28.02.2020

The future of work: A future without women?

Eight country studies shed light on the challenges and chances the 4th Industrial Revolution poses for female labourers.

Digitalization, the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the emerging platform economy have major implications for the labour market. It is assumed that women in particular will be affected by current developments.

Asian countries vary in terms of their skilled labour, their histories and interaction with the world economy, their population size, and the type of governments. Equally, their exposure to the main trends of the future of work differ in scale and impact. AI is more of a reality in China than it is in Pakistan or Mongolia, for example. The impact of automation and high risk of job losses mainly affects South-East Asian export-oriented countries. Regarding demographics, while Thailand is under pressure to address increasing care needs, Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines have an opportunity to provide those badly needed care workers. Moreover, many countries still depend on agricultural work, and will have to face the challenges climate change poses for that sector.

Graphic recording of panel discussion “A Feminist Future for All? Shaping Digital Justice in Asia” / Drawing by Kailin Huang from Picture People Plan

The various developments unfolding as part of the 4th Industrial Revolution impact different social groups differently. While certain trends, such as digitalization and the platform economy, could create opportunities for women, there is also the concern that women will be disproportionately affected, and that the future of work will aggravate existing inequalities

To allow for a more differentiated analysis of how the future of work impacts female labourers, FES in Asia commissioned researchers to conduct country studies from a feminist perspective on China, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Mongolia. These studies form part of the FES regional project Women and the Future of Work in Asia and focus on the prevailing narratives, trends and developments in each of the countries.

A grim present. An even grimmer future?

In many Asian economies, levels of women’s participation in the labour force are low, especially in India and Pakistan.

 Unpaid care work and patriarchal norms hinder women from entering the labour force. If women work, they usually occupy entry-level and repetitive jobs, which are also most vulnerable to automation. In Bangladesh, for example, working-class women in the ready-made garment sector are not given the same training opportunities as men to adapt to automation and to access higher-grade jobs.

The studies on the Philippines and India find that technological progress will mainly impact the agriculture, garment, footwear and electronic sectors – sectors which have traditionally employed women. The result is gendered job loss.

The Philippines case study also concludes that women are approximately 2.3 times more likely than men at risk of losing their job due to automation. In India, up to 12 million women are assumed to be displaced due to automation by 2030. Women also continue to have lower levels of education and skills. They are less likely to have access to schooling, technology and the internet, except for in Mongolia. Furthermore, in Mongolia, unlike in its neighbouring countries, more women than men are employed.

The future of work is not only about technological developments. The studies from Indonesia and the Philippines emphasize that the exploitation of women as unpaid care workers must come to an end. Care work needs to be recognized as valuable for society and governments need to protect care workers.

The fact that women lack representation in decision-making in most countries means that their perspectives will not be considered in policies on the future of work. Consequently, existing inequalities will be reproduced and even reinforced. Most countries in Asia, for example, have national strategies on how to embrace the chances the 4th Industrial Revolution brings and to prepare for the challenges it poses. However, the conducted research found that these often lack a gender-responsive perspective.

The future of work: more focus on intersectionality is needed

The studies constitute a first attempt to grasp how the future of work impacts women. However, the impact of automation and digitalization on women’s workplace participation has not yet been sufficiently understood and requires further attention. To address structural inequalities and shortages of opportunities  – particularly with regards to the STEM field, the gender division of labour, lack of security in public and in the workplace, as well as the burden of care work, an intersectional feminist approach is needed. The aim is not to replicate the working conditions of men, but to question the way we live and work more broadly. In order to shape an inclusive, sustainable future of work which benefits all, we must consider the differential impact current developments have on different parts of society, such as migrant workers, urban working-class women, and rural or indigenous women. As long as the advancements of society benefit only a few women and at the expense of others stuck in low-paid, precarious work, a brighter future for all is unattainable.

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For more details on the regional work by FES in Asia, contact the Singapore-based FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia and follow the facebook page for regular updates.

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