How the most vulnerable workers to job automation can adapt

In recent decades, women have made huge gains in employment. But the rise in job automation is threatening to undo that.

Jobs held by women are more likely to be displaced by automation, according to The World Economic Forum’s 2020 report on the global gender gap, while men are more likely to be employed in less vulnerable roles.

To avoid job irrelevance, female workers must approach education and their careers in new ways, finding opportunities in areas that predominantly employ men.

“The jobs that are emerging are not very gender-equal,” said Vesselina Ratcheva, the data lead at the World Economic Forum. “If we think about shifting workers from declining to emerging roles, what we are also likely to see is that the environment for women in those roles is not necessarily going to be one of parity.”

Graphic Credit: David Foster/Yahoo Finance
Graphic Credit: David Foster/Yahoo Finance

Of the eight employment areas with increasing prospects across 20 leading economies, six of those sectors are dominated by men. The emerging sectors with the smallest share of women are cloud computing, engineering, and data and artificial intelligence.


On the other end, jobs that are being displaced by automation are routine, white-collar roles, like secretarial work, Ratcheva said. The vast majority – 94% – of secretaries and administrative assistants in the U.S. are women.

How to prepare for the future of work?

In the automation age, all workers need to be skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy to keep their job or successfully transition into a different field. They also have to think about education and employment in a different way.

Here are four ways women – and men – can prepare and adjust to the changes automation brings.

Woman engineer surveying, Angelsey waste water treatment upgrading works, Wales, UK. (Photo by Adrian Greeman/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
To avoid job irrelevance, female workers – and male ones, too – must approach college and their careers in new ways. (Photo: Adrian Greeman/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

Prepare for a portfolio career

Don’t think of employment as a series of full-time jobs or lifetime employment, but rather as a range of workplace arrangements, including self-employment, freelancing, and salaried roles, said April Rinne, an independent advisor focusing on the future of work.

“Moving forward, professional paths will not be linear. We will not study for a profession and do that profession for life,” Rinne said. “Rather, we will have many roles, many positions, many professional chapters. Like an artist or an investor, we will curate portfolios of our work.”

To be well-positioned for this journey, learn how to handle your own taxes; be ready to start your own business; develop a wide professional network; and find the best practices for working remotely.

Human skills are most valuable

With the rapid automation of technical skills, human skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy, ethics, curiosity, creativity, and coordination will become more valuable, Rinne said.

“The really distinguishing factor for success of tomorrow's leaders lies not in programming apps and algorithms, but rather upon a solid foundation in the humanities,” she said. “How we develop and use technology is equally, if not more important, than the technology itself.”

Investing in and developing those human skills can make you almost 'unautomatable.' Building curiosity can help you adapt for the jobs of the future. One way to do this is to spend more time with children or with your own “five-year-old brain,” which is inherently curious, Rinne said.

31 March 2019, Lower Saxony, Hannover: At a stand of the German manufacturer of drive technology SEW Eurodrive, a woman stands on an automated production line with holographic glasses on which she receives work instructions and can check off with gestures. From 1 to 5 April, everything at Hannover Messe will revolve around networking, learning machines and the Internet of Things. Photo: Christophe Gateau/dpa (Photo by Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Human skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy, ethics, curiosity, creativity, and coordination will become more valuable in the future. (Photo: Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Don’t stop learning

The idea that higher education is something you only do early in your life won’t help you in the world of automation.

“Today's education system was designed for the First Industrial Revolution – to train factory workers and soldiers – and is woefully outdated for the 21st century,” Rinne said. “As automation changes and eradicates certain skills, roles and even entire vocations, individuals will need to keep learning, not only to work, but to better understand the world.”

If you can continue to learn beyond the traditional means such as college, maintain insatiable curiosity at any age, and embrace the future's uncertainties, you’ll have an advantage. Study abroad, do cultural exchanges, or any experience that expands your perspective and takes you out of your comfort zone, Rinne said.

Find an employer who will help you

Even when entering sectors more immune to automation, women often take marketing, people, or culture roles, rather than the technical ones. Their employer might encourage them to focus more on their soft or coordination skills rather than technical ones, Ratcheva said.

What female workers should do is look for companies that are actively working to diversify their workforce through inclusion initiatives, especially for more technical roles dominated by men. Workers should also ask about a potential employer's support to help workers re-skill or up-skill to stay relevant.

“That might be quite effective at increasing the take-up of that [job] offer by female workers or those who’ve become inactive in the labor market,” Ratcheva said.

Denitsa is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova.

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