Date posted: 1/12/2016 3 min read

The future of work is female

There are dire predictions about the future of work, from jobs disappearing through automation to the precarious life of the gig economy. But the turning tide of work patterns is likely to favour women

In brief

  • Currently the gender pay gap stands at 17.3 per cent for full-time workers according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics
  • A host of different platforms are making it possible for workers to find short-term jobs or hire out assets to make a living in the “gig” economy
  • One of the biggest trends in the workforce has been the growth of part-time roles over full-time roles

By Kate Mills

The traditional profile of a working mother can be a bit discouraging for female workers.

Compared to men, women have always been underpaid. Currently the gender pay gap stands at 17.3 per cent for full-time workers according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. However, it has hovered between 15 and 19 per cent for the past two decades.

At the same time, working mothers are highly reliable and hard workers. A recent study by Cenovis Women’s Health Index indicated that they put in on average 80 hours a week between work, childcare and housework. When they are at work and able to work flexibly they are often the most productive members of a team. A 2013 study by Ernst and Young indicated that women working flexibly wasted the least amount of time compared to other groups.

All the above is known and lamented by employers and policy makers who struggle to improve the workforce participation rate of 59.5 per cent for women compared to 71 per cent to men in Australia. Female participation is at 64 per cent in New Zealand but still lags male participation by 10 per cent. The truth is that, while women have worked hard to fit in with current working styles, work hasn’t changed enough to meet their needs — until now.

Get your gig going

A host of different platforms are making it possible for workers to find short-term jobs or hire out assets to make a living in the “gig” economy. Airbnb and Uber are probably the best known of these platforms, but it’s really in the area of work that women, looking for flexibility, are going to prosper.

There is a growing need for project workers by large and small organisations. The latter have always wanted to connect with experts on a project basis and now large organisations are following suit. Keeping full-time workers on as demand ebbs and flows is expensive, instead large organisations are restructuring to keep a core of full-time staff with access to a flexible workforce that enables them to bulk up when needed. PwC in America recently announced it has launched a “Talent Exchange” marketplace in which freelancers can bid to work on projects for PwC clients. It thinks that consultants will make up 10 per cent of its consulting workforce in the US.

…when they [working mothers] are at work and able to work flexibly they are often the most productive members of a team.

Pass me the remote worker

Remote working has been around for the past two decades, however it has progressed slowly due to cultural reasons. While companies know that employees can work from home, there is still a culture of “being seen” at the office.

However, the future is bright for remote working. On the one hand a relentless drive for profitability has put pressure on property costs.

If employers can get more people to work from home then, in theory, they can have less office space to pay for. At the same time the growth of the freelance market and the increased use of external consultants means that managers are getting more used to running project teams where not everyone is in the office. The National Broadband Network, when it is finished, will also give remote working a much needed shot in the arm.

A proliferation of part-timers

One of the biggest trends in the workforce has been the growth of part-time roles over full-time roles. According to the most recent ABS figures from May 2016, part-time roles increased by 12,600 while full-time roles decreased by 8,900. The ABS noted that this was a now a sustained trend.

There are worrying trends in this, particularly in relation to under-utilisation of the workforce.

It is, however, a positive trend for women who have often struggled to find part-time work that enables balance between career and family. As the number of part-time roles grows, so too do opportunities for women. All that remains now is for part-time work to lose its stigma as being the type of roles for people that are not serious about their career.

The robot revolution

We are on the brink of a huge wave of automation and robotisation. For women that’s going to bring opportunities and challenges. The challenges come from the expectation that a swathe of jobs that exist today will no longer exist in the future. A report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia in 2015 stated that up to five million jobs, representing almost 40 per cent of jobs that exist today, could cease to exist over the next two decades. However, robots aren’t expected to replace the traditional caring professions in health and social services where face-to-face contact will remain the norm. This is good news for women who make up the bulk of care workers. The other good news for women is that we should expect more household duties to be automated. Robotic vacuum cleaners and fridges that order the weekly groceries to be delivered will free up female time — so they can do more work, that is.

Kate Mills is the CEO of ProfessionalMums.net, an online platform for skilled women looking for flexible work opportunities.

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.