Discriminated by algorithm? The future of work for women looks stark unless action is taken now

Women have borne the brunt of austerity - but they may face the double whammy of job losses under automation, too.

women at work in the mid-20th century - black and white

Women face a barrage of threats to their economic security, according to a report from the respected RSA think tank.

Female workers are significantly more likely to experience financial precariousness, are struggling to save enough for retirement, and fear the impact of Brexit on living standards more than men, the authors warn.

In an assessment of new trends in the economy, the RSA also urge government and employers to get tough on new forms of inequality – including ‘discrimination by algorithm’ – or gender inequality could go backwards.

The report highlights the dangers of new technologies exacerbating existing gender divides in the workplace, arguing that recent cases of women suffering from in-built bias in artificial intelligence systems require a “robust response” from policymakers and employers. Left unchecked, “algorithmic prejudice” could become one of the new giants of modern poverty, the study warns.

Amazon had to terminate a hiring algorithm in 2018 after it was revealed that it penalised CVs that contained the word ‘women’, while another study showed men were significantly more likely than women to see online ads for highly paid jobs on Google.

Researchers highlight a concerning trend: ‘fauxtomation’ – where so-called automation of jobs doesn’t reduce the overall amount of labour – it simply transfers it from staff to a customer/end user. In the case of self-service check-outs – to use one example – that could displace many paid jobs in a largely-female service sector with unpaid labour.

The authors describe a ‘New Precariat’ – finding that while women have borne the brunt of austerity, they have also borne the brunt of job-losses in well-paid sectors. This is a ‘double whammy’ effect, the authors say.

While many women want flexible work, there is a risk of ‘one way flexibility’ – with employees transferring all of the instability onto the worker.

43% of working women would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £100, compared to 30% of working men – and 38% feel that their job does not provide them with enough income for a decent standard of living, compared to just 24% of their male counterparts, a poll for the organisation showed.

From Precarity to Empowerment: Women and the future of work’, by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and the Women’s Budget Group, is part of a submission to the Commission for a Gender-Equal Economy, a ground-breaking investigation into the role of women in our economy and society, led by a group which includes economist Ann Pettifor.

An RSA-commissioned survey by Populus reveals stark differences in the levels of economic security reported by men and women. Female workers are more likely to feel that they don’t have enough savings to maintain a decent standard of living in retirement (54% versus 37% for men), and are more likely to feel that they don’t have scope to progress in their careers (42%, versus 34%).

Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, Director of the UK Women’s Budget Group, said:

“This highlights the stark truth that for too many women, the economy isn’t working. Women have lower incomes than men, are less likely to progress in their careers and are more likely to be living in poverty at all stages of their lives. Working class, BAME and disabled women are particularly likely to face the economic insecurity revealed in this survey.

“But it doesn’t have to be like this – we can organise the economy differently.”

Asheem Singh, Director of Economy, RSA, said:

“Automation, gig work and artificial intelligence offer huge opportunities to enrich the human experience – but also real dangers.

“Women in particular are at risk: whether it is algorithms that filter out women from certain job adverts or a gig economy that is increasingly gendered, we need to be alive to the danger and take action. We need more women in science and coding jobs and more conversations about gender and tech in workplaces and institutions. We must avoid at all costs a world in which prejudice by algorithm is an accepted part of everyday life.”

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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One Response to “Discriminated by algorithm? The future of work for women looks stark unless action is taken now”

  1. Tom Sacold

    As technology changes, the nature of work changes. Always has done and always will.

    The important thing is that workers must fight the bosses for their rightful share.

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