Are AI and Automation adding to the "gender gap?"

Every time I see a story alleging massive gender gaps in pay and employment opportunities I tend to roll my eyes a bit. There’s far too much contradictory information out there and many of these studies fail to take into account factors such as the fields of study young men and women pursue in college, the average pay in various sectors, hours worked and other criteria. But Time Magazine has added a wrinkle to this debate which is at least worth a look. Is the rapid advancement of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence contributing to an actual gender gap? And if so, how?

Women are disproportionately affected by the automation of jobs and development of artificial intelligence, which could widen the gender gap if more women are not encouraged to enter the fields of science, technology and engineering, the World Economic Forum warned on Monday.

Despite statistics showing that the economic opportunity gap between men and women narrowed slightly in 2018, the report from the World Economic Forum finds there are proportionally fewer women than men joining the workforce, largely due to the growth of automation and artificial intelligence.

According to the findings, the automation of certain jobs has impacted many roles traditionally held by women. Women also continue to be underrepresented in industries that utilize science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. This affects their presence in the booming field of AI.

You really have to dig down a fair distance into this article to get at the meat of what they’re talking about. Do the authors of the WEF study mean that there’s a greater gender disparity among workers who are actively working in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation or that the implementation of these technologies in other career areas is producing a greater disparity? There are few if any specifics offered, but the answer seems to be both.

If you’re talking about the businesses where robotics and artificial intelligence is being developed, this is old news. The major problem there is that fewer young women go into the STEM fields critical to those careers than young men so schools are producing fewer candidates. And the majors that the majority of girls select in college lead to careers which, on average, pay lower salaries no matter which gender you are.

But what about the effect of automation and robotics on the downstream workforce? When you think of the professions where workers are losing jobs to robots and AI, two come to mind immediately. The first is manufacturing. The days of long lines of workers standing alongside a conveyor belt putting together automobiles on an assembly line are largely gone. Robotic welders, riveters and screw guns have replaced many of them. The other field where this effect is increasingly felt is the food service industry. Kiosks and phone apps have taken the place of the kid asking you if “you want fries with that” and even some of the kitchen staff is being supplanted by Flippy the Robot Burger Flipper.

But were either of those career paths more heavily represented by women, leading to a larger cut in jobs traditionally held by females? It certainly doesn’t seem so intuitively. All the Time article has to say on the subject is, “the automation of certain jobs has impacted many roles traditionally held by women.” But they don’t offer any examples. If you look in the report itself on page 30, there’s a graph showing the industries feeling the largest effects, but the only ones with majority female representation in the talent pool and workforce are education, healthcare and non-profits. Those are also three areas suffering the least from the effects of automation.

Perhaps someone else can solve this riddle, assuming there’s a solution to be had. But from their own data, it appears the only legitimate “gender gap” to be seen is in the tech sector fields where these new innovations are being developed. And that’s simply because, yet again, there are fewer women studying for those fields in college.