Technology will widen pay gap and hit women hardest – Davos report

Research into jobs finds men’s dominance in IT and biotech is reversing trend towards equality

Female engineers assembling robotics in factory






Women are struggling to break into high-growth industries such as IT, biotech and infrastructure.
Photograph: Getty/Hero

The gulf between men and women at work – in both pay and status – is likely to widen unless action is taken to tackle inequality in high-growth sectors such as technology, say researchers at this week’s World Economic Forum summit in Davos.

A new WEF report on the future of jobs finds the dominance of men in industries such as information and biotechnology, coupled with the enduring failure of women to rise to the top even in the health and education sectors, is helping to reverse gender equality after years of improvements.

The report estimates that 57% of the jobs set to be displaced by technology between now and 2026 belong to women. According to Saadia Zahidi, the WEF’s head of education, gender and work, this underlines that global efforts to reduce gender inequality in business are stalling.

“We’re really looking at a worsening of inequality, particularly in IT but across all sectors,” Zahidi said. “We are losing valuable opportunity to reduce gender inequality.”

The warning comes at a historic moment in the 47-year history of Davos: for the first time, the annual gathering of the world’s political and financial leaders in the Swiss mountain resort will have all-female co-chairs, in an attempt to increase awareness of longstanding gender and other inequalities in business and wider society.

The seven women chosen to lead the meeting come from all sectors of society: from the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to Chetna Sinha, an Indian social entrepreneur focused on micro-finance for female entrepreneurs.

Davos co-chair Sharan Burrow leads the world’s largest trade union federation.



Davos co-chair Sharan Burrow leads the world’s largest trade union federation. Photograph: Jacky Delorme/IUTC

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation and another of the seven co-chairs, said the fact that no men have been appointed to any of the meeting’s strategic roles this year “sends a strong signal that all is not right with the world”.

Burrow, an Australian union leader who described herself in her acceptance speech in 2010 as a “warrior for women”, said recent events had made it even more important to speak up for gender equality in the workplace and society at large. “We saw a wave of misogyny unleashed last year and it’s been allowed to escalate by government and corporations,” she told the Guardian.

The US president Donald Trump, who is expected to attend Davos this week, was “partly responsible for unleashing” this wave, she added.

Despite introducing a quota in 2011 designed to increase the number of female delegates attending, men continue to dominate Davos. Just 21% of some 3,000 delegates are women.

The WEF’s annual gender gap report at the end of last year calculated that the gulf between male and female opportunity had widened for first time since it started gathering data in 2006. “The global economic model has failed working people and failed women more than most,” Burrow said. “In the world of work, using any set of indicators, progress for women has stagnated. This has been driven by corporate greed and profit, more than anything.”

Chetna Sinha, the founder and chair of the Mann Deshi Foundation, believes that the all-female panel will bring gender inequality into “the heart of the corporate/business world, and that’s a really useful thing”.

She is particularly keen to ensure that “voices of poor women” are heard, adding that the panel emphasises the diversity of experience at Davos, with non-governmental and grassroots organisations joining the political and business leaders. “At Davos, I see myself representing the fractured world,” she said.

Despite introducing a quota in 2011, just 21% of 3,000 delegates at Davos are women.



Despite the introduction of a quota, just 21% of 3,000 delegates at Davos are women. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

Zahidi, whose team’s report on the future of work is published on Monday, identified two potential causes for the stalled progression of women in business. First, the fact there are fewer women working in high-growth areas such as IT, biotech and infrastructure, leading to a “smaller pipeline” even as larger numbers of women are going into higher education to study the relevant subjects.

Second, Zahidi said that even in high-growth sectors which typically employ lots of women – such as education, health and the care sector – the “leadership positions are still dominated by men”.

Despite widespread warnings about increasing automation – robots (real and virtual) doing the work of human beings – hitting so-called blue collar jobs in manufacturing, less has been said about “pink collar” jobs in customer service and administration typically held by women. Zahidi said corporations needed to consider organisational change at all levels of the workplace. “It needs a holistic approach from companies when thinking about gender equality – not just board-level positions. Diversity leads to creativity, which is even more necessary in a world undergoing an industrial revolution,” she said.

Each year, studies such as one from accountancy firm Grant Thornton in 2015, Women in business: the value of diversity, point out that companies perform better when they have at least one woman on the board. Yet change has been glacial and, after years of some improvement, is beginning to stall.

Mervyn Davies, the former senior banker and minister whose 2011 report set a 25% target for women on FTSE-100 boards, is not attending Davos this year. He applauds efforts to increase participation at the meeting, and believes any future progress will be led by “upwardly focused activism” rather than the old model, exemplified by Davos, of “downward discussion”.

“I think the mood of society is really changing very speedily. We are at a tipping point where the up-and-coming generation is going to say ‘we’re not going to tolerate this,’ ” Lord Davies said, adding, “We’ve got to get women back in all workplaces.”

Two years after his final report on the issue, Davies talked about the entrenched opinions he faced even as a successful chairman of a leading bank, Standard Chartered. “I faced a huge amount of hostility from men. I was a member of their club and because I was an insider they accused me of being an agent provocateur from the inside.”

His final report called for one third of all FTSE-350 boards to be held by women.

Despite the signs of stagnation, both Davies and Zahidi, who last year authored a book about the impact of more women joining the workforce in the Muslim world, are optimistic, partly because of the next generation. “The fact there has been a very public conversation around sexual harassment, around the #MeToo and the Time’sUp movements – all of this reflects the fact that a much larger number of people care about the influence of power,” said Zahidi. “There is now positive momentum and we need to make sure material change is achieved.”

Zahidi points out that among the younger people attending Davos, the so-called global leaders and global shapers, 54% are women.

Arriving in Davos, Burrow said: “We have the power in our hands to really change. The question is, do we have the courage?”

World-changing women? The seven Davos co-chairs

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.


Christine Lagarde
Managing director of the IMF
The French lawyer and former cabinet minister has been the head of the International Monetary Fund since 2011, when she replaced the scandal-hit Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Re-elected for a second five-year term in 2016, she is regularly ranked as one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbesmagazine.

Ginni Rometty

Ginni Rometty
Chief-executive of IBM
Having started as a systems engineer in 1981, Rometty worked in sales, marketing and strategy before becoming the first woman to lead the head IBM in 2011. One of the best paid executives in the US – she earned $33m (nearly £24m) last year – she has faced mounting criticism for taking pay bonuses despite huge employee layoffs.

Sarah Burrow

Sharan Burrow
General-secretary of International Trade Union Confederation
The Australian was the first woman to become general secretary of the Brussels-based ITUC, the world’s largest trade union federation with 180 million workers in 162 countries and territories. This self-styled “warrior for women” has worked on several campaigns for workers’ rights in the growing digital economy.

Chetna Sinha

Chetna Sinha
Founder/chair of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank
The Mumbai-born social activist set up a bank that lends tiny sums to women in rural India after meeting a woman unable to save because other institutions thought her aim – to buy a tarpaulin to shelter her family during the monsoon – was too small. Singha’s bank, the first run for and by rural women to get a co-operative banking licence, has reached hundreds of thousands of women.

Erna Solberg

Erna Solberg
Prime minister of Norway
Elected Norway’s second female prime minister in 2013 after serving as leader of the Conservative party since May 2004. As minister for local government, a tough stance on the country’s asylum policy earned her the nickname “Jern-Erna” (Iron Erna). Subsequently involved in the decision to reject a request for asylum by the Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. Solberg was re-elected last year.

Fabiola Gianotti

Fabiola Gianotti
Director-general of Cern
In 2016, the Italian particle physicist became the first woman to run Cern – the pan-European nuclear research organisation best known for its large hadron collider. Always ranks high on lists of global thinkers and most influential scientists – of either gender.

Isabelle Kocher

Isabelle Kocher
Chief-executive of Engie
The only female CEO in the CAC 40, the benchmark French stock market, Kocher has led a radical transformation of the energy group formerly known as GDF Suez since her appointment in 2016. Having decided Engie should “take its responsibility” over climate change, she has sold 20% of its assets, notably in coal power. She also set internal targets for at least a quarter of Engie executives, and 35% of “high-potential staff” to be women.

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#MeToo is important, but the war on women is a far, far bigger deal | Heather Barr

This year was a remarkable one in terms of women’s rights. From the euphoria of the Women’s March to the pent-up trauma released by the #MeToo disclosures, 2017 has been a rollercoaster for activists – and for most women. On Donald Trump’s first full day as US president on 20 January, women’s rights activists marched in unprecedented numbers in more than 70 countries. In October, allegations of a long record of sexual harassment and violence on the part of the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein set off a flood of similar allegations against other prominent men across the globe, toppling dozens by the end of the year. Women worldwide are fed up and that frustration was on display in ways that felt unusually visible and global.

But if the legacy of 2017 is to be more than a warm glow and a pussy hat, 2018 needs to deliver concrete, sustained change. Activists must harness the energy of the marches and #MeToo, connecting the struggles of women and girls internationally and creating change despite women’s rights often feeling increasingly under siege.

This year also brought plenty of bad news for women. The World Economic Forum declared that the “global gender gap”– the gap between the status of women and men on four key indicators: health, education, politics and the workplace – worsened, with growing inequality in economic participation a particular problem. This is the first time the gap has widened since tracking began in 2006. In 2016, the forum predicted that it would take 83 years to close the gender gap; now it estimates 100 years. It said: “Even though qualified women are coming out of the education system, many industries are failing to hire, retain and promote them.”

In education, new data from Unicef showed that in countries affected by conflict, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school as boys. In South Sudan, 76% of girls are not studying; in Afghanistan and Chad, the rates are 55% and 53%.

Writing this in Yangon, Myanmar, where I’m investigating trafficking of women, I’m painfully aware of how conflict targets women and girls. Human Rights Watch has documented in excruciating detail how the Burmese military has been using rape as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, attacks that were widespread and aimed at terrorising people so severely that they would never return home. Sexual violence against women and girls featured in numerous other conflicts, including in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In health, reproductive choice is under attack. Access to family planning services is also directly linked to education, politics and the workplace, since women with control over their fertility are more likely to attend school, to work and to participate in public life. Particularly harmful was the US government’s renewed and expanded imposition of the “global gag rule”, which bans recipients of billions of US aid dollars from even discussing abortion with patients or legislators. This rule is already having devastating consequences as service providers who choose not to comply are forced to shut services as they lose funding. This policy will affect virtually every country that receives US development assistance. A number of other Some donor countries have worked to mitigate the harm of this policy, but the large scale of US aid funding means a huge hole remains.

A protester during a march and rally to support women’s health programmes and protest against the White House global gag rule in March 2017.



A protester during a march and rally to support women’s health programmes and protest against the White House global gag rule in March 2017. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To nurture the seeds of change sown in 2017, the women’s movement will need to find effective ways to embrace the problems of all women. Many have made the point that most of the attention generated by #MeToo has focused on elite workplaces and elite victims – the sense that many women who have come forward may risk losing a film role but won’t be left unable to feed their children. This response needs to be global, addressing the racial and economic divides that can deprive the movement of unity. Drawing connections and mutual support between a Rohingya rape survivor in Bangladesh and a groped intern in the UK parliament, an out-of-school girl in Tanzania and a woman denied access to abortion in Nicaragua will never be easy. Nevertheless, so many of our problems are faced in common.

Child marriage is a glaring example of an abuse that harms girls around the globe. About 15 million girls married as children this year – one every two seconds – in many countries, including Britain and the US as well as Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Brazil. Married girls often leave school early, are more likely to live in poverty, are at greater risk of domestic violence and face more serious reproductive health risks, including death in childbirth, than women who marry as adults. Bangladesh, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage, regressed this year and made it again legal for children to marry. The UK government opposed legislation that would have ended child marriage. In the US this year, Texas and New York narrowed the circumstances under which children can marry, but child marriage is legal in all 50 US states; in 25 states, children of any age can marry under some circumstances.

In 2018, our movement will have to widen its scope. Sexual harassment, abuse and assault of women is commonplace in many industries and workplaces. #MeToo has triggered discussion about gender-based employment discrimination, both overt discrimination and the more insidious ways inequality excludes, marginalises and exploits women workers. Women know that sexual harassment, job discrimination, reproductive rights and violence against women are all connected – they see those connections all around them. We need reform in all those areas, in virtually every country.

The growing number of women running for office, including many in the US prompted to seek election by Trump’s victory, is a good sign. And female voters in every country can demand more gender-balanced cabinets, such as those appointed by Canada’s Justin Trudeau, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Sweden has a “feminist foreign policy” and this year Canada pledged a feminist policy on overseas aid. They can be held to these policies, which could be models for all democracies. National action plans on women, peace and security offer a chance to focus global attention on the rights of women and girls affected by conflict.

Power concedes nothing without a demand, as the African American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass said. Women communicated loud and clear in 2017 that they are fed up. Now they need to say exactly what they want and keep pressing those demands every day, in every country. The year 2017 was ferocious in terms of women’s rights; 2018 will be an even tougher fight.

Heather Barr is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch