Gender Economic Equity and the future of work


A future of work that works for women

Future of Work debate has been more centered on robots than on workers. The excessive focus on automation and technology’s potential displacement of jobs has neglected other trends that are also re-shaping the labor market as we know it. Digitalization and the gig economy, demographic changes and the associated care crisis, and the demand of new skills are equally important and will have a major impact on how we understand and carry out work. Critically, evidence suggests that these trends have specific implications for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The contribution of this brief is to place a gender lens on the future of work debate, highlighting what is known – as well as remaining data gaps – and make firm policy proposals.


The future of work (FoW) has emerged as a major policy topic in recent years. However, analysis of the potential impacts of automation has shadowed the effects of other major trends like digitalization and the rise of the gig economy. Moreover, policy proposals are often gender-blind, which threatens the achievability of global gender equality compromises such as those contained in the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

Today, women face more challenges than their male colleagues when it comes to labor participation and access to decent jobs. This gap could widen in the verge of new labor market trends. This policy brief identify four of these trends and proposes overarching policy recommendations. First, automation will probably have a differential impact on women and men: skills gaps should be recognized and addressed, particularly those related to science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. Second, the rise of non-standard employment globally is critical insofar these kinds of labor relations often imply lack of social protection. This is particularly true for women, whom often end up in the most pervasive forms of non-standard employment, characterized by informality, low wages, and lack of social status. Third, demographic changes are increasing the demand for care work. Whether this represents an empowerment opportunity for women or not would depend of the policy responses enacted by governments worldwide. Finally, the rise of the gig economy posits both opportunities and challenges for women worldwide. The promises of more flexibility and better family-work balance are faced with risks of income insecurity, precarious jobs in the informal sector of economy and even physical abuse.


Gender Economic Equity

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by world leaders in 2015, offers a roadmap based on the principles of leaving no one behind and galvanizing a ‘data revolution’ to ensure that changes in people’s lives - and associated policy - are increasingly informed by comprehensive data. Historically marginalized groups should be at the center of the policy frameworks aimed at creating enabling conditions for sustainable development. This implies to establish the pillars to empower these groups in the face of future challenges. The current picture shows that women will remain a marginalized group if gender-sensitive interventions are not enacted.


A disruptive narrative about the acceleration of the impact of technology on the future of work has caught the attention of the global community of policy makers. However, the conversation is often gender-blind. Analysis of the topic is too often oblivious to the differential effects that automation and digitalization are likely to have on men and women. This lack of sensitivity reproduces the marginalization that women are already experiencing in the labor market and reinforces existing gaps in terms of wellbeing and social inclusion. In 2017, global female labor force participation reached 49.4%, 26.7 p.p. lower that for men; no improvements are expected in the short term (ILO, 2017a). Women are more likely to remain economically inactive and, when they do participate in labor markets, they are more prone to be unemployed, work in the informal economy, receive lower wages, concentrate in less dynamic sectors and be under-represented at the top (Díaz Langou et al, 2018).

Gender equity is a top priority for the 2018 Argentine G20 Presidency. To sustain this commitment, it is necessary to take into account the relative position of women in the labor market and the specific challenges that they look set to endure during the so called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Debating the Future of Work offers a rare opportunity to look beyond the immediate future which so often dictates policy discussion and planning. It creates space to discuss major emerging trends and question what ought to be done to produce positive outcomes in the years and decades to come. It is critical to ensure that the future of work works for women, as the principle of Leaving No One Behind mandates (UN Women, 2016).

Women’s economic empowerment refers to a “process whereby women’s and girls’ lives are transformed from a situation where they have limited power and access to economic assets to a situation where they experience economic advancement” (Taylor and Pereznieto, 2014). This implies not only an increase in women’s access to income and assets but also to guarantee control over them and their use. Decent work is crucial to economic empowerment, both in itself and as an instrument to secure


Gender Economic Equity

an income and assets (Hunt and Samman, 2016). Employment is an empowering tool for women only if it meets certain quality requirements. Kabeer (2012) proposes a continuum to indicate how much a job can empower women. Good jobs, that are basically those that meet the ILO criteria of decent work, are at one end; bad jobs (informal, poorly paid and often demeaning) are at the other end. According to the Chronic Poverty Research Centre (2005), the poorest are more likely to end up working in the worst jobs (Hunt and Samman, 2016): Studies also confirm that poor women engage in activities to survive, which often forces them into forms of work that do not contribute to their empowerment As Kabeer (2012) states, there is little evidence that women are actively choosing to work this types of jobs. “Moving women along the spectrum is a core challenge to make work more empowering (...) Tailored interventions are needed both to support women’s entry into better, more profitable and empowering work, and to improve conditions in precarious employment” (Hunt and Samman, 2016). This is particularly challenging given the rise non-standard employment, such as own-account workers and part-time work worldwide (ILO, 2016a).

Moreover, the gendered segregation of work limits women’s entry into sectors traditionally associated with ‘male’ capabilities, such as the engineering, science and technology fields (Tejani & Milberg, 2010). These sectors have notably better working conditions- from higher pay to social protection. Even in ‘feminized’ areas of work predominated by women workers, such as the service sector which constitutes 80% of women’s employment in OECD countries, women mainly occupy low paid positions (OECD, 2017). Policies aimed at shattering these glass walls should be a priority.

Demographic change opens a relatively unexplored opportunity for women that face obstacles in entering the labor market. Digitally-mediated provision of care and domestic work services is growing globally, and these jobs are being mainly occupied by women. However, quality of social protection and income stability remain an ongoing challenge (Hunt & Machingura, 2016). Moreover, gender inequities are being reproduced and magnified in the digital economy. In many emerging economies, women lag behind in terms of mobile and internet access. While the digital divide exists in varying degrees across the G20, poorer communities and rural women in the developing world tend to be the least digitally included (W20, 2017). Addressing barriers that implicitly and explicitly discriminate against women and girls’ access to equal education and digital training is essential for harnessing the transformative potential of ICT. This will ensure that women leverage digital opportunities in the future world of work for their economic empowerment.

This Policy Brief aims to be a comprehensive attempt to place a gender lens on the specific challenges associated with digitalization, the gig economy and social protection schemes in the labor markets of G20 economies. Education and skill gender


Gender Economic Equity

gaps, alongside care commitments and socio-cultural norms, restrict women’s access to economic opportunities. If these trends continues at their current rate, the future of work may not be wholly positive for women. The changing world of work offers women unique and critical opportunities for economic empowerment; yet these will rely concrete policy action.


An international principle: leave no one behind

Widening inequalities are a continuing megatrend and the imperative need to tackle them is a core part of the global commitment to’ Leave no one Behind’, in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The mandate is clear: policy interventions must focus on the most marginalized groups first. When devising policies to respond to the changing world of work, it is critical to look at the implications the trend will have on different societal groups, notably for those whom have traditionally encountered greater obstacles to entering the labor market in decent conditions.

The current global labor force participation is approximately 49% for women and 75% for men. This 26 percentage points gap is an average: some regions face a difference of more than 50 percentage points (ILO, 2017). Women also experience significant barriers to entering formal employment and so tend to be overrepresented in certain types of vulnerable jobs. Moreover, they are disproportionately responsible for unpaid domestic and care work, putting their careers at risk (ILO, 2017). Going forward, it is critical that the FOW conversation has a strong, clear narrative on the causes and effects of growing, multidimensional inequality, with persistent gender equality at its core. A relationship between this narrative and the world of work, thinking how labor markets can both maintain inequalities and provide opportunities for progress.