With the arrival of Omicron, our attention has once again turned to the latest Covid variant and how it’s going to affect our day to day lives. The challenge for our industry will be the ability to provide continuity of business. The inevitable loss of staff due to infection or self isolation, the higher rate of turnover due to The Great Resignation, and the lack of immigration into Aotearoa all pose short and long term challenges.


We are not alone in addressing these issues. Around the world people are looking to technology and automation (including AI) to fill the gaps or provide new approaches. No doubt, the global pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution. Necessity has meant we are all getting better at Zoom calls, using online collaboration platforms and tools such as electronic document signing – and that’s just the start.


Will automation impact men and women equally?

We know that technology is set to displace some jobs and create others – but not in equal measure. It appears that women will be negatively impacted in both scenarios; they will be displaced from more jobs and the created jobs will favour men.


We have been discussing the issues around automation taking jobs for a while now, and many predictions have been made about which jobs would go and who would be most affected.


Many experts predicted automation would have a greater impact on the jobs done primarily by men. Jobs in production, transportation and construction were identified as highest risk due to their likelihood of being replaced by an automated robot.  On the other hand, female dominated roles such as those in education and healthcare were deemed safer. 


However in 2019, a report by the UK’s Office for National Statistics turned this thinking on its head. They identified 1.5 million jobs at risk of automation through software. Of these jobs, it found more than 70% of these high risk jobs were held by women. It turns out that robots are less likely to take over jobs in the short term, but rather algorithms written to replace routine or repetitive tasks are more likely to have an immediate impact. When you consider 95% of secretaries are women, and 97% of construction workers are men, it’s easy to see how occupational segregation can put one group at higher risk than another.


Who will be doing the jobs of the future?

A 2021 report by UNESCO backs this up. They identify that women are not only more likely to have their jobs automated, they also risk missing out on jobs of the future. This is because they are not being attracted to, or retained in the fields relevant to the digital revolution. Careers in technology and engineering will dominate the jobs of the future. There are more men in these jobs currently, and studies show they are set to continue attracting significantly more men than women in the near future. 


The equation of jobs lost and gained does not favour women, with an estimation that women will lose five jobs for every one gained in the digital age.


Administrative roles are not necessarily what they seem

The digital revolution is about replacing certain tasks rather than whole jobs, so jobs that involve a greater proportion of repetitive work are at greater risk. Let’s consider the automation of administrative tasks of a personal assistant such as scheduling travel or organising meetings. This appears to be a large part of their role. But this is far from all they do. Their skillset of communicating with people, using empathy, understanding a situation from multiple perspectives, and using creative solutions adds considerable value.

For example, Rhonda Scharf  says PA’s have good networks. They are in touch with the decision makers and also having lunch with those lower down the hierarchy. She suggests PA’s could provide a bridge between senior leadership and those below them, helping decision makers understand the impact of their decisions for those throughout the company.  When you consider these skills, they are the exact skills that automation is unable to replace. However, will these social and collaborative skills be seen as more valuable? Will the role of a PA be redefined and retained, or would organisations neglect to recognise the importance of these other skills and make the whole role redundant?


Automating Professional vs Administrative tasks

Administrative tasks such as these are often at the top of the list. However, it may not be any more difficult to automate professional tasks than administrative ones. Let’s consider the task of creating a list of current employees (administrative) compared with the task of creating a list of current industry standards (professional). Once the task has been programmed, it makes no difference to the technology which set of algorithms it is running.


While the requirement by AI is similar, the value added to the company is not. Every hour an organisation saves on a professional salary is of more financial benefit than the same hour on an administration salary. Therefore there is an argument for investing in the automation of higher value tasks for greater return.


It also raises the question of what the role of lawyer, doctor or engineer looks like once large chunks of the role are completed by AI.  The list of valued attributes for the role could look quite different – with skills based on emotional intelligence such as intuition, communication and empathy holding greater importance. Roles that currently require very different skill sets (engineer vs executive assistant), may in fact look quite similar once AI takes over the analytical or computational components. It will be interesting to see whether these skills receive higher recognition when held by a professional than an administrator.


Which tasks should be automated first?

The disproportionate loss of jobs by women leaves a lot of questions. Who is deciding which tasks are automated first? Are administrative tasks the best place to start?

At the very time when people are working more remotely than ever before, automation might make redundant the very people that provide the most social connection in the company. 


As digital transformation continues at an ever increasing pace, we have the responsibility to think about the changes it will bring,  who will be impacted and how. The research shows that if we don’t think more deeply about how we introduce automation, we may significantly increase gender bias issues.