Opportunities for Women to Thrive in the Smart Machine Age

Dr. Bernice Ledbetter
Dean of Students and Alumni Affairs at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School and Director of the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership which she founded to empower and advance women in the workplace.

Previously it was thought that automation would disproportionately impact men as they hold the majority of manufacturing jobs likely to be replaced by machines. However, a recent study from McKinsey Global Institute entitled The future of women at work found the proliferation of artificial intelligence will likely replace many jobs predominately held by women.

These findings echo data from Women, Automation, and the Future of Work, an Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report, which found that while women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, they account for 58% of workers employed in fields facing the highest risk for automation.

As we enter the smart machine age it is critical that policy makers and the business community take deliberate steps to increase opportunities and provide resources to prepare, empower and support women (and men) as they seek to adapt their skillset, change job functions or pursue new career opportunities. Leaders across the state must push for more gender-aware policies in the workplace and ensure there is increased financial investment – from both the public and private sectors – to prepare women for the future of work.

Increase mentorship opportunities for women. Throughout my career, I’ve benefited enormously from being mentored by senior level men and women and I now have the fortune of providing guidance and connections for other women. Research shows women are 24 percent less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders. Mentorship is particularly valuable in STEM fields as women and minorities face unique barriers breaking into math- and science-related careers. WiSTEM, an initiative spearheaded by Mayor Garcetti, is a “college-to-professional mentorship matchmaking, which pairs 150 undergraduate and graduate school students majoring in STEM disciplines with women in a variety of STEM-driven industries.” This model could be duplicated in other cities and other male-centric industries. As our state grows its science and technology footprint, it will be increasingly important that women are not disadvantaged from the beginning of their careers and are instead supported on their path to success.

Create opportunities for women to hone leadership and utilize “soft skills.” According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, soft skills ranked the number one priority among talent developers and executives. As AI takes over many technical skills, there will be an even greater need for leaders who are authentically capable of engaging in substantive interpersonal relationships and providing management oversight that machines will not be able to replace. In addition to connecting women with mentors and providing leadership training sessions, much of my work at the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership is focused on empowering women to hone their interpersonal communication skills so they can lead teams effectively and confidently. Women need to master what technology will never provide: the intuition, empathy, creativity and teamwork that make us imperfectly human. And employers will reap the benefits when those skills translate into organizational success.

Increase investment in childcare and early childhood education. Many women are stuck in low-level positions because they are constrained by the lack of affordable childcare. As a result, they are not able to pursue other opportunities or seek additional education needed to make a job or career change. Fortunately, Governor Newsom has prioritized investment for subsidized childcare for income-eligible families. Specifically, he has allocated $80.5 million of Proposition 64 revenue to fund childcare in his budget proposal. This is critically important, and we must ensure that elected officials continue to prioritize the investment in affordable childcare and that it is not a one-time infusion of funding. Additionally, employers should consider ways to support women in career transitions, such as flexible or telecommuting work options.

California is poised to showcase our leadership in automation in every industry, from manufacturing to life sciences to entertainment. Policymakers and business leaders can help by ensuring that gender parity is first and foremost in the evolution of the modern workplace.

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