New technologies, such as driverless cars and robot surgeons, have captured the public imagination about the future of work. Advances in artiﬁcial intelligence, digital connectivity, reproductive technologies, big data, algorithms, and robotics will have a profound impact on the availability of jobs and the nature of work over the coming decades. Such epochal prophecies fail to consider how the unfolding future of work and professions may affect women and men differently, potentially replicating and further embedding gender inequality in workplaces.
The mass entry of women into the labour market represents a remarkable transformation in the world of work over the past 60 years. Yet, workplace gender equality remains elusive. Women and men are differentially positioned in the labour market and are therefore exposed to vastly different risks and opportunities in this changing world of work. How do we build upon women’s and men’s current workplace experiences to construct a more gender-equitable future of work? This is one question at the heart of research in the Women and Work Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School.
The recent Australian Women’s Working Futures Project (AWWF) focused on what young women value and think is important for future success at work. The landmark, nationally representative survey found that young Australian working women reported that what ‘matters most’ in a job are: respect in the workplace (80%), job security (80%), decent pay (65%). Remarkedly, 2/3 of women say there isn’t gender equality in the workplace, while 2/3 of men say there is. Looking into the future, around half (53%) of women thought that gender equality in the workplace would improve in the next 10 years, while 38% expected gender equality in the workplace to stay the same or get worse.
These results are driving further research on the future of work in the form of a new project funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC), entitled ‘Designing Gender Equality into the Future of Work’. This project examines how women and men working in retail and the law – two industries at distinct ends of the labour market – understand and experience the transformations occurring in their workplaces, such as increasing automation and digital disruption.
Both the retail sector and the legal profession are now experiencing rapid work intensification and technological change, driven by increased digitalisation, workplace fissuring, and employment flexibilisation. Gender inequality remains a seemingly intractable problem in both areas.
Persistent bias and discrimination – coupled with inflexible work cultures that do not accommodate, and in fact penalise, those with caregiving responsibilities – stymie women’s career progression. As a result, women are under-represented in senior positions across both sectors. Sexual harassment and violence continue to marginalise women at work, as highlighted by the #MeToo movement and the more recent March for Justice, which this year saw more than 100,000 women in cities around Australia protest sexism and gendered violence.
In the retail sector, online shopping is shifting employment opportunities from stores to distribution centres, and self-checkout machines and iPads are changing how workers interact with customers. Women are significantly more likely to perform the routine tasks targeted for automation, and are overrepresented in ‘flexible’, part-time roles in service, and sales positions – where automation is already well underway. Men, in contrast, remain disproportionately concentrated in fulltime work and are relatively better represented in leadership roles across the industry.
In the legal profession, women outnumber men two-to-one in commencing graduate roles within Australian law firms, yet they have not yet been recruited and promoted into the highest levels of the profession at these same rates as men. International evidence suggests that law firms are increasingly relying on a pool of freelance or casually employed solicitors to bid on and complete projects. In addition, machine learning applications are beginning to automate legal tasks, such as document review, freeing up workers from the more mundane tasks but also making the workers (predominantly women) who perform these tasks vulnerable to displacement.
Gender bias—including but not limited to the stereotyping of women and men—remains a persistent barrier to women’s career advancement in the legal profession and is a feature of the routine harassment and abuse faced by women working in retail. The impact of technological innovations and work intensification on workers’ experiences of harassment and bias, and their perceived ability to progress with their careers, remains uncertain.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s survey of sexual harassment in the retail sector found that about half of women shop assistants have been harassed about seven times in a year and that it is more often a problem for women under 30.
‘Designing Gender Equality into the Future of Work’ endeavours to build insight toward constructing an equitable and sustainable future of work to ensure that workers – women and men, highly-paid and lower-paid – have access to decent, fair, and safe employment and can meaningfully contribute to the country’s productivity and economic growth.
Progress towards gender equality is most often defined in temporal terms, as either moving forwards or backwards. In thinking about ‘the future’, gender equality, much like human rights discourse, becomes a projection of the ‘not yet’ into the ‘always there’. Designing gender equality into the future of work in Australia holds possibilities that gesture towards a future that is better than the present and the current structural inequalities and discrimination within it.