THE BLOG
01/22/2016 11:31 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

What Should Women Expect From the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Lilly Roadstones via Getty Images

The World Economic Forum's Industry Gender Gap study seeks to understand the current gender gap across industries and the future impact of key disruptions on women's employment. It does so by asking the talent and strategy executives of today's largest employers to imagine how jobs in their industry will change up to the year 2020. If you are a woman who is planning to join, stay in or return to the workforce in the next five years, here's what you need to know.

Most businesses want to recruit, retain and promote more women than they did before. Tapping into the female talent pool is increasingly regarded as a prominent and promising area for workforce planning. More than a quarter of companies surveyed identified female talent as a key feature of future workforce strategy. Similarly, women's rising labour force participation and economic power as consumers is increasingly recognized as a key driver of change across several industry sectors and one that is highly correlated with expected employment growth.

Industries that are traditionally male-dominated are even more likely than others to do so. In Information and Communication Technology, a sector which struggles with talent shortages, no less than 37 percent of companies regard enhancing women's workforce participation as an opportunity for expanding the talent pool. Across all industries approximately 20 percent of respondents also reported they were feeling external pressures to address gender imbalances, either by media scrutiny and public opinion or by government regulation.

The reasons why range from moral calling to profit motives. The most frequently cited reason for promoting female talent was the ethical imperative "fairness and equality." An equal number was motivated by a range of rationales more closely tied to the success of their business -- for example, enhancing innovation and decision-making. There is also strong correlation between the gender composition of companies' customer base and the gender composition of their workforce across various industries. With good reason, too: globally, women controlled 64 percent of household spending and 30 trillion dollars of consumer spending. "Expanding the talent pool" lags behind as a perceived rationale for promoting gender parity, perhaps because women's ascendance in higher education is a relatively recent phenomenon and businesses have not kept pace with the changing reality.

But gender gaps still persist in all industries. While national cultures and policies shape women's participation in national workforces, industry cultures and practices also play a significant role. Across all industries, women currently make up on average 33 percent of junior level staff, 24 percent of mid-level staff, 15 percent of senior level staff and nine percent of CEOs. Healthcare, professional services and media, entertainment and information industries currently have the largest share of women overall. The lowest shares are in basics and infrastructure, energy and aviation, travel and automotive industries. The junior to senior transition also differs by industry, with the largest drop offs in ICT, health and basics industries and the smallest ones in media, entertainment and information, consumer and professional services industries. Wage gaps persist across all industries, even those where female participation is comparatively high.

The reasons are both cultural and structural. While in nearly all industries and geographies there has been a marked shift away from deliberate exclusion of women from the workplace, there continue to be both unconscious beliefs and lack of structural support as organizational practices often still reflect family structures of half a century ago. Unconscious bias among managers and lack of work-life balance are cited as the two top barriers to women's workforce integration over the 2015 -- 2020 period. Around 36 percent of respondents also voiced a concern about the availability of qualified talent -- due to a lower proportion of women in STEM education -- especially employers in the energy, ICT, and aviation, travel and automotive industries. In fact, across all industries, companies reported that they found women harder to recruit, with the reported difficulty of recruiting women directly proportional to the existing gender composition of the industry. Few sectors cited lack of parental leave as an issue.

Women could be in the firing line of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some of the largest job losses are expected in job families with the largest share of female employees, such as Office and Administrative roles. These roles have provided a step into the labour market to educated women in many developed and emerging markets over the last decades. These gains could now be reversed. In absolute terms, men will face nearly four million job losses and 1.4 million gains, approximately one new job created for every three jobs lost, whereas women will face three million job losses but only 0.55 million gains -- more than five jobs lost for every job gained. The tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution could also potentially work in favour of women in the short-term: as household work is further automated it may relieve some of the current dual burden women face of caregiving and breadwinning while at the same time changes in the nature of work could make it more possible for all parents to better combine work and family.

If you are a woman in college today, consider STEM or business courses. Job growth is expected to be concentrated in some traditionally male-dominated fields -- such Architecture and Engineering and Computer and Mathematical roles as well as Manufacturing and Production. Although women make up the majority of those in university in over 100 countries they still make up only about a third of STEM graduates globally. The "care economy" is also fertile ground for female leadership. Demand will grow for those roles that tend to be associated with caregiving, roles that machines cannot yet play. These include therapists, interpreters, lifestyle coaches, event planners, nursing, psychologists, personal care aides and other roles in healthcare, roles that are traditionally dominated by women. Women may thus be ideally positioned for disrupting this field with new start-ups and business models.

It's time for companies and governments -- not just working women -- to lean in. Diverse teams lead to more innovation, particularly important in a time of disruptive change to business models. In fact, companies who report that they are confident that they are on the right track in their approach to preparing for impending disruptive change are over 50 percent more likely to be targeting female talent. Women's low participation in the workforce and leadership roles is thus a business issue -- costing women, companies and ultimately entire economies. More deliberate efforts will be needed by governments and businesses to ensure that the full talent pool of women is educated, recruited and promoted. The moral case for gender equality has, in the most part, been won. The business and economic case is also increasingly understood. The Fourth Industrial Revolution now presents an unprecedented opportunity to place women's equal participation in the workplace at the heart of preparations for the shifts to come.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). The theme of this year's conference is "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution." Read all the posts in the series here.