Pandemic boost to tech and digital industries worsens gender job divide

The boost given by the pandemic to the digital, automation and technology industries is set to exacerbate gender inequality in the workplace, as the new jobs being created are being taken largely by men.

The pandemic is driving a shift in companies’ use of technology, both official statistics and business surveys suggest, making the automation and digitalisation industries some of the few winners from this year’s economic turbulence.

Nearly 800,000 additional jobs have been created in computer programming and related services across the EU, the US, the UK, Japan and Australia so far this year, according to an FT analysis of official data. The number of other tech-related professional jobs in areas such as information technology and telecoms was also up in some countries, with men over-represented in both sectors.

This is in sharp contrast to the overall jobs market — unemployment has risen in most major developed economies in recent months. The worst-hit areas of work are low-paid jobs in swaths of the services sector, which tend to mostly employ women.

Across the 34 OECD countries, women are more likely to be in temporary jobs and in all of the member countries for which data is available, women are more represented in low-paid jobs.

“The pandemic may be contributing to a widening of the gender gap, including the digital gender divide and the gender pay gap,” said Mariagrazia Squicciarini from the OECD’s science technology directorate.

Line chart of In EU, UK, US, Australia and Japan (millions of workers*) showing Men have extended their dominance in computer programming jobs

Most of the jobs for which demand has accelerated since the pandemic first hit require skills which fewer women have acquired through training and education, such as those relating to IT, science and engineering, she said.

Shauna Olney, chief of the International Labour Organization’s gender, equality and diversity branch, warned that as a growing number of countries record a fresh uptick in coronavirus cases, “women continue to bear the brunt of the crisis”.

“For many women, Covid-19 threatens their jobs and livelihoods,” she said. “Prompt and effective measures are crucial to mitigate the risk of deterioration of working conditions and career prospects.”

Tech jobs grow . . . 

EU: Total jobs fell by 2.9 per cent in the second quarter compared to the same period last year. Employment in computer programming, consultancy and related services was up by 18 per cent.

Japan: Jobs in information and communication were up 9 per cent in September compared to the same month last year, despite a fall in overall employment.

US: Jobs in computer system design and related activities were down in October compared to the same month last year. But the fall was less than one-third the size of the drop in overall employment.

Australia: Employment in the three months to August fell 3 per cent, but the number of workers in computer system design and related services rose 11 per cent.

UK: The number of information technology and telecommunication professionals rose by a record amount in the 12 months to June, greatly outperforming the overall job market.

The ILO has called on governments to target support for hard-hit sectors and occupations where women are over-represented, to collect gender-related statistics to inform recovery plans as well as to design recovery packages that recognise unpaid care work.

Trudy Norris-Grey, who chairs Wise, a UK campaign for greater diversity in science, technology and medicine, said tech job advertisements were increasing as a result of “the amplification of technological transformation during this pandemic [that] is not only changing the way we work, shop, communicate, educate but also the way we have our behaviour analysed and are consequently informed”.

But, she said, “more men are filling these new openings than women” and to change this “we need all companies to accelerate the drive for gender balance, especially in technology . . . as it is central to all our lives” as well as being one of the sectors with “the biggest growths in jobs”.

…While jobs in some service sectors shrink

UK: There were 120,000 fewer sales assistant jobs in the year to June compared to the same period last year, the largest fall ever recorded.

Japan: The number of jobs in accommodation, food and drink services fell at an annual rate of 10.6 per cent in September, the largest since records began until the pandemic.

EU: Nearly 1.5m jobs were lost in retail and accommodation in the second quarter compared to the same period last year, the largest on record.

US: Employment in accommodation and food services shrank 18 per cent in October compared with the same month last year, the largest October annual fall since records began in 1990.

Australia: The number of jobs in accommodation and food services fell 15 per cent in the third quarter compared to the same period last year, the largest fall on record for that period.

Bar chart of % of workers (2019) showing Women dominate in accommodation  and food services jobs
Bar chart of % of workers earning less than two-thirds of median earnings (2019 or latest) showing Low pay affects women more than men

Jennifer Howard-Grenville, a professor at the University of Cambridge, said that tech workers shape goods and services as “algorithms are not neutral and reflect the unconscious assumptions of their developers”.

However Ms Squicciarini noted that occupations related to caring and clinical and diagnostic support, in which women make up a significant proportion of workers, have also seen a rise in demand for workers.

Claudia Hupkau, assistant professor of economics at CUNEF (Madrid) and associate at the London School of Economics’ centre for economic performance, said the big hit to female-dominated sectors was mitigated by women being “overrepresented in sectors that have been defined as critical to the Covid-19 response, such as healthcare”.

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