With the advent of self-driving cars, workerless assembly lines, and even robotic cashiers at McDonald’s, automation seems to be the way of the future. But in an era in which so many workers are replaced with machines, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that two occupations are standouts for job creation: health care and computer-related occupations. For two fields that seem incredibly dissimilar, it may appear a coincidence that health care and computer science are experiencing a joint surge. However, these two industries share a property that others lack: a near-immunity to automation.
While workers in both fields tend to experience high job security, each sector’s unique history with gender points it in a different direction as the changes of the 21st century continue to revolutionize labor. Care-related professions, such as nursing and teaching – fields typically dominated by women – are largely insulated from the advancement of automation currently endangering many male-dominated occupations, such as truck driving and machine operating. On the other hand, occupations rapidly expanding in the age of automation – tech jobs – are notoriously unfriendly towards women. Men are an overwhelming majority, and the few women who do work in these industries often face exclusion and tough conditions, forcing many out. But automation still has the potential to change the way we value traditional women’s work as well as the work women do in non-traditional fields. Such an attitude shift may pave the way for decreasing occupational segregation, even in tech, and increasing women’s wages, making the future of automation favorable for women.
The expected growth in healthcare and tech, and the consequent impact it will have on gender in the workplace, stems from automation. Automation is not a new phenomenon, but today’s technological advances are allowing firms to automate at a growing pace. Machines can standardize tasks, raise productivity, and cut production costs, rendering workers in certain industries obsolete. As the technology sector expands, engineers innovate, and many of their innovations make automation available to more companies. These technologies most easily replace jobs with tedious tasks or clear cut objectives, shifting the economy towards both care and knowledge-intensive sectors. These driving forces will shape the future of women’s role in the labor force.
However, while it’s easiest to replace jobs that are straightforward, achievements in artificial intelligence and machine learning are allowing machines to tackle increasingly complex tasks. A 2013 Oxford study analyzing over 700 occupations concluded that 47 percent of all US jobs are at risk of being automated.
The fields of work prone to automation threaten certain demographics and benefit others. For example, the 2013 Oxford study finds that retail positions have a greater than 90 percent chance of automation, yet their immediate supervisors have a less than 30 percent. The cash register is repetitive, while supervision requires handling all problem that could arise, which requires a vast adaptability thus far only attainable by humans. Career types with the highest probability of automation include automotive repairs, equipment assemblers, and clerical workers. The more routine, the simpler to automate.
Jobs that require dynamic adjustments, emotional intelligence, and mastery of a wide range of duties are more resistant to automation. Care and service jobs, or pink-collar jobs, are projected to expand through 2018. The jobs safest from displacement – such as elementary school teachers, social workers, and nurses – reflect this trend. It’s hard to imagine a time in the near future when parents will feel comfortable sending their children to a school with a robot at the front of the classroom. These careers have the three highest female-to-male ratios. Women comprise 91 percent of nurses, 81 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, and 80 percent of social workers. Like many jobs insulated from the effects of automation, these jobs not only require a human touch, they are also skilled jobs requiring specialized degrees.
But the labor market undervalues workers in female-dominated, pink-collar industries in both reputation and in pay. The wages for similarly-skilled occupations dominated by men are significantly higher: A 2016 Cornell study found occupational segregation accounts for more than 50 percent of the wage gap. Moreover, when the gender-composition of an occupation shifts, the pay shifts accordingly. For jobs that transferred from typically male to female between 1950 and 2000, including recreation leaders, ticketing agents, and designers, wages fell by 57, 43, and 34 percent, respectively. A field of work is no longer perceived to be as essential or as taxing when it can be sustained by women; wages fall and reputation erodes.
As jobs dominated by women become more sought-after, the skills associated with the careers may garner higher esteem. As much as feminist efforts should focus on granting women equal access to advantages provided to men, the movement can also work to value the traditionally feminine. This includes not always measuring against male-oriented standards of success, as well as removing the stigma for men in female-dominated occupations. Historically, men have proved reluctant to take on pink-collar jobs even when unemployed. An easy justification is their lower pay, but an equally compelling one is the protection of masculinity and the social connotations of care and service work.
However, while the growth of care-related jobs will likely serve to benefit many women, the other main growth field in the future may not be as agreeable to them. According to the Oxford study, engineers, computer and information research scientists, and computer systems analysts all have just around a hundredth of a percent chance of being replaced by a machine. And these jobs aren’t just safe, they’re growing: The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects computer and mathematical occupations to grow twice as fast as the rest of the job market with 785,700 new jobs expected to be created between 2008 to 2018. But these jobs are all more than 75 percent male.
The huge disparity in employment in these kinds of jobs is due to implicit messages based on gender that young people experience in education and work. At the start, in elementary school, girls report similar levels of interest in science and mathematics as boys do. Arriving in middle school, subtle yet pervasive social pressures push girls away from pursuing the sciences and, as a result, diminish their confidence. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explains that this effect is especially pronounced for the large majority of girls who lack female mentors in the sciences. Through high school, girls continue to take similar science and mathematics courses to boys with faltering confidence, until the next turning point – college.
Only two-fifths of a percent of women enter college with the intent to study computer science, compared to three percent of men. Other women who excel in math opt for social science or humanities degrees. Even worse, this disparity has been growing: In 1986, 36 percent of computer science degrees went to women compared to just 20 percent in 2006. Moreover, this trend bucks significant historic contributions from women to the field of computer science. From the Ada Lovelace, often referred to as the first computer programmer in the 1800s, to Grace Hopper, who developed the first compiler for programming languages in the 1950s, women were crucial to the establishment of the field. Yet trends of diminishing female contributions were rife even in these early days of computing. Most mid-20th century computer-focused workplaces had men tinkering with hardware and women writing software. Programming had a reputation as menial and dull, often compared to clerical work, and was relegated to women.
The big turning point was in the 1980s, with the growth of Silicon Valley and technology startups, fueling a perception of the industry as more profitable and rife with new opportunities for entrepreneurship. Due to male-dominated mega-corporations moving into the field and the entrenchment of computer science education in male-dominated university science departments, the industry became more inaccessible to women. Though the reasons for this change are diverse and difficult to pin down, women employed today in the tech industry leave the field at twice the rate men leave. Two-thirds of women in tech reported feeling pressured to continually prove their competence compared to male colleague, and about a third reported difficulty in being taken seriously. Because of male-dominance in the field, styles of leadership and success leave women traversing a fine line: Are too passive and be dismissed as incompetent, or be too assertive and get characterized as bossy and overly-emotional. These double standards exist across occupations, but are particularly potent when one woman in the office is forced to represent her whole gender. Tech vacancies could pose the opportunity for women to supply the unmet demand or exacerbate the gap.
Care-related work is poised to expand, demanding respect for both the field and the traits it requires. The effect of the expansion of the tech sector is more ambiguous, as it can take one of two paths. Initiatives at every level, from elementary schools to universities to the work place, have attempted to address the root causes of gender inequalities and mitigate the gap. Mindful policies could steer ongoing growth in the right direction, while neglect could leave a widening divide, which would serve to set back progress made in pink-collar sectors. For jobs not so easily replaced by driverless cars or checkout-line robots, cultural barriers are what push workers away; any push for gender equality must come with equal consideration to the forces that make gender so influential in the workforce.