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Automation creates greater risk for women's jobs, Davos report finds

Automation creates greater risk for women's jobs, Davos report finds
A security robot patrols the Westfield Valley Fair shopping center in San Jose. A new report says U.S. jobs held by women are most at risk from automation. (Ben Margot / AP Photo)

Women are more likely than men to be knocked out of their jobs in the U.S. by automation over the next eight years, and they'll find half as many opportunities to land new positions unless there's a new effort to retrain them.

Those conclusions, from a study released last week at the World Economic Forum, show about 57% of the 1.4 million U.S. jobs to be disrupted by technology between now and 2026 are held by women.

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With proper retraining, most of the workers would find new, higher-paying jobs. Without it, very few have opportunities, but women fare the worst, according to the study, conducted in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group.

Making the transition will be expensive and difficult, the authors said.

"It is definitely unprecedented, the effort that would be required on the part of policymakers," said Saadia Zahidi, one of the authors and head of education, gender and work for the World Economic Forum, which held its annual conference last week in Davos, Switzerland. "What is different today is that businesses also do recognize that it's something that would be useful for them."

Workers are bracing for a future where it's estimated each industrial robot displaces six employees and 30% of banking jobs could disappear within five years as artificial intelligence gets smarter. Much of the worst disruption will affect lower-paying jobs often held by women or less-educated workers.

The World Economic Forum estimates it will take a century for women to reach gender parity in the workplace, almost 20 years longer than it forecast a year ago.

Business leaders are becoming more aware of their need to take a leadership role in fixing the gap, Zahidi said. At the same time, it will be a complicated problem to fix because it requires an entire new educational focus as well as a likely need for income support for workers being retrained, she said.

Without retraining, a quarter of the workers face annual income losses of about $8,600 and many would not be able to find a new job, compared with a gain of $15,000 for most workers after two years of retraining — with about 95% having a new position available, according to the report. The study was based on data from Burning Glass Technologies and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One positive for women: Under the retraining scenario, women's wages would increase 74%, while men's income would rise 53%, creating the potential for narrowing the pay gap, she said.

The study looked at 15 different job strategies that could pave the way for new careers for people in professions as diverse as assembly line workers, truck drivers, secretaries and cashiers.

Although the report found that 90,000 manufacturing jobs, predominantly held by men, are at risk for disruption, there are about 164,000 at-risk female secretaries and administrative assistants who are often overlooked.

"A lot of the narrative around job losses and re-skilling in the U.S. tends to focus around male, blue-collar, factory and mining workers, but in fact, there are a lot of women in a lot of those disrupted jobs," Zahidi said.

"So there is quite a lot of discrepancy in terms of the public narrative and what's actually happening in the data," she said. "There is this possibility of blind spots."

Jeff Green writes for Bloomberg.

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