Will automation level the playing field for women in manufacturing and tech?

With automation and AI on the rise, companies who reskill their workforce can open doors for women across many industries.

By Veronica Lara — December 10, 2019

Maggie Warren, a process technician at the fiber optic cable manufacturer AFL Global, can see the future. She’s responsible for buying and maintaining the manufacturing parts and equipment her company uses, and she knows that automation is fundamentally changing her industry — and potentially, her job. But she isn’t worried.  

“I do not see automation as a threat,” she says. “Every time [manufacturing] gets more advanced, whether it’s new software, new mechanical components, or new machines altogether, it forces everyone to learn and advance themselves.”  

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming industries like automotive and supply chain logistics, and everything from how products are manufactured to how job applicants are selected for employment. While much of the narrative surrounding automation focuses on the potential for job losses, it is primarily a story of opportunity for those who, like Warren, have the chance to develop new skills. After earning a degree in machine tool technology, Warren went on to complete a degree in mechatronics, a burgeoning field that involves the study of mechanical and electronic parts for automated processes. Warren’s background in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field positions her well for this transitioning economy.

Yulong Lli

The new job market, better for women?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently released a study noting that 75 million jobs worldwide will be displaced by technology by 2022, but 133 million will be created, many of which will be enhanced by technology in some way. 

Women stand to benefit from this transformation, as a global shortfall of 85 million skilled workers by 2030 creates opportunities for women to fill gaps in tech and manufacturing industries that have historically been dominated by men. 

However, women remain underrepresented in STEM education, and in developing the artificial intelligence (AI) tools that will become part of day-to-day life for men and women alike. A recent WEF study based on LinkedIn data revealed that only 22% of AI professionals worldwide are women. Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says female representation in technical fields can have profound implications on how the very future is designed and increasing women’s participation in AI development reduces the risk of embedding gender biases into codes and algorithms. As demand for all STEM skills increases, reskilling initiatives to help workers could help level the playing field for women across industries affected by automation and AI. 

Reskilling opportunities are particularly critical for women who hold jobs that involve predominantly manual and routine work, such as cashiers and garment workers, and which are most vulnerable to displacement via automation. At the same time, women are overrepresented in jobs in fields like nursing, early childhood education, and speech pathology, which require the types of social and emotional skills that machines can’t replicate. While these jobs may be safer from displacement, they will also be changed by automation and AI, requiring new technical skills and a sharper focus on skills that can’t be automated.

Automation along the gender divide

Mekala Krishnan, a senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) and co-author of a recent study on automation’s impact on women, says that by 2030, men and women can expect to see roughly the same rate — about 20% — of their jobs automated. However, the report notes that the types of work men and women do that can be replaced by automation can be very different because of gender imbalances in vulnerable fields. 

A PwC report shows that women are more vulnerable through the late 2020s, and especially in administrative roles — over 80% of office clerks, bookkeepers, and secretaries in the US are women, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Through the mid-2030s, men will face a higher risk as AI evolves to the point where it can respond and adapt to real-life situations in jobs requiring physical labor. Self-driving trucks and other autonomous machinery will then displace truck drivers and construction workers, jobs that the BLS shows are over 90% male.

According to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), the jobs considered the safest from automation include those that are dominated by men in engineering and information technology, and those dominated by women in nursing and teaching. This underscores the importance of increasing women’s numbers in STEM fields and the greater value that will be placed on jobs requiring social and emotional skills. While automation may not replace these jobs, partial automation may modify them in beneficial ways. 

MGI estimates that up to 30% of nurses’ time can be automated, taking over tasks like maintaining medical records and medical supply inventories. This allows nurses to focus more on activities like building patients’ trust and improving care. Likewise in schools, automated technologies can lighten teachers’ administrative workloads, enabling deeper student engagement and more personalized learning. And although activities like collecting and processing data in financial services are highly automatable, the skills needed to develop and deepen client relationships are not. 

The social and emotional skills involved in these professions will see further demand in a world of automated work, taking up to 26% more hours in US jobs by 2030, according to MGI. “The fact that women are using these skills in jobs today actually stands them in good stead going forward,” Krishnan says.

“We figured out that if we closed the gender gap by 10%, we would close the skills gap by 50%.”

— Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute

New opportunities for women

MGI also predicts that by 2030, nearly 10% of jobs will be new ones that do not exist today. These new occupations, as well as the enhanced versions of today’s jobs, will be increasingly technical, requiring US workers to spend 60% more of their time using technological skills. 

Manufacturing is especially proving to be a hotbed of opportunity. Contrary to popular belief that the industry continually sheds jobs, demand for skilled talent is so high that the industry risks having 2.4 million unfilled positions by 2028, according to a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.

Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute — the workforce and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) — says that skills training and a coordinated effort to combat the industry’s perception issue are breaking down barriers on the hiring end. However, women remain underrepresented in the sector. 

“Over the last 30 years, we have seen women pursuing fewer careers in STEM, and while this trend is starting to reverse, it’s not at the pace we need,” says Tracy Keogh, HP’s chief human resources officer. “The tech industry and educational institutions both must play a role in engaging more women in the tech community and creating environments where they can thrive.”

Lee's organization’s STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production) Women’s Initiative is committed to closing the gender gap in the industry. It offers women professional development and networking opportunities, and highlights women role models. The STEP Women’s Initiative aims to both create support networks for women in the industry, and encourage them to pay it forward and mentor the next generation.

Beyond generating demand for STEM skills, automation is reshaping the talent needs of manufacturers in other ways. Dee Coorough, director of maintenance at Lippert Components, a recreational vehicle parts manufacturer, says that the new jobs in the sector require critical thinking and complex information processing skills that require a human touch. 

“We need someone who is organized; thinks things through clearly and efficiently; is a lifelong learner; and can follow, interpret, and author written processes,” she says.

Yulong Lli

Skilling up to shape the future

To generate these new skills and opportunities, women themselves can take action. Based on her own experience in manufacturing, Warren recommends going back to school and gaining certifications. She herself is currently pursuing a degree in manufacturing engineering technology from Murray State University, which she hopes to complete by 2022. 

She also suggests asking management to attend supplier workshops showcasing new technologies, joining motivational groups such as Women in Manufacturing for networking, and staying up to date on industry developments by reading and attending conferences. “All of these things combined together would help today’s woman find her place in the growing manufacturing world,” she says.

In addition to encouraging STEM and continuing education, Krishnan says there are organizational changes companies can make to support women’s transition to future jobs and suggests that departments charged with increasing diversity interact with those focused on automation. 

Given that women are often primary caregivers and disproportionately take on unpaid work in their households, they may have limited access to reskilling programs depending on the time and location these take place. She recommends offering online training for greater flexibility. Other initiatives include offering telecommuting arrangements to increase women’s mobility, and paying attention to hiring and review practices to raise awareness of job opportunities and fight unconscious biases.

"The important thing to recognize is that if these transitions are navigated well, for women as well as men, it could mean higher paid, better jobs," Krishnan says.

For companies facing a looming skills shortage, Lee sees reskilling and education programs as a critical part of the solution. “When we started the STEP initiative in 2012,” she says, “we figured out that if we closed the gender gap by 10%, we would close the skills gap by 50%.” Lee also points to various formal and informal efforts by manufacturers to reskill their broader workforce, tapping into male and female talent alike and, in the process, equalizing opportunities. 

One notable example is Toyota’s Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) apprenticeship program, which partnered with nearly 400 companies in 13 states to offer students a two-year Advanced Manufacturing Technician degree. The students came from various backgrounds, including existing manufacturing workers looking to advance their skills. FAME has garnered such success that Toyota and NAM have recently partnered to transfer its stewardship to The Manufacturing Institute for national expansion. Citing that women make up 10% of the program, Lee points out, “while that is at the high-end of the industry, our goal is to double that within five years.”

HP has also been implementing digital fluency for employees to build skills aligned to the company’s digital strategy and will launch development roadmaps for deeper certifications across all businesses and functions. “Women have an opportunity to continue to grow their skills and shape their own careers — and organizations have an opportunity to harness their improved productivity and creativity to propel themselves into a future of increased automation.” says Keogh. “HP is preparing our female employees to develop and thrive as automation, robotics, and roles shift with the digital transformation.”


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