Women in business to be disproportionately hit by digital disruption

26 February 2018 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read

Despite multiple calls from political, economic and societal experts to promote the inclusion of women in business, the future of many women in the workforce is uncertain, according to a new study. While digital disruption means a growing number of jobs are in line to be restructured, or entirely replaced by technology in coming years, women in industries such as sales are three times more likely to be impacted.

Businesses can benefit significantly from a more diverse workforce, yet progress towards that end goal remains slow. A recent study in business interest in diversity revealed that only 31% of EU businesses believe gender diversity is ‘important’, while a meager 10% actually have programmes in place to increase representation of women in their workplace hierarchy.

Mercer is four years into its 'When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive' research project. During this time, Mercer has hosted four annual briefings at the World Economic Forum, the most recent of which showed a deterioration in women’s economic standing over the past several years. Now, Mercer’s researchers have explored whether the progress made toward gender parity might slip backwards in future years, in line with that trend.

In 'Accelerating for Impact: 2018 Gender Inflection Point', the firm set out to further understand the drivers of female advancement and identify concrete steps that organisations can take to change or improve their trajectories. The result provides a holistic look at the future of women in the workforce – from the headwinds impeding progress, to the system accelerators that provide great hope for sustained improvement.

Millennials: Reasons for taking a break from work

Among the findings of the report, historical preconceptions around gender and home-life suggested that even among younger generations, women are still more likely than men to exit the workforce in order to care for others. 61% of millennial women told Mercer they were likely to take time away from their careers to have children, compared to 31% of men. Women were also found to be more likely to take time away from work for child care, at 33% compared to just 20% of millennial men.

Contrastingly, millennial men are much more likely to leave work for matters of self-care. 42% are likely to take time off for relaxation or a holiday, compared to 39% of women. There was also a 2% higher chance men would take time away to concentrate on a hobby or dream. In the increasingly stressful environment of 21st century work, this could place women in more risk of burnout than their male counterparts, and in the long-term see more of them exit the workforce for an extended period to recover.

Meanwhile, women are more likely to leave work to pursue education or retrain. Even so, as automation of work processes ramps up in the future, Mercer has revealed that women are due to be disproportionate victims of this process.

Techco: Percentage of sales business impacted by technology

At the same time, a shift in the requirements for digital skills means that a growing number of employees globally believe their skills will soon be redundant. Even 39% of cybersecurity staff – individuals already highly skilled in digital work – believe this will occur in the next 1-2 years, a figure which increases to 47% in the next 3-5 years, while many companies are failing to adequately invest in the training of their existing workforce. This may see large sections of the workforce expected to find new employment, as part of a broader restructuring of the economy, but without the adequate skills to make such a transition.

One example in Mercer’s study shows that women in the sales business are three times more likely than men to hold positions at risk of automation or computerisation (15% of women vs. 5% of men), such as administrative assistants, or market intelligence workers. Female representation in this sector, and industries like it, is thus likely to fall – rather than grow – without concerted efforts to reskill the individuals in jobs highly likely to change, along with attempts to move those whose positions would be eliminated into reasonably adjacent positions.

Commenting on the findings of the firm, Patricia A. Milligan, Leader of Multinational Clients at Mercer, said, “Although we are thrilled by the outcomes achieved by some, there is still a long way to go in order to truly help women thrive. So we must be visible and vocal about our impatience and we must persevere. Although it is easy to get overwhelmed, distracted, or even discouraged, it's critical that we don't. You can advance women in your organisation — and get the associated boost in growth, innovation, shareholder value and employee engagement and retention.”