Automation and AI are already changing the way we work, and there is no shortage of concern expressed in the media, businesses, governments, labour organisations and many others about the resulting displacement of millions of jobs over the next decade.
However, much of the focus has been at the macro level, and on the medium and long-term effects of automation and AI. Meanwhile, the revolution is already well underway, and its impact on jobs is being felt now by a growing number of people.
The wave of automation and AI that is happening now is most readily seen in call centres, among customer services, and in administrative and back-office functions. Much of what we used to do was by phone – talking directly to a person. We can now use not only companies’ websites in self-serve platforms, but interact with bots in chat windows and text messages. Cashiers and administrative assistants are being replaced by self-service check-outs and robot PA’s. The processing of payroll and benefits, and so much of finance and accounting has also been automated, eliminating the need for many people to do the work…
…eliminating the need for many women to do the work, in many cases.
A World Economic Forum report, Towards a Reskilling Revolution, estimated that 57% of the 1.4 million jobs that will be lost to automation belong to women. This displacement is not only a problem for these women and their families, but could also have wider negative ramifications for the economy. We know that greater economic participation by women, not less, is what the economy needs: it could contribute $250b to the UK’s GDP .
Both the economic and ethical solution is in reskilling our workers. Businesses and economies benefit from a more highly skilled workforce. Society is enriched by diversity and inclusion. Individuals moving to new jobs (those that exist now and those that we haven’t yet imagined) may even be more fulfilled in work that could be more interesting and challenging. Moreover, the WEF report suggests that many of the new jobs will come with higher pay.
But there are two things we need to bear in mind as we do the work of moving to the jobs of tomorrow:
- Our uniquely human skills: Humans are still better at creative problem solving and complex interactions where sensitivity, compassion and good judgment play a role, and these skills are used all the time in the kinds of roles being displaced. In business processes, humans are still needed to identify problems before they spread too far (an automated process based on bad programming will spread a problem faster than a human-led process; speed is not always an advantage). AI will get better at some of this, but the most successful operators in the digital world of the future will be the ones who put people at the centre of their digital strategies. Valuing the (too-long undervalued) so-called soft skills that these workers are adept at, and making sure these are built in to the jobs of the future, will pay dividends down the road.
- Employment reimagined: To keep these women in the workforce, contributing to society and the economy, we must expand the number of roles that offer part-time and flexible working options. One reason there are so many women doing these jobs is because they are offered these options. And with women still taking on most of the domestic and caring responsibilities, the need for a range of working arrangements is not going away anytime soon. The digital revolution is already opening discussion of different models of working, with everything from providing people with a Universal Basic Income, to the in-built flexibility of the Gig Economy, but simpler solutions on smaller scales can be embraced immediately. For example, Sopra Steria offers a range of flexible working arrangements and is making full use of digital technology to support remote and home working options.
Women are not the only people affected by the current wave of automation and AI technology. Many of the jobs discussed here are also undertaken by people in developing countries, and those where wages are lower, such as India and Poland. The jobs that economies in those countries have relied on, at least in part,may not be around much longer in their current form.
Furthermore, automation and AI will impact a much wider range of people in the longer term. For example, men will be disproportionately impacted by the introduction of driverless cars and lorries, because most taxi and lorry drivers are men.
Today, on International Women’s Day 2018, though, I encourage all of us in technology to tune in to the immediate and short-term impacts and respond with innovative actions, perhaps drawing inspiration from previous technological disruptions. Let’s use the encouraging increased urgency – as seen through movements such as #Time’sUp and #MeToo – to address gender inequality while also working on technology-driven changes to employment. Let us speed up our efforts to offer more jobs with unconventional working arrangements, and to prepare our workers for the jobs of tomorrow. Tomorrow is not that far off, after all.
Jen Rodvold is Head of Sustainability & Social Value Solutions. She founded the Sopra Steria UK Women’s Network in 2017 and is its Chair. She has been a member of the techUK Women in Tech Council and the APPG for Women & Enterprise. She recently led the development of the techUK paper on the importance of Returners Programmes to business, which can be found here. Jen is interested in how business and technology can be used as forces for good.