Tomorrow's Economy

Gender equality prospects and the fourth industrial revolution

29 April 2018

Could this period of flux present a timely opportunity for a major rethink of the way we structure the world of work along gender boundaries?

Debra Howcroft
Jill Rubery
Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock.com

The prospects for gender equality arising from the fourth industrial revolution depend on current differences in the position of women and men in the division of both paid and unpaid work. Women in all societies are more involved in unpaid care work than men, though the amount of unpaid care work varies between countries and social classes according to family size, social norms and the availability of substitute services. Socio-economic differences mean that the immediate impacts from the fourth industrial revolution on employment and care work are likely to have gender-specific impacts. To trace the likely patterns of these effects, this chapter begins by outlining some potential outcomes, based on the assumption that there will be no significant change in employment regulation, social protection and gender equality arrangements. We also recognise that the fourth industrial revolution has the potential to facilitate social change; with this in mind, we outline a number of recommendations.

Given men and women lead unequal lives, debates on the fourth industrial revolution present a timely opportunity to propose a rethink of both the structures of employment and the forms of work. Therefore, the main focus of this chapter is to identify positive policy initiatives that could not only mitigate any immediate negative impacts but also harness the potential to make a positive step change towards gender equality. Here we should note that we would not expect to achieve progress through women-only adjustments to the world of work. Instead policies need to promote change on the part of men as well as women and to expand social support for care.

Predicting the immediate impacts of the fourth industrial revolution by gender

While prediction is a hazardous exercise, we suggest focusing on four dimensions to identify the potential gendered impacts of the fourth industrial revolution:

  • structural change
  • change to the nature and quality of work
  • change to the employment relationship
  • change to access to work during the period of childbirth and childrearing.

First, structural change has been explored by Piasna and Drahokoupil (2017) looking at the transformation of occupational structures across Europe. They found examples of job loss in both male-dominated occupations such as construction and female-dominated occupations such as clerical work. There was also evidence of major gains in some male-dominated occupations (eg IT professionals) and in some female-dominated occupations (eg cleaners and helpers). This mixed pattern of growth is reflected in only a limited increase in the female share of all employment from 45% in 2008 to 46% in 2015. Segregation has also been changing but in complex ways, although the overall effect in the most recent period (2011–2015) is to upgrade women’s occupational position. Nevertheless, most of the job growth for men and for women depends on what is happening in male-dominated and female-dominated jobs. As Rubery and Rafferty (2013) explored in relation to the impact of recession and austerity, men are particularly vulnerable to changes in manufacturing and construction and women particularly vulnerable to changes in the public sector and private services. Arguably, future structural changes will be determined by not only technology but also the level and distribution of investment, the impact of subsequent job loss on consumer demands (particularly for private services) and the policies adopted towards the public sector, including whether to use technologies to simply reduce labour input or to assist staff to provide better care (Pritchard and Brittain 2015).

Trends in the second dimension, changes to the nature and quality of work for women, depend on three main factors: the pattern of displacement, the current and future patterns of recruitment by gender into different types of jobs, and of course the overall pattern of work reorganisation. If automation occurs mainly in relation to repetitive or routine tasks, then the content of women’s jobs may improve on average. This is because, according to Piasna and Drahokoupil’s (2017) research using the European Working Conditions survey (2015), women are more likely to be involved in repetitive work throughout the labour market (with the exception of clerical support workers) and are also less likely to report that they are doing complex tasks even with the same occupational group. This could thus raise the quality of women’s jobs while reducing their number, but in fact repetitive jobs will not necessarily disappear first, as it may still be cheaper to use labour than machines when more disadvantaged groups such as women are employed on low wages. The big gains with automation may come from displacing high-paid male jobs, for example as financial analysts.

When considering women’s future access to quality jobs, it should be noted that although there has been an historical tendency for women to be concentrated in repetitive work, recent trends uncovered by Piasna and Drahokoupil (2017) found women to be outperforming men in entering non-routine jobs requiring analytical or interpersonal skills. Not all trends are positive however. Women remain underrepresented in key growth areas such as jobs requiring science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) knowledge and skills, accounting for 23% of core STEM occupations in 2017 (WISE 2017). This pattern persists despite women successfully moving into previously male-dominated areas such as life sciences and medicine. Their underrepresentation is particularly acute in the ICT sector, where levels of female employment are dropping (to 17% in 2017, from 18% in 2016), and where they tend to be concentrated in the lower-paid sectors (WISE 2017). Furthermore, retention is challenging as many women disappear within the first couple of years of entering the industry, with more leaving than are being recruited (Moore et al 2008). Recent reports of gender discriminatory practices in big-tech firms suggest there is little sign of improvement. This points to barriers to working in STEM – beyond those related to the education system – that may be deterring women from entering these fields.

Finally, what may matter most of all for the pattern of change in the quality of work for women is whether employing organisations favour designing out human interventions or using the human dimension to enhance competiveness or the quality of the service provided. For example a recent report on the retail sector (Tait 2017) outlined three possible competitive strategies in response to the fourth industrial revolution: squeezing the cost base, automating to efficiency or, the most promising, competing through connectivity, building on human skills as a basis for the survival of the high street and retail centres. This could, if adopted, lead to automation combined with reskilling rather than simple job displacement in retail, one of the sectors identified as most at risk from automation.

The third factor shaping the gender impact is the changing employment relationship, which can be expected to have gendered effects. The fourth industrial revolution marks a change from an open-ended agreement to sell labour time to one-off contracts for highly specified services and tasks (Bergvall-Kåreborn and Howcroft 2014), encouraging forms of dependent contractor and bogus self-employment. The gendered implications of these changes in the employment relationship are evident from women’s disproportional representation in non-standard forms of employment and solo self-employment. Those working in the gig economy currently represent a relatively small share of the workforce,1 but this type of employment is on the increase. Online platforms have international reach and may offer new opportunities to women with limited access to the formal economy, but gendered promises of freedom and flexibility are situated in a context where around 60% of the world’s population – many of them women in low- and middle-income countries – still lack internet access (OECD 2017). While online platforms may appear to be gender-blind, research has revealed a gender pay gap (Adams and Berg 2017). Gender pay differentials operate regardless of feedback scores, experience, occupational category, working hours and educational attainment, which suggests gender inequality is embedded in the operation of platforms (Barzilay and Ben-David 2017) in ways that require further exploration.

A more significant trend than crowdwork is the rapid rise in solo self-employment. Women-run online entrepreneur firms predominate in Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the UK and the US (OECD 2017). Taking the UK as an example, we find that men outnumber women by more than two to one among the self-employed, but the number of self-employed women rose by three-quarters since 2001, with the increase in part-time self-employment rising even faster, at 88% (CRSE 2017). The majority of these self-employed have been found to have a stable income and to be independent – not working for a single client. However, around two-fifths are classified as low paid and one-fifth receive low or medium pay and are also insecure. While gig economy work and self-employment affect men as well as women, there are differences in the implications for women, particularly those who are carers. More men than women are undertaking gig economy work as an additional source of income to supplement the day job but when women are carers these jobs are likely to be those women’s main source of income. Therefore the insecurity matters more to women, and a higher proportion of women’s total working hours are likely to be unpaid. The International Labour Organization has estimated that those using platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk spend 18 minutes in every hour searching for work (Berg 2016). This is in contrast to the traditional employment contract where the employer pays for on-the-job-inactivity within the guaranteed working day (Supiot 2001).

The fourth dimension for gender equality concerns change in access to work over the period of childbirth and childrearing. There is the risk that if work becomes more fragmented with competition for each new task, much of the progress made by women in retaining access to employment through paid maternity leave may disappear. Across the European Union, almost half of self-employed women are not entitled to maternity benefits (OECD 2017). But, even if the state makes some provision, taking leave may be risky as access to work for the self-employed often depends on how good your last job was, so taking time out can be very costly. At the same time new technologies could potentially make it easier for employers to accede to requests for flexible working, thereby perhaps reducing the proportion of women pushed into self-employment or the gig economy after childbirth. Again the issue is not with the technology but the policies of employers.

If the outcome of the fourth industrial revolution is unemployment through displacement of workers, then individual employees’ bargaining power may be reduced. This could make it more difficult to negotiate flexible working, particularly if this remains only a right to request, not a right in itself. This would have significant implications given that countries with the highest share of women working from home also have the highest rates of employment among women with children (OECD 2017). Furthermore, opportunities simply to work some of the time at home would not be sufficient to take into account caring responsibilities if very long total hours of work are maintained within a flexible but 24/7 economy. Indeed some employers may even consider the price for some limited autonomy over location and place to be willingness to be available outside standard working hours to meet the needs of the business or clients.

Recommendations for change

Given the increasing attention being paid to debating the future of work, it is prescient to consider the possibility of a more gender equal world and sketch out alternatives. Future scenarios are neither inevitable nor predetermined, but depend on how society chooses to engage with technology. With this in mind, we offer a number of recommendations in the hope of opening up spaces of possibility and initiating wider debate.

If automation is to achieve the elusive higher productivity levels, this need not necessarily exacerbate inequality. Research shows increasing job polarisation by skill level in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (Autor 2015), but differentiation is not inevitable. While Frey and Osborne (2013) paint a fairly woeful picture of the reduction of labour demand through automation, they neglect the impact on working hours. Rather than polarise those in work and those out of work, automation could facilitate a reduction in average working hours and the working year, generating more free time for all without reducing economic output or increasing unemployment.

For free time to be beneficial, a sufficient income is vital and so the implementation of reduced hours should avoid triggering concomitant salary reductions, at least for those at the low and middle end of the pay distribution. This would allow for a more equal distribution of wage work and income while providing the preconditions for a more equal sharing of care between men and women.

A woman’s position in the labour market is inextricably linked to experiences in the home and the distribution of reproductive labour remains imbalanced. Reduced working time could enable more innovative approaches towards domestic, reproductive and care arrangements. New forms of flexible working – no longer subject to the whim of employers and with adequate social protection – could help normalise the dual roles of carers and earners in households, challenging expectations about who holds responsibility for paid and unpaid labour. Furthermore, while technology can help facilitate home-based working, to date this has primarily benefitted higher-status, male occupations, while women self-employed teleworkers experience a greater risk of work–life spillover (Hilbrecht and Lerob 2014). Rethinking the social relations of gender could transform home-based working to provide wider benefits for women.

Recent discussions on the future of work have enabled a revisiting of the societal value of care work (Srnicek and Williams 2016), so that high-status work is not simply associated with labour that is profitable for capital. Historically, domestic technology, including that related to physical and mental care, has been consistently marginalised due to an undervaluing of the feminine and the private sphere (Cockburn 1997). However, demographic changes and the impending crisis of care in many developed economies has led to an expansion of research into assistive technologies. These technologies have the potential to reduce the burden of care work with automation, but as with many innovations a seemingly smart technological solution also has the potential to generate negative and unintended consequences (Pritchard and Brittain 2015). For this reason, it is important to look beyond simply employing technology to compensate for the potential human shortfall and instead give due consideration to how it can be usefully employed to extend personal connectivity and stimulate social interaction. Engaging with users (older citizens) of the technology in participatory design practices may inform developers as to how this may play out in future scenarios.

Given the growing demand for STEM knowledge and skills, the issue of low representation of women workers needs to be addressed. This is significant given the lack of opportunity for women workers in an area that is likely to expand rather than shrink as a consequence of the fourth industrial revolution. It is particularly problematic if women have practically no voice in the design and development of major technological innovations, especially if these are perceived to be transforming the imagined future. Despite a number of initiatives, gender inequality is endemic to the ICT sector, so a fundamental re-orientation in the culture and organisation of work will be needed if we are to redress gender imbalances.

Increasing levels of non-standard forms of employment and precarious work has been intensified by digitalisation, leading to increasing fragmentation (Rubery 2015). Ostensibly, the emergence of platform-based working and ‘gigs’ may appear to benefit women, providing flexibility for those with care obligations and offering paid work for those weakly attached to the labour market. In reality, this is primarily characterised by low and intermittent pay, highly fragmented and routinised work tasks, unpaid time spent searching for tasks, as well as exclusion from social protection and employment standards. While platform-based working lies predominantly in the jurisdiction of big-tech companies, which are intent on generating capital, alternatives such as state-owned platforms could offer minimum guaranteed hours or income including financial compensation when work is not available at contracted times. Concurrently, adequate regulation is essential, and the state needs to step up and tackle the huge black hole in labour law so that platforms can no longer continue to facilitate exploitable work practices (Taylor 2017). If the future world of work is left in the hands of high tech monopolies that actively pursue tax avoidance and regulatory arbitrage, the prospects for gender equality appear bleak. It has never been more opportune for significant state interventions to shape technological futures.



1 The UK has the highest share of crowdworkers internationally at around 3% (ILO 2016).


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