Women in the firing line

February 20, 2017

Progress toward workplace equality has been slow, but in recent years it was at least moving in the right direction.

Now new data from Mercer and the World Economic Forum shows progress has not only halted, we are actually moving backwards; largely due to technology improvements and the rise of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution”.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2016 suggests at the current rate of change, the economic gender gap will not close for another 170 years – 52 years longer than projected in 2015.

It also predicts the rise of automation and artificial intelligence will cost women three million jobs over the next few years while providing only half a million new opportunities – more than five jobs lost for every job gained.

In a recent column for Fortune Insiders Mercer President and global CEO, Julio Portalatin, says this is the “headline story” from Mercer’s When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive study, released at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

“While conversation around workplace equality tends to focus on politics and policy, a major cause of this growing gap is technology,” Mr Portalatin says.

That’s because a huge proportion of the female workforce hold jobs in those fields under greatest threat from automation — particularly office and administrative roles. And those industries most likely to benefit from emerging technologies – computer and mathematical as well as architecture and engineering fields – “are plagued by low female representation and dim prospects for improvement”.

“While it is important to address these trends from the perspective of fairness and equality for women, we must also consider the damage that a growing equality gap would inflict on the global economy,” Mr Portalatin says. “Until we unleash the economic engine that gender parity ignites, we’re holding the world back.

“The coming disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is creating new urgency around realizing women’s full economic potential.”   

The technology industry, which is fuelling much of the innovation and advancement of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is struggling to build a diverse workforce and advance women.

Mercer’s When Women Thrive Technology Industry Perspective finds women represent only 18% of the average technology firm’s executives and only 34% of the entire industry workforce – and that number is expected to drop to 31% over the next 10 years due to low female hire and promotion rates.

Financial services organisations are also moving backwards when it comes to improving gender diversity, hiring proportionately more men than women at almost every level of the organization, while women are exiting at a higher rate than they are being hired.

Female representation at the top of financial services organisations is expected to drop — from 15% to 12% —by 2025.

A significant body of research over the past two decades links higher female representation in the workplace with a variety of business performance measures, including better financial performance, higher return on sales, equity and invested capital and better stock growth.

According to Intel’s Decoding Diversity report, closing the global tech industry’s female leadership gap could add a $530 Billion boost to global productivity – “roughly equivalent to a new economy the size of Norway or Taiwan”.

Pat Milligan, Global Leader of Mercer’s When Women Thrive initiative, says the latest study – the largest survey of its kind, representing 647 organizations in 42 countries and covering 3.2 million employees – is a call to organizations and leaders to think and act differently to advance women and drive their growth.

“The speed and magnitude of the coming changes mean that it is high time for actions that will actually make a difference,” Milligan says. “Organizations urgently need to take steps to minimize displacement and advance opportunities for women.”

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