Is AI a threat to women’s jobs?

by | Mar 3, 2017

AI a threat to women's jobs - our place in a new world

How Artificial Intelligence is taking over industries and a threat to women's jobs

How Artificial Intelligence is taking over industries and a threat to women's jobs

When we talk about Artificial Intelligence or 'robots' taking jobs, you may think of car manufacturing, heavy machinery or the dreaded self check outs at Tesco's.[Tweet " Is AI really a threat to women's jobs though?"]

Traditionally we have accepted the automation of certain industries as progression. Robots make jobs safer, quicker and easier. Algorithms make data collation and analysis faster, more accurate. The idea of building a car, digging a mine or processing hundreds of documents without mechanical help these days seems absurd. With each revolution there was a push back from the labourers whose jobs were at risk, but they were forced to advance with the times.

Read: How to manage your career in times of uncertainty

AI and industry

We've already embraced machines in industrial sectors

A piece from Global Big Data Conference looks at this assumption and why businesses are so quick to embrace their robotic work force:

When people think of robots working jobs, they normally think of unskilled labor. They think of industrial occupations. Since robotic labor is usually cheaper and far more efficient than human labor, it is obvious why corporations are willing to adopt the strategy.

We interact with AI every day, the most recent, and controversial form, being self-checkouts. With an estimated 3.5 million cashiers in the US alone, these convenient (albeit sometimes frustrating) machines could deplete a huge chunk of the job market. Add in Amazon's plans to launch entirely check-out free stores and suddenly a job favoured by women from low-educated, low-economic backgrounds (as well a high proportion of disabled or older workers) becomes obsolete.

[Tweet "So what should we do if AI is a threat to women's jobs? Fight or conform?"]

Read: Women on strike – a history of resistance

The gender balance

do more for gender balance

Who will suffer more?

It would seem however that women's job are safer than men's, if we followed this logic, as most low to mid skilled labour jobs are performed by men. [Tweet "What happens then when AI begins to encroach on other job sectors?"] Machines and algorithms that were designed to make office work quicker and easier are actually making data processers and clerks redundant. Employers are realising that a computer programme can process larger amounts of data faster. In the health sector drug administrating machines reduce the chances of human error and therefore hefty law suits. In an article published on Tech Public they quoted Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief, who noted as early as 1983:

'the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors'

Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), talks about how even traditionally white-collar 'educated' careers aren't safe from the advancement of AI:

"These middle-skilled structured tasks, routine information processing tasks will continue to be under a lot of pressure: bookkeepers, travel agents, legal aids — maybe not lawyers or attorneys but the first level associates."

This is especially true of entry-level law and finance positions, which are currently being dominated by women. [Tweet "Just as women are breaking into traditionally male-dominated industries they're being replaced."]

Read: The education pipeline and women in tech

Sacred art

Creatives could be protected

So are any of our jobs safe from AI? It seems there's two major areas in which robots just can't compete: creative and emotionally-sensitive  work. Those who work in sectors like the arts, therapy, architecture, care and social work have less to fear as AI  has, so far, been unable to replicate and replace the humanity needed in these fields. This may not be the blessing it appears though as Erik Sherman comments in his piece on white-collar AI for Fortune:

The study found an "inverse U-shape" relationship between the probability of an occupation being highly creative and the average income it might deliver. Musicians, actors, dancers, and artists might make relatively little, while people in technical, financial, and legal creative occupations can do quite well. So keeping that creative job may not seem much of a financial blessing in many cases.

So whilst soft-skills (which women tend to have more of) will remain desirable in a mechanical world, what we may instead see is an even harder competition for these usually low-income roles. Those who have managed to secure lucrative careers in say HR or therapy would do well to hang onto them, and other women may want to dust off their soft skills and work on their 'bedside manner'.

Read: 4 Drama Exercises to Avoid an Interview Flop

Artificial emotion

Threat to women's jobs conversation career

Could robots learn emotions?

The flip side to this is science is teaching robots to think like humans, react and mimic emotions. Whilst this has been marketed as a good thing, like having metal companions for lonely elderly people, early experiments have shown that exposing AI to uncontrolled environments doesn't reap the best results. In her piece on AI and women for Foreign Policy, Erika Hayasaki notes how gender will most likely influence AI:

The machines and technology that will replace women are learning to be brazenly gendered: Fighter robots will resemble men. Many service robots will take after women.

Gender stereotping in robotics

It would seem the best way to create these caring 'feminine' robots would be to expose them to real people. Microsoft attempted this with a twitter bot named Tay. Tay was designed to interact with Twitter users and learn to respond as a human would; to develop a personality as it were. Within hours innocent tweets took a dark turn to racist and sexist comments. Within 24 hours Tay was taken offline. This is not the first instance of AI picking up bad habits from people and it probably won't be the last. Will emotionally intelligent robots be able to prevent themselves from absorbing humanities dark side? Will they ever be able to replace the human touch needed in so many jobs? If so they would really be a threat to women's jobs. In an interview for Forbes Rosaleen Blair, Founder and CEO of Alexander Mann Solutions, discusses why skills like empathy are vital in business:

They need to find people who have a genuine passion for their work and their colleagues. If we can hire people with that combination of skill and intuition – and we have more than 3,000 people just like that today – it’s going to serve our clients well and it’ll serve our company well.

As long as skills like this are valued and in demand then we will continue to have an edge over AI becoming a threat to women's jobs.

Read: 3 Ways to Enhance Leadership Qualities with Empathy

Job growth - for some

Getting girls into STEM has never been more important

It's not all doom and gloom though, or so the experts tell us. New technology will create new jobs to support it. Designers, engineers, manufacturers and science sectors will see a boom in roles as our new metal co-workers rely on us to keep them running. With each major advance, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields should see their employment pools grow, therefore opening the doors to a new generation of workers. As some industries become almost inaccessible, new sectors will bloom, as Brynjolfsson notes:

"There's no economic law that says 'You will always create enough jobs or the balance will always be even', it's possible for a technology to dramatically favour one group and to hurt another group, and the net of that might be that you have fewer jobs,"

For women however this is a double-edged sword, as they are not only more likely to lose their jobs to machines, they're also less likely to be hired into these new STEM roles. Women have historically been and remain underrepresented in these fields and unless this changes before the machine overthrow, they will bear the brunt of it. In a piece for The Guardian they cited a report that looks at how this job loss/gain balance will affect women in the future:

“Given women’s low participation in STEM professions, one of the fastest-growing areas of job creation, women stand to gain only one new STEM job for every 20 lost across other job families, whereas the ratio for men is one new job for every four lost elsewhere...given that men represent a larger share of the overall job market than women, this even spread translates into a widening of the employment gender gap, with women losing five jobs for every job gained compared with men losing three jobs for every job gained.

So yes, it would seem AI is a threat to women's jobs, yet if we continue to push not only the importance of women and girls in STEM, but also the value of soft skills, we could actually find ourselves coming out on top.

Need help strengthening your female talent pipeline? Contact 3Plus now!

Esther Myers Contributor
Esther Myers is a Drama graduate who teaches children with disabilities and is heavily involved in women’s rights movements. She lives in London but often travels back to Yorkshire to see family and friends. She enjoys going to the theatre, being involved in feminist forums and Motown music. She works in a pub part time and wants to write about work and online issues facing modern women, as well as about intersectional issues.

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