Women set to lose out most from automation of jobs, with poorest bearing the brunt

20 September 2017

As the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York this week (18 – 26 September), the Institute of Development Studies is calling on world leaders to urgently address how decent work for all – an agreed UN Global Goal – will be achieved by 2030, amid the threat that digital technologies will cause mass future job losses around the world. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) found that the jobs of 56 per cent of the total workforce in Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are at risk of being taken over by robots.  Workers in the garment manufacturing industry are especially vulnerable – the majority of which are women. The impact could be even worse on the predominately female informal sector workers such as domestic workers or agricultural labourers, in low-middle income countries. Overall, it’s reported that while men stand to gain one job for every three lost to technological advances, women are expected to gain just one for every five jobs lost.

Estimates show that as many as 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia and a substantial share of the workforce in countries such as China (77%), Thailand (72%) and Nigeria (65%) are susceptible to automation (Frey et al 2016).

IDS research finds that governments, businesses and global institutions are not prepared for such large scale rapid technological change and are failing to put in place measures to cope with its impact.

Without adequate policies in place economic and digital inequalities between men and women in some of the poorest countries will be exacerbated. There is already a significant gender with women in developing countries about 50 per cent less likely to have access to the internet than men and around a third less likely to access the internet via a mobile phone (Web Foundation 2015). A 2016 study also found that just 36 per cent of the tech sector jobs in the US are held by women (US EEOC 2016).

IDS is calling for policy changes at national, regional and global levels to prepare for the digital future ahead and ensure digital education opportunities are available to girls, with a focus on lifelong learning to equip women to work with new technologies.

Professor Melissa Leach, Director of the Institute of Development Studies, says: 

 “New technologies present amazing opportunities for innovation and efficiency, but their disruptive nature also poses a threat to many workers around the world, particularly for women in some of the poorest countries whose jobs could be most at risk.  

“To have any hope of achieving the Global Goal of decent work for all and gender equality by 2030, the leaders meeting at the UN this week urgently need to put policies in place to prepare for the huge changes increased automation and AI will bring. They also need to address the widening digital inequalities and skills gaps that exist for many women and for vulnerable groups around the world, who are at risk of being left behind as this fourth industrial revolution takes hold.”

Notes to Editors:

  1. Sources: ILO Report 2016, Frey et al 2016, Technology at Work v2.0: The future is not what it used to be, Web Foundation, 2015, Women’s Rights Online, US EEOC, 2016, Diversity in High Tech
  2. The Institute of Development Studies is holding events on the Future of Decent Work in a Digital World at the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences to discuss the local, national and international implications of the impact of digital technologies on work. Further information about the events is available on the IDS website.
  3. The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a leading global institution for development researchteaching and learning, and impact and communications, based at the University of Sussex.  Our vision is of equal and sustainable societies, locally and globally, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives free from poverty and injustice. We believe passionately that cutting-edge research, knowledge and evidence are crucial in shaping the changes needed for our broader vision to be realised, and to support people, societies and institutions to navigate the challenges ahead.  See www.ids.ac.uk for more information.
  1. For further information on the topic of women and the future of work, read Automation, Women, and the Future of Work by IDS Research Officer Becky Faith.