From Santiago: Gender Equality and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Written by Linda Scott

On Tuesday, I will address the Fourth Global Forum on Business for Gender Equality in Santiago, Chile.  This event is held by UNWomen, UNDP, the government of Chile, and the ILO.  I have been asked to speak about the coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and its anticipated impact on women.

See in the graph on the left that women outnumber men in other industries besides tech. The skew in tech is dramatic. One might well ask the question, “Why are women even with men everywhere else but barely present in tech?” On the right, you can see the dire prediction that comes from that unequal representation: more women’s jobs will disappear than men’s.

The “fourth industrial revolution” refers to a coming technological watershed that is predicted to rival the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions.  This is a future of nanotech, robots, and so forth, in which the world will see wonderful new products and services, but no one will be able to buy anything because all the humans will be out of work and broke.

According to experts, the impact on women will be particularly dire.  Jobs in existing sectors will disappear due to automation and the few new jobs created will be in “technology,” which is generally described as business, engineering, digital tech, science/math, and health.  Women are already under-represented in tech jobs, even though they are the majority of workers in other industries.  Consequently, women will lose 20 jobs for every one gained in the coming Armageddon, while men will lose only four per job gained.

To be honest, the doomsaying has rubbed me a bit the wrong way.  There is too much smug dismissal in the tone.  You can hear all the old rubbish beneath the pronouncements of the coming demise of the female sex:  women are not that smart, they can’t do math, they aren’t committed, they have no confidence, they can’t be leaders, they are so stupid they keep picking the wrong industries, and, of course, all they care about is having babies.

I think we always need to be wary of that old song.  Even if any of it were ever true, this refrain is certainly not true now.  Consider that:

  • Today, worldwide, women hold more degrees than men—bachelor’s, master’s, Ph.D.s, and professional degrees.
  • The math skills gender gap closed 20 years ago. (Let me repeat: 20 years ago!)
  • Math performance among women varies directly with the WEF Global Gender Gap Index: women perform well where equality is high and less well where it is low. This suggests that stereotype threat and lack of access, not inability, has been the problem in the past.
  • Thanks to new studies coming out of neuroscience, we now know that there are no “biological” differences between male and female brains.
  • Girls and boys now take math, science, and computer classes in equal numbers in secondary school.
  • In some top universities, females are enrolling in computer science at equal levels with males.

As I dug into the data being offered by these dismal oracles, I saw a different picture than all the finger-wagging at women implied.  What I saw was women coming nearer than ever to equality with men in tech fields—with the exception of engineering—and coming out into the pipeline in near equal numbers.  What accounts for the very low female representation in actual tech jobs (20% to 27%, depending on who you’re reading) is the rapid exit women make from tech firms as compared to other kinds of employers.

In other words, this is not a problem that can be solved by women “stepping up to the plate.”  Instead, tech employers would have to start taking responsibility for their gender-unfriendly workplaces. Indeed, I predict (in my best oracular tone) that women will not only draw equal to men in numbers in tech education, they will be better performers within fields where qualified talent is increasingly scarce.  If they can’t reorient themselves in an inclusive way, tech employers will continue to blindly chase only half the talent pool, a habit that will ultimately prove self-destructive.

Keep in mind that one side of the Revolution No. 4 scenario is people losing jobs; the other side is employers facing a staggering skills gap.

The achievements of Latin American women over the past three decades are an inspiration for the world. The pattern you see here, however, is similar to what you see around the world, except for the representation in leadership, where Latin America has three times as many women in positions of power compared to most countries. The blue line in the graph indicates where equality with males would fall. So, women are ahead of men in tertiary education and slightly ahead in professional/technical employment. They are lower than men in both leadership posts and pay for the same work.

In the following paragraphs and accompanying graphs, I will be using mostly data from the World Economic Forum, which recently put out a big campaign designed to scare women into upping their game.

In most regions, many more women than men are enrolled in tertiary education.  In Latin America where I will be giving this talk, 30% more females than males are currently enrolled in university—a number that is in line with other regions (the proportion is actually higher in North America and Europe). This over-representation of women in higher education is the result of a very steep climb over the past 25 years, in which female students, step by step, came to dominate the universities.  This trend shows no sign of stopping.

IMPORTANT:  What we are seeing here is not just that more women want to go to college, but that 30% more women than men meet the admission standards and make the cut to get in.  (About twenty years ago, the elite private schools in America began “adjusting” their standards for boys so that they would not have incoming cohorts that had no males.  I am serious.)  Once in, women make better marks and they graduate at higher rates than men. They are simply better students—motivated, organized, diligent, intelligent— and thus should be evaluated as superior potential employees.

In Latin America, women also hold at least as many professional/technical jobs as men do.  In many places, in fact, women outnumber men in these highly skilled jobs by quite a big margin.  Women in Latin America are also substantially present in leadership positions—in this, they are well ahead of the rest of us.  But, like everywhere else, women in Latin America make quite a lot less than men for the same work. Is this because they lack confidence or don’t try?  After all those years of storming their way through the schools?

Of course, the quick retort is that women go to school in greater numbers, but they major in the “easy” topics in college and then go into the “wrong” industries, so they end up making less money.

Take a look at the graph showing the areas of study as represented by 2017 graduates.  I have put a little arrow pointing to the areas where the Fourth Revolution is meant to be focused.  Reading from the left, we can see that women already own health care.  In fact, women have dominated the life and biological sciences for many years already.

Keep moving to the right and you will see that, contrary to stereotype, women are slightly more numerous than men in business study (index 106).  Further, females are nearly equal to males in science and math (index 91).  If you keep going to the far right, you can see that women are lower in ICT (information communications technologies) and engineering.

Let’s zoom in on ICT because that is where everybody thinks the problem is.  Now, I am going to break my own rule against doing math in public here, but please stick with me.

The purple bar across the middle of this graph marks equality with males. From the left, among 2017 graduates, women are double the number of men in health. They are about equal to men in business and the sciences. They are, in fact, present in only half the numbers in ICT and a third in Engineering.

That 52 index in ICT was calculated by dividing the percent of all female graduates who were ICT majors (3.2%) over the percent of all male graduates who were ICT majors (6.2%).

The total of all students who study ICT is only about 4.5%.  So, even males are not there in very appreciable numbers.  As much as everybody fusses about not enough females in this field, actually there are not many people in this field, full stop.  I was surprised to find this out.  I was envisioning hordes of guys in these classrooms with no women. It will not be hard to surpass the numbers of males in ICT because they are so few already.

Remember, please, that the total population of females in university is 30%+ larger than the population of males.  So, if we adjust the percentage of women in ICT to reflect the larger pool, we find that, in truth, females coming out of school right now are 40% of all ICT students and males are 60%.  There is a difference here, but it is not such a huge skew as to justify all the “women are doomed” rhetoric.  Indeed, with current trends and past performance, we can expect that women will be half of all ICT majors pretty soon—and then will probably outperform the males.  Because that’s what they are doing in every other field of study.

This graph is the key to why women are so few in tech. It is not really because of the intake into the pipeline (which has now risen to 40%), but is more about what happens in the first decade of their careers in that industry.

So, why are women so poorly represented in tech jobs?  For that, we have to pull back and look past students and recent grads to see the bigger picture of the industry as a whole.  Take a look at the graph showing women’s career progression in ICT.  You can see that females have been hired in at slightly lesser proportions than we found them in school.  But then, as time passes and ranks go higher, the women disappear, step by step.

The average length of time a woman spends in the tech industry is seven years. By the end of 12 years, half of them have left the industry forever—more than twice the average for other industries.  They never go back.  Interviews and studies I read said these women are so fed up they just walk out the door, end of story.

So, at a time when societies need tech workers really badly and there are too few of them to meet the need, the huge investment in educating women in tech goes up in smoke within a decade after they leave school.  Not a good outcome.

These are the answers employers gave when asked what the barriers were to gender equality. Notice that most of the items on the list are of the “something’s wrong with the women” variety.

For their “bad news for women” report on Rev. No. 4, the WEF asked the top employers across several industries what the barriers to gender inclusion were.  The executives answered that the top two problems were work/life balance and “unconscious” bias among managers.  But please notice (in the graph provided) that nearly every reason given is some weakness attributed to the women (no leadership ability, no confidence, insufficient skills) or some exogenous force (social pressure).  The only barrier for which the employers themselves might accept responsibility is “unconscious” bias among their managers. (Somebody actually said there are no barriers.  OMG, how old was the guy who gave that answer?)

The gray bars represent the percentage of employers who have that particular effort going.  The red bars are the percentage who are not doing that particular thing.  Notice that in every case the ones doing nothing outnumber the ones doing something.

Roughly 35% of these employers have some kind of program designed to promote gender inclusion, as you can see in the graph at right.  Roughly 65% of these employers are not doing each program. In fact, generally, the companies doing nothing vastly outnumber the companies who are doing anything.

Please notice especially that efforts aimed at any shortcoming in the company, such as the “top commitment” to diversity and programs to make managers more aware, are the least popular strategies being pursued. The need for transparency (pay rates, promotions, etc.) is ignored by 81% of them. This response lines up nicely with the employers’ assessment of the problems to be addressed:  they think the problem is women, not them, and so most of them aren’t doing anything.

Perhaps the WEF should be asking the women what they think the problem is.  One study I found, called “The Elephant in the Valley,” surveyed senior women in tech.  Their responses matched perfectly with interviews and other qualitative data I saw.  The senior women surveyed all reported high levels of sexist behavior and sexual harassment, specifically:

  • 87% had experienced demeaning comments from male colleagues
  • 84% had colleagues or clients who wouldn’t look them in the eyes
  • 84% had been told they were too aggressive (42% > once)
  • 59% felt they had not had same opportunities as males
  • 47% had been asked to do low level tasks (take notes, order food, get coffee) males were not asked to do
  • 90% had witnessed sexist behavior at “offsite” industry events
  • 60% have had unwanted sexual advances, of which 65% were approached inappropriately by their supervisor (50% more than once)

Maybe I am missing something?  That list does not sound very “unconscious” to me.

What to do?  Well, all the little tales of woe I read about women in Rev 4 held out cute promises from the new technologies as solutions.  One said that automation would reduce housework so women would be able to work more easily.  I guess it’s easier to build robots than help out at home?

The big promise of the 4th Rev: more robots to do “our” housework for us?

The most frequent solution offered is that same tired old promise of working remotely.  It has been possible to work remotely for nearly 30 years.  Am I the only one who noticed that?  Here’s what the problem is with that solution:  it is used against women.  Remote working and flextime get applied as evidence of a woman’s “lack of commitment.”  Like parental leave, men either don’t use it at all or get brownie points for being a “great guy” when they do.  Unless the situation with remote working becomes gender neutral—the normal order of the day for everyone—then this idea is not going to help.

Preparing for this speech has left me wondering why the doom goons keep rattling the cages for women to step up in tech education?  I’m not saying women shouldn’t do that; I would love to see women take over tech the way they have taken over, say, health and accounting.  But I fail to see how that solution addresses the problem.  Industry can’t provide a safe working environment for the women already coming into tech.

I think the solution has to be an equal engagement between women and employers to prepare for #4INDREV.  Women need to continue to push into previously male-dominated fields of study, which will inevitably mean putting up with a certain amount of social ineptitude in the form of dumb comments and takeout orders.   For their part, employers need to focus first on creating respectful workplaces.  They must, in particular, stop turning a blind eye to sexual assault and all the rituals (drinking parties, etc.) that encourage it.

Good employers will also make an effort to know the facts about women’s performance and presence. They will not merely accept the threadbare assumptions that the Left Behind “experts” are working with.   Companies also need to engage authentically with the problem.  After all, none of us really wants to work in a place where people aren’t collaborative and kind.  And, for that matter, none of us wants to live in a world where everybody is jobless and broke.

I am happy to see that the program for today and tomorrow addresses these and other issues that will be central to the task of positioning women for the next big shift in the world’s economy.  And there are some important people here to discuss.  Should be a great meeting.

P.S.  I had lots of people want this link today so that they would have the slides and the explanation.  So, just in case, I want to make the sources clear.  I believe all the graphs are labelled.  Some of the data comes from the WEF’s 2017 Industry Gender Gap Report.  Then some comes from their 2017 Global Gender Gap Report.  There is a link to the Elephant in the Valley.  There is one graph, the very first one on the left, that came from Microsoft News’ Asia Center, but I don’t have the link right now and will have to add it when I get home.  Otherwise, everything here should be easily traceable to the original sources.

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