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Women more likely than men to see jobs transformed by automation: StatCan

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A new report by Statistics Canada finds women are significantly more likely than men to have their jobs transformed by automation.

Overall, 44 per cent of adult female workers face a 50 per cent or greater probability of experiencing some kind of job disruption tied to the adoption of technology like robots and algorithms. That compares to less than 35 per cent of male workers, according to Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank at Statistics Canada.

Women have been hit especially hard during the first wave of layoffs triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, with female workers more likely to be employed in the service-sector industries that were ravaged by government-mandated shut-downs. They have also struggled more with the lack of child care brought on by the lockdown, with mothers of young children disproportionately more likely to cut down on hours worked.

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Now, the new analysis from Statistics Canada raises the question of whether Canadian women will also struggle more with the technological leap forward that many say the pandemic has already set in motion.

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While Frenette and Frank started their work well before the appearance of COVID-19, the research “does have a tie-in to pandemics,” Frenette told Global News.

In the long-run, “there might be a greater push, more automation because of the fact that obviously robots and computer algorithms are not vulnerable to biological viruses,” he said.

Already, a number of business executives and analysts say COVID-19 is accelerating the pace of tech-driven transformations that were afoot before the health emergency.

“It almost became 2030 overnight,” Craig Miller, Shopify’s chief product officer told The Canadian Press in May, as entrepreneurs scrambled to set up digital storefronts to keep their business alive amid the shutdowns. Some features and products the company was thinking of rolling out in coming years suddenly became must-haves then and there, he added.

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A recent report from RBC notes Canadians are now shopping online en masse even for things such as groceries and medicine. And Canadians are also much more likely to talk to their doctor via videoconference, while university students turn to e-learning. The trends portend major changes in the retail, health-care and education sectors, the report says.

But even before the pandemic put the pedal to the metal in terms of technological change, women had a higher chance to see their job mutate because of automation, Frenette and Frank’s analysis suggests.

Their research combines input on the risk of automation from a panel of artificial intelligence experts with data on a variety of tasks that Canadian workers perform. Frenette and Frank then estimate the probability that male and female workers would see technology transform their jobs accounting for the tasks they carry out.

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The result shows a gap of nine percentage points between the share of women who are likely to experience that and the men’s.

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That’s what Frenette calls “a fairly sizable difference.”

And it’s a gap the researchers could not explain away by looking at worker characteristics, such as age, education, industry and occupation.

Some research shows men and women often perform different tasks even when they have the same occupation. Studies have also found it’s human tasks that are repetitive and regular — such as data entry or tightening screws on an assembly line — that are more likely to become obsolete due to robots and algorithms.

One hypothesis is more female workers perform these kinds of routine tasks, Frenette says, adding, however, that nothing in his research so far validates that guess.

Frenette and Frank’s study did not account for differences in rank among workers within the same occupation.

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Frenette emphasized that what he and Frank call “job transformation” doesn’t necessarily mean layoffs.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, automation erased the jobs of many factory workers who used to perform a few repetitive tasks.

Today, though, “there’s a lot of jobs that are more complex than that,” he says.

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The eventual impact of new technology depends a lot on how workers adapt to it, he adds.

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The question then becomes how well women will be able to cope with the changes that are likely coming their way.

One intuitive hypothesis is female workers will fare relatively well since they are more likely to have a higher education. A number of studies have found more educated and highly skilled workers tend to navigate technology-driven disruption better. In Canada, in recent years around three in five university students have been women, the StatCan report notes.

On the other hand, other research suggests women struggle more to reinvent themselves on the job.

“Women may have less time to refresh or learn new skills or to search for employment because they spend much more time than men on unpaid care work,” notes a recent report from global consultancy McKinsey and Co. “They may also face financial constraints in doing so. And they may not have the professional networks and sponsors that could make it easier for them to navigate job transitions, among other factors.”

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And the pandemic, with its added burden of unpaid care and homeschooling, may have just made those challenges worse, the report continues.

That’s a risk Frenette and Frank raise as well.

“Increased training needs will likely have particular implications for parents with respect to child care needs,” they write. And that may affect women more if they are more highly impacted by automation technology than men, as women tend to take on a greater share of child care responsibilities within the household.