Analysis: an assessment of technology's impact on gender pay gaps, equal employment opportunities and life/work balance

By Katharina Thusing and Caroline Murphy, University of Limerick

Topics such as the "future of work", "Industry 4.0" and the "gig economy" have recently become almost ubiquitous in popular media. While debate about such topics is called for, one of the criticisms, which can be levelled at some of those to the fore of such discussions is the largely homogenous way in which these developments are discussed.

Technological advancement holds great potential to transform where, when and how we work and are managed. Yet the way in which this change occurs is likely to vary significantly across individuals, particularly in light of their demographic characteristics. For example, will technology help or hinder the achievement of workplace equality? What are the advantages and drawbacks of technology in relation to issues such as closing pay gaps, providing more equal employment opportunities and creating greater work balance for workers?

How long have I got until a robot takes my desk?

The significant risk of job losses that automation poses has been much reported on. The World Economic Forum (WEF) states that while 71 percent of all task hours are currently completed by humans, only 29 percent are completed by machines, but that this ratio will soon decline. By 2022, they predict that this will change to 58 and 42 percent respectively, raising the question, who is most at risk of job loss?

Men will experience per one job gain for every three job losses when it comes to automation, compared to women who lose more than five jobs per one job gain

The answer is complex and depends on range of different factors such as the job role, sector and the skill-level, but roles which are at risk include customer service agents, cashiers, administrative secretaries and factory based production workers. Some commonality of these roles are their repetitive nature and relatively low-skill requirements. Consequently, individuals with lower education levels may face an even greater disadvantage in the future labour market.

However, high skilled jobs are not immune to replacement either. IBM's supercomputer Watson is capable of making health diagnosis and advancements in AI have been shown to have the potential to replace roles such as lawyers. Furthermore, particular sectors are more prone to automation including retail, food and beverages, agriculture and manufacturing. Therefore, employees working in these sectors face a higher risk of being replaced by automation.

From RTÉ One News, Will Goodbody reports on a survey which suggests that robots are set to handle most work tasks by 2025

While women are often over-represented in such sectors as retail and hospitality sector, men dominate agriculture and manufacturing and therefore both groups are affected by new technology. However, the WEF has stated that men will experience per one job gain for every three job losses when it comes to automation, compared to women who lose more than five jobs per one job gain. Arguably, gains in the female share of labor market participation advanced over recent decades may be jeopardised.  

Will technology make recruitment and promotion more objective?

It is has been mooted that existing biases in recruitment and promotion processes can be reduced through the emergence of "objective" analytics software and automated decision-making and this should arguably contribute to enhanced workplace equality. However, some recent cases call this assertion into question, illustrating that software programs can indeed contain bias.

As the software industry is dominated by men, the potential for male bias should not be ignored. One example of bias can be seen in the default voice settings of "personal assistant" programs such  as Siri, Alexa or Cortana which all adopt a default female voice to represent the assistant. A concern is that this may reinforce the stereotype of women in the workplace as "assisting" rather than leading and consequently hinder workplace inequality. Another recent story involving Amazon has shown that software has the potential to produce biased results by using word analysis based on gender, even if the creators have no deliberate intention to do so.

From RTÉ Radio One's The Business, Louise Campbell from Robert Walters Recruitment Agency on the workplace of personal brands and evocative job titles like Scrum Ninja, Digital Prophet and Director of Better

Analytics software can provide a useful tool for objective decision-making. However, it will be a challenge for the software industry to develop a software which is 100 percent unbiased and can truly contribute to workplace equality. 

Can technology help close the gender-pay gap? 

According to the OECD, the gender-pay gap in Ireland was in 2016 at 10.6 percent, whereas it was at 15.17 percent two years earier. This improvement can in some respects be attributed to the awareness created around the gender pay gap, much in fact to do with proposed legislation required employer to publish that pay gap. Advancement in data analytics undoubtedly make it easier for employers (at least large employers) to identify pay gaps.

But while technology can contribute to identifying issues, it can also contribute to the cause. For example, technology could contribute to increasing the national pay gap were operational roles (where women rather than men tend to dominate in many organisations) lost to AI/automation. Furthermore, the adoption of new technology often leads to wage increase for senior-management. As men still dominate senior management roles, technology could widen the gap. Furthermore, a study on Uber drivers has revealed that the gender-pay gap between drivers is due their experience with the platform, preference where and when to work and driving speed, even platform based work is susceptible to gender pay gaps. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Senator Ivana Bacik on government plans to introduce gender pay gap legislation 

Working 24/7

Digitalisation increases employee’s temporal and geographic flexibility and this flexibility is often viewed as an opportunity for employees to achieve greater work-life balance. Research has shown that the gender pay gap is lower in industries where flexible work conditions are the norm. However, the findings of an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI survey showed that 20 percent of men and 14 percent of women are dissatisfied with their work-life balance. Furthermore, technology has led to the expectation of employee’s availability 24/7, which can contribute to stress.  

Time for regulations?

The key question is how can society overcome the risks of technology increasing inequality rather than contributing to it? To achieve this, regulation and policy making at macro levels have a key role to play. Technology cannot be assumed to be either a friend or foe and how it affects our working lives depends largely on how regulation and policy reacts in terms of governing labour market and workplace developments. This includes aspects such as the right to disconnect from technology outside of work, fair access to data on automated decision-making and effective job creation and human capital development policies long term.

Katharina Thusing is a PhD Scholar at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr Caroline Murphy is a Lecturer in Employment Relations at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ