving into an area where people prefer to interact with bots or text services or live chat.

“I think there will certainly be a preference later on for getting away from the phone, but of course that frees up the receptionist to do anything else.”

Returning to an automated world

What can you do when the time comes to step back into the world of work? The best way to make your transition back into the workforce as smooth as possible, said Wieclawek, is to upkeep your skills.

“If you’re planning to come back into the workforce and you are the primary caregiver, and at this point I’m going to say it’s for any gender, any gender at all, make sure you’re trying to keep up on your skills if you do want to come back.

“There are lots of resources out there. You can keep up. You can put those courses on your resumé. They count. And do projects to show what those look like to keep yourself up to date with what’s going on. Because technology is changing so rapidly right now, it’s hard to keep up. It really is.”

How can we prepare?

Finally, Wieclawek gave some advice, based on her own experiences, for navigating automation and the future of work.

“I would say embrace it is probably the wrong word. But as soon as you identify that you are in a role that is probably – and you might even say definitively – going to be automated, be aware of it. Talk to people about it. Identify the parts of your world that you feel need real human compassion, a real human component.

“Start thinking about how you would automate your own role. Think about how you, as a human, would still be required there. What the processes would be, what the policies around it are, what kind of decisions need to be made.

“And just make sure you’re keeping that in mind as you go and start thinking about how you can add value to it as a human.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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