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Women, Work, and Education in the Age of Automation

How not to become obsolete
By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer
Women, Work, and Education in the Age of Automation

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash
Maybe you’ve read the book or seen the movie Hidden Figures. It’s about a group of African-American women who carried out mathematical computations for NASA in the 1950s. They were called “computers.” Then IBM came in and installed a machine to do the same work faster and with greater accuracy. Their supervisor saw the machine on its way in and made it her business to understand it, learn the programming language, and train her team so that when the time came these women were ahead of the game and stayed employed.
Now it’s our turn.
According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) The Future of Women at Work: Transitions in an Age of Automation, women today are facing the same scenario. The report is based on research from ten countries—six mature economies (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and four emerging economies (China, India, Mexico, and South Africa)—and highlights three sectors as case studies, one of which is education.
“In the automation age,” the report reads, “women face new challenges overlaid on long-established ones. Technology adoption could displace millions from their jobs; many others will need to change the way they work.” By 2030, 40 to 160 million women globally may need to change occupations, often into higher-skilled roles. To cope with predicted changes in the nature of work, women (and men) need to be “skilled, mobile, and tech-savvy, but women face pervasive barriers on each, and will need targeted support to move forward in the world of work.”
The future of women at work depends critically on how transitions are navigated. If women take advantage of transition opportunities, they could maintain their current share of employment; if they cannot, gender inequality in work could worsen.
Successful preparation, enabling women to be ready to meet demands as they emerge, “could mean that many women would be well positioned for more productive, better-paid work, allowing them to maintain or even improve on their current share of employment.”
It sounds obvious. The problem is that successful preparation is hard to achieve—harder for women than for men—given the need for different skills and more education, for the mobility to switch jobs easily, and for access to technological capabilities that both respond to existing demands and open up new opportunities.
Challenges across all these dimensions persist for women, who generally “have less time to reskill or search for employment because they spend more time than men on unpaid care work; are less mobile due to physical safety, infrastructure, and legal challenges.” These barriers have already slowed progress toward gender equality in work.
Of course, advances in technology do not affect jobs, sectors, or economies uniformly, and the future prospects for women at work are moderated by particular characteristics. For example, preference for human contact in certain sectors, such as healthcare and education, is an important factor influencing the extent to which jobs become automated. There are some parts of some jobs that will continue to require essentially human skills, even as the job itself undergoes a degree of automation, so those who already use social and emotional skills in their current work may be at an advantage, as future job scenarios will likely involve such skills.
So what about education? What are the predicted changes? The report indicates that “Elementary school teachers could experience the automation of activities that currently take up about 40 percent of their time.” Forty percent is not insignificant. It means jobs and roles that look quite different from today’s version.
The partial automation likely to occur in teaching suggests a shift in the nature of daily activities and the requirements of the job, with an increasing need for educators to further develop vital social and emotional skills, as well as to learn how to work with (and trust) technology to carry out other tasks. Far from being displaced by technology, the report suggests that “it is possible that the need for teachers will increase as automation and technology enter the classroom,” citing data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data on the negative relationship between provision of e-readers, tablets, and laptops on test scores as an example ongoing debate about the impact of technology.
While activities such as maintaining student records and documenting lesson plans may be moving towards automation, certain core activities critical to the educational process depend on the personal skills and qualities of the teacher. Encouraging students, for example, or advising students on academic matters, discussing students’ progress with parents, assisting students with special needs, and developing instructional objectives.
A partially automated classroom could allow teachers to spend more time engaging with students through technology to augment the classroom experience, or adapting lessons for different student groups based on interest or skill level, and giving more time to coaching and advising students according to individual academic needs. For example, in such a classroom teachers could rotate between small groups of students, as the students learn from their digital content and interactive experiments.
There is, as always, an extra twist in this research when it comes to educators. In education, as in every other sector, we have to gear up to change ourselves, learning new technologies and effectively incorporating them into our jobs. But we also have to prepare the next generation to take on the world of work in the future, across all sectors. It isn’t just a question of kids being comfortable with technology; there are fundamental questions and deep attitudes we need to grapple with when it comes to work and gender, change and uncertainty, or responsibility and purpose. Our challenge goes beyond reacting and cultivating maximum flexibility, because even as we do, minds are being prepared to actively shape the working world of the future, for women and for men.

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