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Part II: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Can Address Gender Pay Equity

Sharing Caring Roles More Equally

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read part one here

All too often, the defense given for why women earn less than men is because of the choices they make in their careers. But to tackle the issue, we need to address as a society why women make those choices. In many instances, we see caring responsibilities and part-time roles shared unequally, resulting in women pushed into lower-paid, flexible roles or self-employment after childbirth, frequently referred to as the “motherhood penalty.”


A quick spin through previous industrial revolutions reveals how the role of the family and gender roles came about, starting with traditional, agricultural societies where families worked together as a unit of production. Women and men could parent together while also playing a role in producing food or goods needed for household income. During the First Industrial Revolution, men, women and children transferred to working in cities and factories, but with the introduction of heavy machinery, these places became unsafe for children. Men’s greater physical strength gave them a productivity advantage over women, resulting in higher wages, and leaving women to take care of the home and family while experiencing a declining economic role.

Today, new technologies are making it easier for employers to accede to requests for flexible working and opening opportunities for remote working. But that alone does not provide the flexibility women (and men) need to balance ambition with caring responsibilities.

Firstly, opportunities to work from home some or all of the time are not enough if expectations of very long total hours of work are maintained. A study by Hilbrecht and Lerob, “Self-employment and family life: constructing work-life balance when you are always on, observed that while technology can help facilitate home-based working, to date this has primarily benefitted higher-status, male occupations, while female self-employed teleworkers experience a higher risk of work-life spillover. 

Though technology can provide the tools to facilitate flexible working to fit around caring responsibilities, it has also made it easier to work 24/7 and create “always-on employees.” Perhaps we need to rethink jobs or working hour norms so they are more human-sized. Changing views of long working hours as a proxy for hard work and commitment might help with the labor productivity and employee engagement issues we are currently experiencing. This leads some to question whether a growing well-being industry is a band-aid for the real problem of unrealistic expectations of working hours.

If we can shape work that allows for real work-life balance around caring responsibilities, men would also benefit. Some research revealed that many Millennial men are looking for equality at home as well — they want to be active fathers as well as at work, to be flexible and to take time out. Embracing this could help to normalize the dual roles of caregivers and earners in households and address gender stereotyping. Thus, creating quality flexible jobs that allow women and men to balance ambition with caring responsibilities must be the aim.

Overcoming Occupational Segregation
Another reason cited for gender pay gaps is occupational segregation, with a historical tendency for women to take on low-paid work sometimes referred to as the 5 Cs: cleaning, catering, cashiering (retail), clerical work and caring.

The World Economic Forum 2016 report, “The Future of Jobs,” highlights that as 4IR takes hold in different industries and job families, it will affect female and male workers in distinct ways. Looking from a sector basis, job families expecting the highest employment growth include architecture, engineering, computer science and mathematics, which currently have some of the lowest female participation rates. Women may also be considered more vulnerable due to their concentration in lower-skilled or routinized jobs that may be more easily automated. By extrapolating from the current pattern of gender segregation, it’s predicted that this will result in a net job loss for women, with 3 million job losses and only 0.55 million gains — more than five jobs lost for every job gained, while men will face nearly 4 million job losses and 1.4 million gains, approximately three jobs lost for every job gained. Clearly, we need to break down those patterns of gender segregation to buck these predicted trends.

Perhaps most fundamentally of all, we can expect the gender pay gap to persist as long as employers’ and employees’ ideas about gender norms and occupations continue, including stereotypes about men and women’s capabilities and skills and the culture associated with different types of work. But as the war for talent rages on, we know people are an increasingly valuable asset. Successful businesses will be those that can reskill their employees in order to deploy the technology of the 4IR. This may well be the antithesis of the First Industrial Revolution, where physical strength became more highly valued. In an economy based less on capital than talent, women are more likely to be treated as equals to foster an environment where there are fewer obstacles to talent acquisition and retention.

Technological disruption in the 4IR will bring many opportunities and benefits at global, national and organizational levels, but technology alone won’t be the cure-all. We need clear, ethical goals to build a society based on cooperation that benefits everyone. Rethinking working time, family time and personal time, reassessing the gender division of labor and reviewing the rate of female participation and progression across our workforce will all help to build a culture that supports the increasingly diverse and multi-generational workforce that is emerging.

Only then can we hope to close the gender pay divide.

About the Author

Ruth Thomas is an industry principal and co-founder at Curo Compensation.

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