The future of work and gender


The ‘future of work’ has captured public imagination in recent years as business leaders, policymakers, media pundits and academics debate whether and how work as we know it will continue. This insights paper addresses the future of work debate, considers its shortcomings and reframes the discussion in gendered terms.

What is the 'future of work'?

To date, discussion about the future of work has centred largely on the automation of jobs, and more often than not, men’s jobs. Driverless cars, robot surgeons and self-service transactions represent just a few examples of how artificial intelligence (AI), – informed by big data and machine learning – information and communication technologies (ICTs) and robotics are ‘disrupting’ work. While technological change has always shaped work, the new frontier of innovation is said to be faster and more expansive than in the past, fueling collective anxiety about the potential impact on employment (Autor, 2015). Internationally, both workers and employers express fears about robots and computers taking over human jobs (Centre for the New Economy and Society, 2018; Wike and Stokes, 2018). Some experts agree that they should be concerned. One highly cited US study suggests that 47% of occupations are at risk of automation (Frey and Osborne, 2013). Other studies highlight that while automation is unlikely to erase whole occupational classifications, it will most certainly reconfigure work within occupations. They predict that most jobs will experience partial automation, while only 5-15% of occupations are expected to fully succumb to automated processes (Autor, Levy and Murnane, 2003; Arntz, Gregory and Zierahn, 2016; Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018).

Key findings

  • Current debates about the future of work are limited by a focus on job quantity over job quality, assumptions of technological determinism and a male lens.
  • Gender is a defining characteristic of contemporary work, yet it is often absent in mainstream discussions regarding the future of work.
  • Foregrounding gender illuminates three important themes when considering the future of work: representation, recognition and rights.
  • Women and men are likely to experience the future of work differently due to entrenched occupational segregation. Women, on average, perform more routine tasks than men, putting their jobs at high risk of automation. At the same time, feminised fields such as healthcare, education and social assistance have low risk for automation and are predicted to grow in the future, but many of the jobs are defined by low pay and poor working conditions. Women continue to be largely excluded from high-quality jobs in STEM that are poised to shape the future of work.
  • Women are less likely to receive on-the-job training or educational incentives, compared to men, due to their overrepresentation in low-skill, low-pay jobs.
  • Three emergent labour forms – computational labour, mediational labour and work-for-labour – are hidden from view and undercompensated. Historically, women have performed a disproportionate degree of invisible and undervalued labour, and recent analyses identify gender pay gaps driven by both persistent and new employment mechanisms.
  • Work flexibility is increasing, but this flexibility does not always benefit women. Women are more likely than men to be exposed to destabilizing, employer-driven flexibility as opposed to more family-friendly, employee-driven flexibility. Additionally, while ICTs expand where and when work can be done, they can also facilitate continuous work cycles that undermine work-family balance and worker well-being.
  • Current data collection and use practices create informational asymmetries between employers and employees that can be particularly harmful to women given their lack of representation in leadership positions and evidence of bias in AI.
  • Labour platforms undermine women’s safety within remote, and often intimate workspaces, by limiting workers’ access to information on those who hire them and by failing to provide guaranteed worker protections.

How to cite this research:

Mosseri, S, Cooper, R and Foley, M. (2020) The future of work and gender: Insight paper, WGEA Commissioned Research Paper, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.

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