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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Workers are set to have their futures upended by the effects of automation, but while the plight of men in manufacturing has received much of the attention, women will face unique challenges.

The big picture: Experts disagree about whether female workers will be more vulnerable to automation than men. What's clear is that automation will accentuate existing gender gaps in the workforce, and that without policies to assist the transition, older and less educated women in particular risk being left behind.

Background: The U.S. has already lost millions of jobs to automation, especially in the manufacturing sector. A 2015 study concluded 87% of the manufacturing job losses in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation.

  • Since women remain less likely to work in the manufacturing occupations that are particularly vulnerable to being replaced by robots, it might seem as if they would be shielded from the job-destroying effects of automation.

Yes, but: Automation isn't just about robots on the assembly line. From cashierless stores to customer service chatbots, AI and machine learning applications are disrupting new fields that have nothing to do with a factory.

  • The more routine your job is, the greater the risk it will be automated — and according to a 2019 report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), women perform more routine tasks than men across most occupations.
  • While women in developed countries are generally graduating at rates on par or exceeding men, globally they account for just 35% of STEM students and often occupy less than 20% of tech jobs — precisely the positions expected to benefit most from automation.
  • "Looking forward, the reality is that women are dominant in many of the occupations that will be hit hard by automation," said Molly Kinder of the Brookings Institution.

But it's not clear female workers will necessarily be hit harder than men.

  • A 2019 report from the McKinsey Global Institute saw both genders facing roughly similar risk of displacement over the next decade, but also that women "will need to make far more significant transitions compared to men," as the authors of the report wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.

Between the lines: Just as important as the kinds of jobs women work may be the daily challenges they face as women in the workplace.

  • The IMF report found that being a manager or higher-level professional will help insulate you from automation, but women are less likely than men to be either. "The glass ceiling doesn't serve them well," said Era Dabla-Norris, a division chief in the IMF's Fiscal Affairs department.
  • Kinder pointed out that women often face a "double shift," spending more time caring for children or relatives than men. "That limits their ability to get promotions or retrain for the future."
  • While some of the occupations that women are overrepresented in, like home health care and education, are likely to experience sharp growth in the future, those jobs tend to pay less than managerial positions under pressure from automation.
"What keeps me up at night is what will happen to middle-class older workers who will lose that stability."
— Molly Kinder, Brookings Institution

A stronger social safety net can relieve some of the burden of the double shift, while efforts to expand the number of women on corporate boards can trickle down.

  • "We need to make sure that the good new jobs created in the future economy are accessible to everyone," said Rachel Statham of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The bottom line: To help female workers manage the automation transition, policymakers need to help female workers — period.

Go deeper

12 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

12 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 13 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."