Safeguarding employment for women over 50 in a digital economy

Blog by Jenny Lincoln, Gender Policy and Research Officer.

More women today are working than ever before, and women over 55 have experienced the fastest growing employment rate over the last 30 years. For women aged 55-59 it grew from 48% to 69%, and for women aged 60-64 the rate grew from 18% to 41% (i).  But this employment rate is at risk. Many lower to medium skilled roles that are typically held by older women are predicted to be replaced by technology in the transition towards a ‘digital economy’. 

Many lower to medium skilled roles that are typically held by older women are predicted to be replaced by technology in the transition towards a ‘digital economy’.

- Jenny Lincoln,
Gender Policy and Research Officer

The digitalisation of our economy is changing the labour market; future jobs will require creativity, entrepreneurship and social acumen and low skilled work will be replaced. Women are overrepresented in ‘low skilled’ work: 47% of women work in jobs classified as low skilled, compared to only 18% of men (ii).  This means they’re also overrepresented in most of the lowest paying occupations, in sales (63%) and customer service (59%), caring, leisure and other services (82%) and administrative and secretarial work (75%) (iii).  These female-dominated low paid sectors pay less on average than male-dominated low paid sectors, such as plant and machine operatives and the skilled trades. 

Women over 50 are particularly concentrated in work associated with lower pay and status; three in five female employees over 50 work in just three sectors: education, health and retail (iv).  A large number of women also work in public administration and care. According to research by Deloitte, office and administrative support, and sales and services are at a high risk of being replaced by automation (v).  

The overall loss of jobs due to digitalisation will impact both men and women in low skilled work, however we are particularly concerned with the socio-economic position of women over 50. They will likely face additional barriers to employment due to both their age and gender, putting their economic independence at greater risk. These barriers include:

  1. The devaluation of unpaid labour and traditional ‘women’s work’, and the jobs associated with it (caring, office support etc.), which fuels negative biases about women’s worth and capabilities, particularly those who have taken career breaks. 
     
  2. Lower average levels of formal qualifications than any other group due to (now outdated) social norms and restrictive gender roles (vi).  Some job adverts inadvertently discourage older workers from applying.
     
  3. Multiple discrimination, biases and stereotypical views about women over 50, stemming from the devaluation of their role in society, which hold them back from employment and progression. 
     
  4. Unequal sharing of caring responsibilities with male counterparts, which can prevent them working full time and thus limit their career prospects. Carers UK found women were four times more likely than men to have given up work because of multiple caring responsibilities and that women aged 45-54 were more than twice as likely as other carers to have reduced working hours as a result of caring responsibilities (vii)
     
  5. Working part-time: most part time workers are older women (60+) (and 16-19 year olds) and working part time generally limits opportunities for promotion and progression, whilst constraining the choices of those looking for part time employment (viii)
     
  6. Lower economic empowerment which is reflected in the larger gender pay gap amongst people over 40 and the fact older women are overrepresented in some of the lowest paid occupations. This is caused by social norms and not lack of talent or capability. It can prevent women from understanding their true worth and value and at the same time curbing their aspirations. 

Despite the huge contribution older women make to the economy and to society, their voices are often the least heard in debates about an aging workforce, gender equality and automisation. We must start to include their voices and understand their perspectives in order to prevent their early exit from the workplace. Safeguarding their economic independence is crucial, not only to gender equality, but to the health of the economy and society more broadly.

References:

(i) ONS. 2015. Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings
(ii) Women and Equalities Select Committee, Gender Pay Gap
(iii) ONS. 2015. Labour Force Survey
(iv) Labour Force Survey Q4 2012
(v) Deloitte, Frey and Osborne, Agiletown: the relentless march of technology and London’s response
(vi) Women’s Business Council Evidence Paper 2013
(vii) Carers UK (GPG0057) Para 10 Cited in Women and Equalities Select Committee, Gender Pay Gap (op.cit)
(viii) Women and Equalities Select Committee, Gender Pay Gap (op.cit)

Comments (1)

The “digital” economy is hear, but some of the assumptions about how it will affect our lives are either vague or just plain scary. In my research, I have found many of the same conclusions as this article, but I have also noticed that not only low paid jobs, but many of the middle-class jobs are at risk. From a business perspective, this middle-class sector is even more at risk because the pay-rates are higher so the potential savings from automation are even higher. The typical jobs in this sector are administrators, secretaries and clerical specialists. Unfortunately, these sectors are also overly represented by female workers. The silver lining is that the digital economy will not take away the necessity to by human. Despite the growth in online information and direct bookings, the high-street travel agent is still growing. People still need to have a human touch; and who better to show that human touch than women who have experience and empathy. In an age where you can have almost anything tomorrow, there are still some things that experience brings that you cannot buy online. Adapting to the digital economy needs people of all ages to be flexible and to accept change. They don’t need to understand how to programme a mobile phone app or write a web page, but they need to be open to learn new tools and methods. What they don’t need to forget is how to be human, how to talk to each other and most importantly how to listen. I believe that older workers have a bright and capable future.