Why we should be optimistic about technology’s impact on women
In the 1880s, the clunky metal invention known as the typewriter was having its heydey. The mechanical typewriter was created to help businesses save time and money — and it worked. A contemporary estimate pinned the typewriter’s time-saving capabilities at 40 minutes per hour compared to writing by hand. From 1882 to 1887, the number of typewriters sold by Remington each year increased tenfold as more and more businesses invited the new machine into their offices.
As the number of typewriters increased, opportunities for typists exploded. The typewriter was not created to address gender inequality in the office but the technology paved a path for many women to move into the male-dominated business world for the first time. From 1890 to 1990, labor force participation rates among women increased exponentially in the US and Europe.
Advances in technology continue to be a huge factor impacting women’s ability to participate in the workforce across the globe.
Today, the number of typists overall has dropped precipitously, and that goes for women typists and word processors as well. The typewriter has long-since been replaced by computers and typing skills have become largely ubiquitous. But even typing may soon become obsolete, as tech companies develop virtual options like voice typing, and eye-gaze typing originally developed for people with limited mobility.
Do the declines of the typewriter and the female typist mean that job opportunities for women have gotten worse? Of course not. As many women moved away from roles as secretaries and typists, women have increasingly moved into more demanding roles, often as leaders in companies across the world.
Although there is still work to be done, the number of women in key leadership roles is growing rapidly. For example, TechCrunch found that the number of startups with at least one woman founder nearly doubled from 9.5% in 2009 to 18% in 2014. The Pew Research Center shows the percentage of women in federal and state legislatures, on Fortune 500 boards, and as university presidents have all been steadily increasing for decades.
Labor-enhancing vs. time-saving innovation
In addition to labor-enhancing technologies like typewriters, technological innovation has given us time-saving technologies that greatly reduce the amount of time spent (by both women and men) on household chores. Because women still perform the majority of the world’s housework and unpaid care work in general, the ubiquity of appliances like the washing machine helped free up women’s time and allowed them to pursue education and work at increasing rates.
In 2011, the Swedish physician and professor Hans Rosling created a TED talk called “The magic washing machine,” in which he explained how the spread of technology like the washing machine changes people’s lives by giving them back hours of their day that they previously had to spend hand-washing their entire household’s clothes and bedding. Because of the washing machine, his mother had time to read to their children, which he credits for pushing him to pursue a career as a professor. Rosling tells the story vividly:
My mother and father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine…Grandma was even more excited. Throughout her life, she had been heating water with firewood and she had hand-washed laundry for seven children. And now she was going to watch electricity do that work.
Adoption rates for common appliances like washing machines, vacuums, and dishwashers have increased dramatically in the last century, freeing up hours more each day and giving women the time to pursue their goals.
Innovation and the modern woman
While innovation benefited women in the past by enhancing their skills and saving them time, perhaps there is something different about this new wave of technological change. Despite the obvious benefits that technology has had for women across the world, many thinkers argue that continued innovation will actually damage job prospects for women going forward. The growth of automation and artificial intelligence, they argue, will replace many of the jobs commonly held by women today.
Although advances in automation are definitely disrupting the workplace, not all workers will be impacted equally. A McKinsey report estimated the technical feasibility of automating different activities performed by workers. The report finds that activities that involve managing others and applying expertise are the least susceptible to automation, while those that require predictable physical work or data processing are the most susceptible.
This means that the story about what the future of work looks like for women is more nuanced than doom-and-gloom predictions would have us believe. While some women-dominated fields like cashiers and administrative assistants face a high potential for automation, others fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. Two areas highlighted by McKinsey with low potential for automation are healthcare and education, both of which have traditionally seen high levels of female professionals.
A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that: “women make up less than half (47 percent) of the workforce, but they are 58 percent of people at the highest risk of losing their jobs to technology.” The report also found that women make up a higher number of workers in jobs with low risk of automation (like personal care aides and teachers) as well as jobs with a high risk of automation (like clerical and secretarial jobs).
The impact of innovation and technology on women is certainly complicated, and everyone will likely face some disruption in terms of what their day-to-day job looks like as new technology continues to come online. But estimates about automation don’t capture the full story of how technology is impacting women in the workplace today. Technology is benefiting women in a whole host of ways by giving them greater flexibility in their career, access to more and better job opportunities, and an ability to add their voice to national and even global conversations.
Technology is allowing more and more workers to work remotely, and that’s a good thing for women. Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” shows that from 2012 to 2016, the percentage of American workers that worked remotely at least part of the time increased from 39% to 43%.
Having the ability to work remotely allows everyone — especially women — to more easily balance building their careers with building their families. Andrea Loubier, the founder of Mailbird, has written about how expanding opportunities for remote work even further can help close the gender gap in tech-related jobs. She writes: “Remote work allows women to work from wherever they feel most productive and watch their children grow up without having to hit pause on their career progression.”
As companies compete for top talent, they are increasingly offering work-from-home options or flexible work arrangements as part of their incentive package. A survey of US workers by Fractl asked which benefits they value most. Although the number one response was insurance, it was followed closely by more flexible hours, more vacation time, and more work-from-home options.
Women seeking more flexible work arrangements now have more information than ever about where to find them. Sites like Werk offer jobseekers job postings for roles with flexibility already built in. Fairygodboss allows users to share information about the companies they work for so jobseekers know where to look (and where not to look) for jobs that allow flexibility and the potential for remote work.
Female entrepreneurs have also been able to harness the power of technology to create their own tech-based businesses. Women bloggers and vloggers have taken to the internet to launch their businesses (which can often be run from home) in all sorts of industries, from travel blogs to fitness videos and everything in between. Platform sites like Etsy allow women to build home-based businesses by selling their handmade goods to customers across the world.
In addition to more and better job opportunities, Jennifer Huddleston at the Mercatus Center explains how technology has given women the ability to have their voices heard on a scale that simply wasn’t possible before. For example, the #MeToo movement allowed women to share their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault across social media platforms, garnering a worldwide audience and sparking changes in many company policies in an effort to combat the problem. Huddleston also points to ridesharing apps in the Middle East that give women the option of matching with a female driver to help overcome cultural barriers and improve mobility for women. She notes: “This empowers women both to be entrepreneurs and to travel more freely and independently.”
When it comes to the workplace, technology has always disrupted the status quo, and that’s a good thing. Women have benefited throughout history from new innovations that have helped enhance their skills, from the typewriter of the 1890s to the internet today. They have also benefited from time-saving inventions like the washing machine that freed up hours more each day for women to pursue their goals and spend more time with their families. Today’s version of innovation, including automation, will disrupt workers and change the way we work. But it will also continue to benefit women by offering them more flexible work opportunities and a global platform to develop their own businesses. The future of work is bright, and women have as much to gain from anyone from continued innovation and new technology.