By Kate Bravery and Radhika Punshi

The future of human-machine teaming holds a great deal of potential. But with great power comes great responsibility. The question is, who has a grip on it?

AI is evolving at a rapid pace. To inspire inclusion and invest in women, businesses and leaders should consider the impact AI will have on the future of work. It could light the way or cast a shadow on progress; the responsibility sits with all of us.

Women are walking a technological tightrope

Time and time again, we’ve seen women — and other vulnerable and/or under-represented groups — burned by technological innovations. Consider, for example, experimental algorithms that screened out women’s CVs because they were trained using a higher proportion of men’s CVs.

The painful truth is that, if women aren’t co-pilots of the current AI revolution, they may be left in the dust, faced with technology that presents a whole series of new barriers for them to overcome. Crucially, female representation in the development of AI still has a long way to go. Women still only make up just 26 percent of the industry, and, even when they get their foot in the door, they’re more likely to face discrimination and are 65 percent more likely to be made redundant than men.

Businesses lose approximately 50 percent of women at each stage of the career ladder from entry level to senior leadership roles. Women’s representation in the labour force took a hit during the pandemic, and the adoption of AI in jobs where women are over-represented could exacerbate this trend. This threatens a double whammy that could leave significant gaps in the representation of women at all levels.

As we accelerate towards the age of AI, it is becoming increasingly evident that we must address risks around gender bias and inclusion. Businesses will need to work hard to shift mindsets and behaviours to drive cultural change, so women, under-represented and minority groups aren’t left behind in this rapidly evolving digital world.

Will AI bring wins or losses for women at work?

AI is set to disrupt and eliminate, as well as create, jobs, and women are among those predicted to be hit hardest by these changes. Why? Because women hold more of the jobs expected to be disrupted by AI and so will be more adversely impacted (as 54 percent of executives pointed out in this year’s Global Talent Trends study).

For example, the administration, healthcare, education and social services industries all have high proportions of women. They are among the sectors most likely to experience widespread job losses due to AI and automation. In fact, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2027 there will be 26 million fewer jobs in roles such as administrators, cashiers, payroll clerks and secretaries.

This cutting of women’s jobs could have a knock-on effect on their ability to thrive into old age, exacerbating the 40 percent pension equity gap that already exists. Women are already worried: Insights from our 2024 Global Talent Trends study show women are less likely than men to trust their organization to provide them with a new job or alternative career if their role is eliminated.

Women in danger of falling behind

Our research suggests that women are more wary of technology than men and therefore less likely to try new technology at work (60 percent vs 64 percent). This is concerning given technological literacy is in the top five skills increasing in importance for businesses. In part, this comes down to their psychological safety in the workplace (84 percent of men feel this versus 80 percent of women). Women’s leaning towards hybrid roles where vicarious learning can be more limited may also be a factor (38 percent of women prefer hybrid working versus 34 percent of men).

Mercer Talent Enterprise research also found that women generally find ambiguity, change, resilience and agility more challenging than men. In addition, women are less confident that their skills can be deployed/transferred to new jobs. They are also more likely to underestimate their skills and capabilities. This causes some women to hold back from taking up new opportunities.

As a result, there is a real risk that women will fall behind. They therefore need to be provided with opportunities, training and encouragement to help them embrace new technology.

The good news is that, on average, studies show that women tend to score higher than men in critical attributes related to social and emotional intelligence, including compassion, collaboration and empathy. These are attributes that could become more important as we seek to balance automation with humanization in the workplace. Indeed, empathy is among the World Economic Forum’s top ten skills of the future.

The potentials and pitfalls of an AI-driven future of work

AI and automation will undoubtedly bring positive changes to the way we work. Our research suggests that across 10 key markets, generative AI could add US$1.3 trillion to the global economy annually between 2025 and 2035. On average, it will save 36 workdays a year.

This new technology will reduce time spent on tedious and repetitive work (which currently take up about a third of employees’ time). It will also help optimize the 26 percent of time currently spent on creative and/or challenging work.

For women, who are generally saddled with “office housework” tasks (such as writing meeting notes), this could be a game-changer. It could help address the fact that women are less energized at work than men (a difference of four percentage points) and are less likely to feel they are thriving (a five percentage-point difference).

With AI and automation offering the gift of time, women may be able to focus on more value-adding and visible tasks, such as networking, upskilling and reskilling (less than a fifth of work time is dedicated to this currently). They could also spend more time on internal gigs that pave the way for new career opportunities (currently, employees spend only 16 percent of their time on this). Increased productivity may see the four-day week, job-sharing, or alternative schedules become more common. These changes could be a win for many, especially women returning from a career break or maternity leave.

AI is already accelerating the transition to more skills-powered organizations and taking out identifiers that previously allowed bias to disadvantage women. However, AI requires equitable data to base such strategic decisions on. Unfortunately, differences in how women and men share and validate their skills poses a challenge in this area.

Burnout affecting all genders

Interestingly, there are no statistically significant differences between genders in terms of burnout rates.

Over 80 percent of employees report they’re at risk of burnout this year, citing financial strain, exhaustion and workload as the three biggest problems. Men are more likely than women to report feeling overwhelmed by too many technological tools and platforms (a 4 percent percentage point difference), which is perhaps another sign of women being less engaged with this technology.

Realizing the potential of AI

The potential of AI and automation will only be fully realized if:

  • The productivity gains they promise are equitably distributed.
  • AI is responsibly managed.
  • Data is used to nudge leaders towards fair opportunity and pay decisions.

To make these scenarios a reality, employers can consider the following issues and actions:

Insight is power; Know the rate of progression for women at each level of your business. Pick apart any inequities in pay, health and opportunities, and interrogate the reasons behind why (and which) women leave the business or why their careers stagnate. Arm women with insights into their capabilities, and highlight any learning gaps that are critical for promotion.

Embed inclusion and belonging into leaders’ DNA: Consider using trusted AI-driven tools to improve decision-making vigilance. When properly managed, these tools can play a role in supporting managers to make decisions surrounding equitable hiring, off-cycle pay adjustments and/or the allocation of special projects.

Improve tech literacy: Encourage women to lean into a digital-first culture and build their AI know-how. Tackle toxic work cultures, target learning interventions, and intentional work design to create sufficient space to learn.

Build a brand around employability: Set guidelines around which roles could be filled internally and which could be hired in. Take diversity, equity and inclusion metrics into account during any reduction in force or merger and acquisition (M&A) activities.

Sponsor women’s careers: Ensure women have sponsors who advocate for their career advancement (rather than mentors who primarily share knowledge and guidance). Actively build career paths for women whose jobs are likely to be displaced, so they can move into roles that have growth potential.

What lies ahead?

Alongside the actions above, experts and businesses must continually critique AI to ensure that it is making everyone’s working lives easier, by:

  • Monitoring any adverse impacts
  • Keeping humans at the centre of the decision-making process
  • Ensuring that AI convergence uncovers, rather than masks bias

On the global stage, new laws and protections are needed to ensure that AI acts as an enabling tool for women’s success. When handled with foresight and a critical eye, AI has the potential to reduce bias and improve work through productivity gains. This has the potential to free up space for women’s career progression.

These positive effects can go even further, nudging women to make smarter decisions that benefit their health, wealth and career outcomes (e.g., through enhanced AI-driven predictions). AI offers the potential to personalize total rewards. It can also pool insights and learnings that businesses can use to make work more rewarding.

If we stay aware of its risks and limitations, the intentional use of AI and other emerging tech could mark a new beginning. This offers a future of more fulfilling, empowering work, along with abundant opportunities for women to undertake personal passion projects and lifelong learning.

Kate Bravery is a Senior Partner and Mercer’s Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader and Radhika Punshi is an Organizational Psychologist, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Mercer Talent Enterprise.

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