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Reskilling for Tomorrow: The Reskilling Gender Gap

Jobs thought of as ‘women’s jobs,’ whether paid or unpaid, are less valued. That’s how people get paid more to park cars than to teach preschool with a college degree in child development.

Dr. Mary King, Labor Economist, Professor Emerita at Portland State University

In late January, the World Economic Forum (WEF) held its 50th meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Nearly 3,000 academics, politicians, business people and innovators from around the world made the trip to the little ski town in the Swiss Alps, as they do each year, to promote world collaboration and discuss the event’s 2020 theme: “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.”

While there was a worthy focus on discussing climate change at the event, as well as the unfolding situation surrounding the novel coronavirus, leaders also tackled another topic that warrants a sense of urgency: the tidal wave of economic disruption that will follow the mass implementation of automation—what the experts call the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It’s hard to pinpoint a single industry that automation won’t change in some way, if not completely revolutionize. We’ve heard a lot about robotic automation in the logistics and transportation industry because of the marvel of package-sorting robots, autonomous drones, and self-driving vehicles, but it has the potential to fully or partially replace the tasks of bookkeepers, factory workers, sales people, research analysts, and in the far future, even replace much of the work of copywriters, analysts, and surgeons.

Naturally, constant talk of emerging automation technology has prompted many to wonder if their jobs are in danger of being replaced, and if so, when. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute surveying ten countries estimates we need to reskill a whopping one billion people by 2030. And just peeking into the next two years ahead, WEF estimates that by 2022, 42 percent of core skills required to perform existing jobs will change.

These predictions are what fueled the WEF to launch the “Reskilling Revolution,” an initiative that aims to provide one billion people “better education, better skills and better jobs” by year 2030.

The WEF unveiled the plan on day two of the forum, naming the United Nations Children’s Fund, the government of the United Arab Emirates, the Adecco Group, LinkedIn, and Coursera (and others) as founding partners. These private and public groups will work together to create pathways for members of the workforce that stand to be affected, by helping them build on existing skills or creating new skill sets altogether.

Meet the Expert: Labor Economist Dr. Mary King

Dr. Mary King

Dr. Mary King is a labor economist and professor emerita of Economics at Portland State University. She earned her BA at Stanford University; became a Rhodes Scholar at University of Oxford; and obtained her PhD in economics at UC Berkeley.

Dr. King has served as chair of the PSU Economics Department, president of the PSU American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and president of AAUP Oregon. She is also the vice president of the board of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, and was a founding board member for Family Forward Oregon—an organization that advocates for employers to provide benefits that support working families.

Gender Disparities in Job Reskilling

Interestingly, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that more men are at risk of being replaced by automation than women. It says that in the range of 40 to 160 million women and 60 to 275 million men will have to switch occupations by 2030. Why this may be mistaken for a feminist signpost, it’s actually a sign that we still have work to do in dismantling gender roles in our society.

Part of this discrepancy is attributable to the fact that automation will replace physical jobs in great numbers, such as machine operators, truck drivers, craftworkers, and other kinds of laborers, which are traditionally held by men. But traditionally female jobs, such as customer service, retail, receptionists also stand to be replaced.

What’s left? The WEF says that job growth will come from seven main areas in the next few years: care, engineering and cloud computing, sales marketing and content, data and artificial intelligence (A.I.), green jobs, people and culture, and specialized project managers.

Looking at these industries, you may notice that some of them are associated with one gender more than the other. Men dominate engineering, cloud computing, data and A.I. while women are more prevalent in healthcare, marketing and people/culture-related jobs. And troublingly, the careers that women are associated with are generally associated with lower salaries and few benefits, which could mean that gender wage disparity could potentially get worse, not better.

To gain deeper insight into the situation, we talked to Dr. King, a doctor of economics who has spent years researching the keys to economic progress for women, people of color, and people from low-income families.

Healthcare is often referred to triumphantly as a “woman-dominated industry,” but the higher up the ladder you look, the less women are present. Technicians and nurses are overwhelmingly female, but women make up only about one-third of doctors in the U.S. and only one in five healthcare executives.

“Care: that’s minimum wage work in this country, but there are so many skills there,” Dr. King said. “Managing challenging people who are sick, upset and stressed—there are all kinds of things that if you don’t do the work, you don’t know.”

Similarly, in STEM—a huge umbrella of a category encompassing jobs in academic, corporate, and government jobs—the gender ratio pendulum swings drastically depending on which subcategory you are observing, as does the average salary.

“Women in STEM are often in clerical work or teaching math, but they’re not in these better paid STEM jobs as much,” Dr. King said.

For instance, women make up only 13 percent of engineers in the U.S. One of the few areas in STEM that they do outnumber men is in mathematics. But the average total earning potential of a statistician, math teacher, or professor is closer to the starting salary of a civil or mechanical engineer.

This pattern is not confined within healthcare and STEM. It’s also observable in professions like sales, real estate, administration, and management, among others.

Why Breaking Down Gender Roles Matters

Some may shrug their shoulders at these paradigms, chalking them up to a coincidence, but the reality is, these typecasts aren’t random or harmless.

As you may notice, salaries don’t necessarily go up in correlation with education level within sectors. For example, the educational requirements of an engineer are often the same or less than that of a math teacher. Yet, engineers make more money.

That’s largely why American college-educated women still earn less money than men, even though they pursue higher education in greater numbers. Among men and women with bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., women earn 74 cents for every dollar of their male counterpart.

This beckons the questions: is it just a coincidence that women choose jobs that happen to be lower-paid? Or are they lower-paid because women dominate them? There is some truth to both.

“Jobs thought of as ‘women’s jobs,’ whether paid or unpaid, are less valued,” Dr. King said. “That’s how people get paid more to park cars than to teach preschool with a college degree in child development.”
So, there’s the fact that the work that women are traditionally associated with is simply less valued by society, but it’s also about the tendency for people to go where there are others like them.

“Occupational segregation by gender and ethnicity is driven, to a great extent, by social expectations about what jobs certain people ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do,” Dr. King said.

In the U.S, girls represent 47 percent of middle and high school students interested in learning computer science, yet they only make up about 35 percent of STEM students once they go to college.

“In the McKinsey report, they say that women do more of the unpaid work of care, take care of kids, elders, the ill and adults with long term disabilities, but they don’t say why that is or why there is occupational segregation,” Dr. King said. “It’s because that’s what people are expected to do. Why are women all piled into nursing and teaching? Because that’s what they’re expected to do. And that makes a big difference.”

Going against the grain and entering a male-dominated field means a harder road, and women know it: a lower likelihood of family-friendly benefits like childcare and family leave, greater difficulty moving up the corporate ladder, and a struggle to find available female mentors.

But just getting a foot-in-the-door to a male-dominated profession can be a tricky maneuver in itself.

“Both my niece and the daughter of a good friend of mine are in their 20s, both with engineering degrees from Southern California, but when they graduated from college in a good market, they couldn’t get hired as engineers,” she said. “Instead, they found jobs in marketing, despite that neither of them wanted to work in marketing.”

As a result, both of the young women decided to go back to school to pursue further higher education. “They spent big bucks to get expensive master’s degrees so they could get jobs in a field that they had already gotten bachelor’s degrees in,” Dr. King said.

Cases like these suggest that another part of the reason that women are pursuing higher education in greater numbers than men is so they can “prove themselves” as competent workers to potential employers, who may—intentionally or unintentionally—question their ability to adequately do traditionally male-dominated jobs.

These are all factors that may sway women to stay in fields that they are expected to, few of which pay very well.

Could This Be an Impetus for Gender Parity?

On the bright side of this complex topic, the McKinsey report says that with the loss of many old-school careers, there will also be a huge influx of new, more dynamic positions on the market.

“It’s become very clear that we’re not necessarily looking at a negative future in terms of jobs, but what we are looking at is a major shift in terms of the set of skills within each job and the types of jobs that will exist in the future,” Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the WEF said at the forum.

Women are shown to be creative, empathetic, dynamic, and more often college-educated than men—all qualities that will be in high demand in an automated world. So, could the automation age present an opportunity for women just waiting to be seized?

The answer is yes—but not without a huge effort. And failing to do anything to underpin women’s success in STEM during this sensitive transition period could end up making inequalities worse.

“We all need to take responsibility for challenging these stereotypes, promoting education and advocating for female entrepreneurs, so this gap closes rather than widens,” the WEF said, naming small organization Code First: Girls, which offers free coding programs to women, as an example of how we can help a new generation of girls and women enter STEM.

But it’s going to take more than just third-party crowd-sourcing, the charity of benevolent organizations, and an expectation that girls pull themselves up by their bootstraps against the odds to make a real difference in evening out gender disparity in the new economy.

“The McKinsey report is very focused on the idea that people make choices, based on their personal tastes, and then the market values those individual choices with the kinds of jobs and incomes they obtain,” King added. “What that perspective really obscures is the huge importance of social institutions—from social norms and expectations to government policy.”

Dr. King says we can pave the way for women to enter by addressing the current barriers that they face.

“What keeps women in good jobs and makes it possible for them to have good jobs? You can see it clearly in the numbers: publicly provided child care, paid family leave, paid sick leave, paid time off,” Dr. King said. “If you don’t have those things, you don’t stay at work because you can’t … and maybe even more to the point, employers assume that you won’t, and they don’t hire you or promote you because of that.”

Nina Chamlou

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at